My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Over 90 bishops from around the world recently signed a “Fraternal Open Letter to the Bishops of Germany,” including Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, and Cardinal George Pell of Australia. I am among the signatories along with archbishops and bishops from every continent except Antarctica (which of course has no bishops).
The letter expresses “our growing concern about the nature of the entire German ‘Synodal Path’ process and the content of its various documents” as well as “the confusion that the Synodal Path has already caused and continues to cause, and the potential for schism in the life of the Church that will inevitably result.” Similar letters have been sent by the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and the Bishops’ Conference of the Nordic countries, which includes Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland.
So, what is the German Synodal Path and what are the concerns?
The German Synodal Path is the response of the Catholic Church in Germany to Pope Francis’ call to provide input for the Synod of Bishops that will take place at the Vatican in October of 2023. Pope Francis has encouraged bishops around the world to engage a process of “synodality,” characterized by dialogue, accompaniment, and collaboration among the diocesan leadership, ordained clergy, religious, and lay faithful. We have done this here in our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois at our listening sessions in various locations across our diocese on March 27, in conjunction with input from our Diocesan Pastoral Council and Presbyteral Council. All of this builds on the Fourth Diocesan Synod that we held in 2017.
Following the release of a study on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics in Germany, the country’s Bishops expressed a desire in 2019 “to follow a binding Synodal Path” to address these and other topics. In the Fall of 2021, the German Bishops released several draft texts, which were discussed and voted on during the Second Synodal Assembly. In February of 2022, the Bishops met for the Third Synodal Assembly, where they released additional documents.
While listening to the flock, the shepherds must still lead and not let the sheep go astray. This is where the concerns arise, given that the German Synodal Path has gone off course, asserting in their documents that the Catholic Church “insists on doctrinal positions that many faithful, including deacons, priests and bishops, far beyond Germany, no longer find comprehensible.” They even go so far as to call certain Church teachings merciless, unloving, discriminatory, and intolerant. In particular, the German Synodal Path has called for the blessing of homosexual relationships, ordaining women as deacons, making celibacy optional for priests, giving the laity decision-making power in relation to the appointment of bishops, and restructuring the Church from its hierarchical form to something more democratic.
This is precisely what Pope Francis warned the German bishops about when he wrote a 28-page letter to them in 2019, urging them to be careful not to fall into the traps set along the way, which he calls “temptations” based on “the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist, is to reorganize things, change them and 'put them back together' to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group.”
In response to the concerns raised by bishops from around the world that Germany’s Synodal Path could lead to schism, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, President of the German Bishops’ Conference, defended their process as a response to abuses in the Church. However, as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has pointed out in an article he wrote for First Things, “A tepid accommodation to the latest dogmas of secular orthodoxy, on the other hand, cannot be the basis for renewal.”
It is significant that Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, has said in an interview that “there are legitimate concerns behind” this Fraternal Open Letter “that have to be taken seriously.” He added that, “In Germany, I have the impression that synodality consists in dealing with the structures, something that Pope Francis already urged very energetically in his “Letter to the People of God” in Germany, that it is first and foremost not about structures but spirituality.”
My hope is that the Fraternal Open Letter to the Bishops of Germany will prompt them to see the widespread concern from their brother bishops, reassess what they are doing, and get back on course with the true teachings of the Church.
May God give us this grace. Amen.