Frosty alarm signal, but no stop sign

Frosty alarm signal, but no stop sign

Red lights for laity in charge © Angelo Cordeschi (shutterstock)

For the second time, mail comes from the Vatican on the reform path of Catholics in Germany: in June, Pope Francis had written. Now the diction is harsher. But those responsible want to continue along the "synodal path".

Roman authorities put the brakes on the reform path of the Catholic Church in Germany. For the second time in two months, the bishops have received mail from the Vatican.

Immediately before an important preparatory meeting in Fulda this weekend, there is a reminder: the planned "synodal way" of the German bishops and the Catholic umbrella organization ZdK must be "pursued effectively and in harmony with the universal church.". This puts up clear signal lights – but not a stop sign.

Letter from the Vatican

The letter from the head of the Vatican bishops' office, published this Friday, refers to a letter from Pope Francis and underscores Rome's claim to have the final say on churchwide ies. The papal letter of late June was very detailed, as friendly as it was telling. In Germany, it elicited different interpretations. The new letter is harsher in diction, noting where Roman authorities call for improvements.

After the drastic loss of trust as a result of the abuse scandal, the church between the North Sea and the Alps is struggling to find a new course. In spring, bishops decided on a "binding synodal path". Together with the lay umbrella organization ZdK, they want to discuss topics such as power, sexual morality, the way of life of priests and the role of women. The move has raised cautious expectations among reform-minded forces, but fears among more conservative Catholics. The church appears to be in a quandary.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Curia, in his letter of 4 September, explained the new course of action. September stresses that this journey be "undertaken in communion with the whole Church". Underpinning the text is a kind of canonical opinion from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. The ies planned in Germany, it said, concerned the universal church. And then the rhetorical question: "How can a particular Church take binding decisions when the topics discussed concern the universal Church??"Unlike an earlier process of talks from 2011 to 2015, which left out the hottest ies and was a rather non-binding exchange, this time concrete results are expected to emerge even on contentious ies.

In an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA), theologian Georg Essen criticizes the fact that this reform debate has been given the label "synodal way": "The adjective synodal raises expectations of bindingness that cannot be fulfilled," says the spokesman for Catholic dogmatists in the German-speaking world.

Now speculation is flourishing as to what made Rome take up the pen again.

According to his task, the Pope's ambassador in Berlin plays a key role. He sent the draft statutes for the "synodal way" to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. Archbishop Nikola Eterovic is experienced in synods – he was secretary general of the World Synod of Bishops from 2004 to 2013.

Reactions from Germany

The reactions of those in charge in Germany still came on Friday. The bishops' conference explained that the Roman letter refers to a now outdated draft of the statutes for the "synodal way". The latest catch no longer contains "some" criticized passages. Cardinal Reinhard Marx will try to clear up "any misunderstandings" in Rome next week.

The response of the organized Catholic laity sounds almost combative: "Does anyone think that in such a crisis of the Church one can suppress the free conversation that seeks results and necessary steps for reform?"Thomas Sternberg, head of the Central Committee of German Catholics, sets the course for the continuation of the reform train: The "synodal path" is to be resolutely adhered to.

Canon law expertise is not unique to the Vatican. Even in this country, those in charge know what they are doing. And what they cannot change. The bishops, like the Catholic Committee, are clear that they do not have the power to decide, for example, on women priests. A possible wish, a vote, however, would not yet be a decision.

Nonetheless, of course, the unwieldy technical term "synodal" has opened up a gray area – and set off alarm bells in some quarters. But a synod in the canonical sense was never on the table at any time. Sternberg puts it this way, "The letter refers to something that no one intends to do: a synod."

However, when it comes to voting, it is envisaged that bishops and lay people will have equal rights. The Pontifical Council also views this very critically. A clear distinction should be made between working out and deciding. And again as a question: "How can a bishops' conference allow itself to be dominated by an assembly, most of whose members are not bishops?"

German bishops and lay representatives, it is heard, do not want to argue with the authorities in the Vatican – and seek dialogue with their critics. So that what is decisive for both sides remains in view. Sternberg describes it almost in the style of a sermon: "to speak credibly of what and who sustains our lives".

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Christina Cherry
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