In the past several days, a letter from Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to the German bishops has generated significant buzz, as it seems the Vatican has finally begun to take concrete action towards specific aspects of the German Synodal Way. In his letter, the cardinal identifies two areas where the German Church proposed doctrinal changes — the ordination of women to the priesthood and homosexual acts — and insists, “there is no possibility of arriving at a different assessment” than the Church’s established teaching.

This letter, dated October 23, 2023, was made public on November 24 — a day after the publication of Pope Francis’s letter to four women scholars from Germany, in which he expressed that he shared their concerns about the Synodal Way’s proposed “synodal committee” among other “steps being taken by significant segments of this local Church that threaten to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

The traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli has produced a full English translation of Parolin’s letter, and the German version of the letter is behind a paywall on Die Tagepost. According to the editor’s note on the Rorate Caeli translation, representatives of the German Church will meet in January, April, and June 2024 with the heads of several important Vatican dicasteries — for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for the Bishops, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and for Legislative Texts to discuss Church doctrine and discipline.

It seems the German Church’s “collision course” that I forecast in April 2023 has finally reached the Vatican.

The three upcoming meetings with the German bishops appear to be pivotal, as the German Church appears poised to step over lines that the Vatican has insisted they cannot cross. For several years, German bishops have insisted that they accept that they do not have the authority to make doctrinal changes and would defer all such decisions to Rome. Just last year, the President of the German Bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, reiterated this point, saying, “The Church in Germany is not going its own way and it will not make any decisions that would only be possible in the context of the universal church.”

It is difficult to predict the final outcome of this showdown. For one thing, the German episcopacy is only part of the equation. In the past, the bishops were known to “hold the line” on doctrine when the more progressive academics and lay leaders tried to move ahead with progressive reforms. During the Synodal Way — which was initiated as a response to the Church’s credibility crisis following devastating reports of clerical sexual abuse in Germany — the German bishops have tended to vote with the progressive wing. The bishops face significant pressure to tow that line. Following one instance in September 2022 where a minority of bishops managed to block passage of a proposal to change Church teaching on human sexuality, the organizers quickly changed the voting rules so that there would be no more secret ballots going forward.

Even if the German bishops are successfully reined in by Pope Francis, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the German Church as a whole will comply. An article in katholisch.de quoted theologian Wunibald Müller dismissing Cardinal Parolin’s letter, saying, “Catholics no longer allow themselves to be lectured by Rome about what they are allowed to discuss and what needs to change in the Church so that the Church can continue to be a place for them or once again become a place where they can live their faith together with conviction.” On the matter of homosexual acts, Müller said, “This love is fundamentally just as much under God’s blessing as the love of heterosexual partners. This no longer needs to be discussed.” On the matter of priestly ordination being reserved for men, he added, “The real scandal is the devaluation of women in the Church on which this refusal is based, which is simply unacceptable and which makes it increasingly impossible for women and men to continue to profess their faith in this misogynistic Church.”

The response of German lay leadership was a bit more circumspect. Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), suggested that Parolin’s letter (which consisted largely of quotes from Pope Francis’s teachings) might be the thoughts of the cardinal and not those of the pope. She said that Parolin had previously declared that women’s participation and voting in a Synod of Bishops was unthinkable, adding, “And what did our Pope do? Suddenly it was legal and possible to put it into practice.” 

Another lay leader in Germany, Thomas Söding, said that although some will try to “pass off partial truths taken out of context as definitive statements from Rome,” he sees Parolin’s letter as an indication “that there is obviously and should be a conversation process between Germany and Rome.”

The question of schism has been raised in light of these recent interventions and the question is complex. Will the bishops ultimately concede to Rome’s demands and remain in full communion? If they do, how severe will the backlash from their clergy and laity be? These are questions that remain unanswered and will continue to hover over the Catholic Church in Germany for the foreseeable future.

Image: Fourth Synodal Assembly of the Synodal Way (September 8th, 2022 to September 10th, 2022) in Frankfurt am Main. Press conference on September 9th, 2022: (from left) Marc Frings, Dr. Irme Stetter-Karp, Bishop Dr. Georg Bätzing and Dr. Beate Gilles. © Synodal Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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