This week, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Francis Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery of Bishops, and Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to the German Synodal Path with the request not to vote on the establishment of a Management and Decision-Making Council.

This Council would be made up of bishops (about 27) and laypeople, who would meet to carry out discussions and make decisions on the issues of ecclesiastical authority, the role of women, sexual morality, and priestly life.

The request was accepted, and the vote was removed from the next session of the Synodal Path program.

But the topic will return in the German bishops’ meetings in Rome. Archbishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Episcopal Conference, has already made it known that the Vatican’s request cannot be ignored. He also maintains that the decision did not go to weaken the role of the bishop but rather to place his authority “in new terrain because the abuse scandal has undermined this authority.”

Beyond considerations immediately pertaining to the German Synodale Weg, Bätzing’s statements highlight a further problem.

The German bishops are trying to reconsider with the Church and for the Church to resolve a credibility problem born from the abuse crisis. From the outset, Pope Francis pointed out that this way of rethinking cannot lead to binding decisions or a break with Rome. Indeed, the Pope said that “in Germany, there is already an Evangelical Church, and it works very well,” hinting not so subtly at the Protestantisation of the Church in Germany.

However, we must ask ourselves how this doctrinal concern combines with the pragmatic decisions taken by Pope Francis himself: from accepting the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit “on the altar of hypocrisy” to the six months of spiritual retreat for “miscommunication” on the report on the abuses committed against Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne; from the mismanagement of the abuse situation in Chile to the decision to resign all the Chilean bishops and start from scratch.

Pope Francis is very sensitive to the issue of child abuse. It should be remembered that in February 2019, he convened a large meeting of the presidents of all the world’s Episcopal Conferences to discuss how to address the abuse drama. He established some reforms, some perhaps only formal, but always with the idea of responding forcefully to the phenomenon. Early in his pontificate, established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

One wonders, however, why practical decisions on some issues cannot also affect doctrinal choices. Everything is evident for the Pope, so it should be. Is it impossible that precisely these pragmatic decisions, based on the flux and the situation of the moment, may have in some way paved the way for a test of the strength of the German synodal path?

This is the problem, ultimately, of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Since the principle is that “realities are greater than ideas,” there are pragmatic decisions to be made, which in some cases can pave the way for changes in dominant ideas. The Pope takes them, however, thinking that, in any case, they are two separate compartments having nothing to do with one another.

The most striking and recent case is Fiducia Supplicans, the declaration on the blessing of irregular couples. Fiducia Supplicans reiterates the teachings of the Church but opens up to pragmatic solutions to make people feel welcome. However, regulating pragmatic solutions also opens the way for forcing these practical solutions, which gives rise to changes in the perception of the doctrine. And, if the doctrine is poorly perceived, it is easy to try to change it.

This does not appear to be the intention of the Pope, who has repeatedly reaffirmed the principles of the Church’s doctrine. At the same time, in the idea of being in dialogue with the world and reaching out to some particular situations on which there is a shared sensitivity, at least in the secular world, we face possible pressures. In some way, the Church is weakened.

The situation becomes problematic when faced with a structured and organized Church like the German one. On his trip to Germany in 2012, Benedict XVI warned the German Church about being too proud of its structures, putting aside the proclamation of Christ.

Benedict XVI asked to give priority again to Christ and evangelization, removing any political-social meaning from the work, although beautiful, that was being done. A clear example of this direction was given in Erfurt, where Luther trained as an Augustinian. Meeting the Lutheran community, Benedict XVI noted that everyone was expecting “an ecumenical gift,” which could be the remission of the ex-communication of Luther himself, but that it was precisely the logic of the ecumenical gift that had to be abolished because we were not faced with a political-social exchange. Indeed, he underlined that the greatest ecumenical gift that could be given was that of common prayer.

As powerful and tough as they were, Benedict XVI’s words fell on deaf ears because the Church of Germany still oriented itself towards the progressive agenda when the leaders of the Bishops Conference were renewed shortly after the trip. This fact shows how the crisis of the Church in Germany would probably have started anyway, whoever the Pope would have been.

It is also true, at the same time, that the need for this pontificate to give a new image of the Church and a sign of rupture with the past, above all on the issue of abuse, has allowed the German Church overwhelmed by scandals to get the ball rolling and start again with the reform projects. Most of the reform projects are not new but have already been discussed in platforms such as the Pfarrer Initiative. Now, however, they have been institutionalized.

Pope Francis, who separates the pragmatic response from the doctrinal theme, tried to stop the process. But this path was potentially a slippery slope that was difficult to stop once it started.

The letter on the role of bishops at the Synod of 30 January 2023, written by Cardinals Grech and Hollerich, gave new life to the synodal path of the universal Church launched by Pope Francis.

In some cases, there was the thought that a broader synodal path would absorb the German synodal path. At the October synod, some themes seemed to arise precisely from the idea of having to respond to the questions raised in Germany. For example, the first draft of the final document even went so far as to ask that bishops oversee apostolic nuncios, especially regarding candidates for the episcopate. Local bishops sought to claim a role in choosing new bishops, effectively placing blame for the abuse on the Vatican.

Are they all marketing operations?

The suspicion remains when a mechanism like the the Kirchensteuer — the German “Church Tax” – supports the whole ecclesiastical apparatus in the country. When those who say they belong to the Catholic Church are fewer and fewer, the tax revenue decreases. The suspicion remains that those who do not express their opinion on the synodal path are part of that world and benefit from the offers and support of the Church in Germany.

However, this situation has opened a Pandora’s box.

It has allowed those who fight to change the Church and who have used the issue of abuse as stalking horse to put pressure on the Church in this sense to find a chance of victory. Above all, it has set in relief the fact that ideas and practice cannot be separated. Great ideas are needed for practical implementation of reform to be accurate, authentic, and radical. And it takes a lot of practice to look at ideas.

This dichotomy created in Francis’s pontificate may therefore also represent the end of hopes for renewal: it is too lukewarm for progressives and too pragmatic for conservatives. This is how the Pope finds himself increasingly alone.


2 Responses to Pope Francis and the role of bishops

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  2. Thomas Kreitmair scrive:

    “The German bishops are trying to reconsider with the Church and for the Church to resolve a credibility problem born from the abuse crisis”

    The intention of the synodal path was never to resolve the abuse crisis. The abuse crisis was just used as a vehicle to push decade-old agenda of the ZDK laypeople comittee of women priesthood, eroding the power of clerics and abolisihing the teaching on sexuality. They belive by streamlining to the worldly mainstream agenda all the people who left the church will then come back. Has any of the soviet-style conferences of the “synodal path” where opposing voices were suppressed enhanced the credibility of the church? By the way, none of the members in the ZDK is elected in a democratic way. But the German bishops still see the ZDK as the only lay association they work with and talk to. The final blow came with the current sudy about abuse in the Lutheran Church which revelaed that there was no less abuse than in the Catholic Church even tough they have everything in place the synodal path is asking for. Including gay and lesbian ministers living together…
    The only thing the ZDK is interested in is ever-growing church bureaucracy which enables them to fill good-paid positions with their candidates. From the beginning of the synodal path, they have wiped all talk on re-evangelization from the agenda. It is simply of no interest for them.

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