The World

The "Central Committee of German Catholics" turns the Holy See's arguments on their head.

It reinterprets with a "hermeneutic" of its own the recent affirmations of both the Pope and cardinals of the curia who oppose such a committee, in order to affirm the opposite of the textuality of the documents.

José M. García Pelegrín-November 28, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops ©OSV News photo/Heiko Becker, Reuters

Following the establishment of the Synod Committee in GermanyOn November 11, the Statutes were to be approved by both the German Bishops' Conference (DBK) and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

While the bishops will meet in plenary assembly at the beginning of next year, the ZdK held its semi-annual assembly on November 24-25 in Berlin. As expected, the Statutes of the Synodal Committee were approved by an overwhelming majority. The president of the ZdK, Irme Stetter-KarpWe have cleared the way for the Synodal Way to continue," he said.

The main objective of the Synodal Committee is to prepare, for three years, a "Synodal Council" to perpetuate the so-called German Synodal Way. However, the Vatican explicitly prohibited the establishment of such a "Synodal Council": this was stated by the Cardinal Secretary of State and the Cardinal Prefects of the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Bishops in a letter of the January 16, 2023The letter, sent with the express approval of Pope Francis: "Neither the Synodal Way, nor an organism designated by it, nor an episcopal conference has the competence to institute a Synodal Council at the national, diocesan or parochial level".

To this letter he referred the Pope in a letter sent to four former participants of the Synodal Pathwaydated November 10: the Holy Father spoke of "numerous steps by which a large part of this local Church threatens to move further and further away from the common path of the universal Church". Francis included among these steps "the constitution of the Synodal Committee, which aims to prepare for the introduction of a consultative and decision-making body that cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church".

In a new letter, dated Oct. 23 but not made public until Nov. 24, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin addressed DBK Secretary General Beate Gilles. Cardinal Parolin affirmed that both the doctrine of reserving the priesthood to men and the Church's teaching on homosexuality - two of the main changes the Synodal Way wants to introduce - are "non-negotiable."

To these two new documents, the ZdK reacted without flinching. Instead of reflecting on their clear content and drawing the appropriate conclusions, it engages in a kind of exegesis of these texts in order to interpret the alleged reasons why the Pope or the cardinals of the Curia might have issued such a ban. ZdK Vice President Thomas Söding explained at the beginning of the press conference held in the framework of the ZdK General Assembly: "In his last letter to four former members of the Synodal Way, the Pope underlined his concern for the unity of the Church. The synodality that we are establishing in Germany wants to strengthen and will strengthen this unity, both internally and externally. Catholic synodality will never be without or against the Pope and the bishops, but always with the Pope and the bishops".

In response to the specific question I put to him as to how these words can be reconciled with the statements in the Pope's letter, the ZdK Vice President replied that the Pope was referring to the letter of the three cardinals of January 16. "In this letter, in my opinion, the objection expressed from Rome was formulated very clearly that there should neither be a Synodal Council at the federal level, which is, so to speak, a higher authority than the Bishops' Conference, nor that the bishop - to use my own words - is a kind of Manager of a Synodal Council." The Synodal Committee "is precisely not intended to relativize and take power away from the bishop".

In his address to the plenary assembly, Thomas Söding reiterated this statement: "The Roman Synod is an endorsement for us", and with regard to the Pope's letter of November 10, he said: the fact that the Pope affirms that "neither the episcopal office can be undermined nor the power of the Bishops' Conference taken away, ultimately confirms the direction we are taking here". In response to a question from a ZdK delegate, he added that the suspicion that the bishops were going to be disempowered was being spread "by interested parties." He continued: "We are entering into a process: synodality in Catholic terms always means synodality with the Pope and the bishops, but also synodality with the people of the Church. That is what has been lacking up to now, and that is what must be promoted".

The president of the ZdK, Irme Stetter-Karp, also tried to relativize the statements of the Pope and the cardinals. At the aforementioned press conference, she referred to a "dynamic" in the Roman Curia: "I would like to recall the dynamic within the Curia in Rome, and also between the Curia and the Pope." He recalled that Cardinal Parolin had also opposed the "openness and the right of the laity and women to vote for the World Synod", but the Pope did it anyway: "suddenly it was legal and possible". He believes it is important not to overlook this "dynamic" in the Curia.

The DBK has yet to approve the bylaws of the Synodical Committee.

In this context, the ZdK quotes the Archbishop of Berlin, Msgr. Heiner Koch, who is the new Spiritual Assistant of the ZdK, with the following words: "We bishops are in favor of the statutes of the Synodal Committee. It is a conscious yes!". However, when he spoke at the ZdK plenary assembly, his message was quite different. He said that "the bishops" used to be spoken of as uniform, but that the debate in the DBK is heterogeneous, even if it is not made public.

"There are theological, ecclesiological and also psychological differences. Concerns and reservations on the subject can also be observed, depending on the positioning with respect to tradition and doctrine". Koch made reference to the fact that these differences also exist among the laity: "I receive many letters and e-mails that say: we do not agree with the Synodal Way, we do not want to go this way. And don't think it's just a few of them".

Response of a canonist to the interpretations by ZdK

On the binding nature of Pope Francis' letter and the note of Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, Stefan Mückl, Professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, expounds:

"Canon law obliges all the faithful - clerics and laity, men and women - 'always to observe communion with the Church' (can. 209 § 1 CIC). In particular, 'they are bound by Christian obedience to follow whatever the sacred Pastors, as representatives of Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rectors of the Church' (can. 212 § 1 CIC). While the first aspect ('teachers of the faith') refers to the ecclesiastical magisterium, the second ('rectors of the Church') refers to the exercise of the ecclesiastical office of government.

The provisions of canon law are not 'inventions' of jurists, but the juridical formulation of the substance of the Church's faith, as described in the Ecclesiastical Constitution 'Lumen gentium' of the Second Vatican Council.

Therefore, when 'sacred shepherds', especially the Pope as supreme pastor of the Church (or his closest collaborator, the Cardinal Secretary of State) 'declare' or 'determine', they are binding on all members of the Church, regardless of to whom the relevant announcement was addressed in detail. Statements such as 'it was only a letter to four women' or 'the Vatican forbids things we have not decided' are beside the point.

The Holy See has made it clear for years and repeatedly, both through the Pope himself and (with his knowledge and will) through the principal heads of the Roman dicasteries, what is (or is not) compatible with the doctrine and discipline of the Church. It is therefore incomprehensible how one can construct a contrast ('dynamic') between the Pope and the Curia. Rome's messages are clear".

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