Washington— In an open letter, 74 bishops from North America, Africa, Italy and Australia expressed their “increasing concern” about the process and content of the German Synodal Path, warning of its “potential for schism”.
Joining recent letters of concern from Nordic and Polish bishops, the “fraternal open letter to our brother bishops in Germany” stated that “the actions of the Synodal Path undermine the credibility of the authority of the Church, including that of the pope Francis”.
“By his destructive example he may lead some bishops, and will lead many otherwise faithful lay people, to distrust the very idea of ’synodality’, thus further hampering the necessary conversation of the Church on the fulfillment of the mission to convert and sanctify the world,” the concluded letter said.
Signatories included Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier, Australian Cardinal George Pell and American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke.
A total of 49 bishops from the United States, four from Canada, 19 Africans, one Italian and one Australian have signed the letter. The letter was made public on April 12 after being sent to the German bishops on April 11.
German bishops, responding to continued revelations of clerical sexual abuse and how bishops have mishandled such cases, see the process of the synodal way as dealing with the exercise of power and authority in the church ; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.
The German bishops are well aware of the concerns of other conferences about the direction their synodal path is taking. Limburg bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, admitted that there are widely differing opinions on issues such as blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples or the ordination of women as deacons or priests. The German Catholic news agency KNA reported that he had pledged that the bishops would submit all synodal reform decisions that can only be implemented at the level of the universal Church to the global synodal process launched by Pope Francis in preparation for the 2023 synod of bishops on synodality.
The April 11 open letter to the Germans said that “events in one country inevitably have an impact on church life elsewhere.”
He raised seven criticisms, including “not listening to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel”, relying more on “contemporary sociological and political analysis, including gender, ideologies” than on Scripture and tradition. , and being too focused on “power” and “autonomy.”
“The Synodal Path process, at almost every stage, is the work of experts and committees,” the letter says, calling the process “bureaucratic heavy, obsessively critical and introverted.”
“In its effect, the Synodal Way displays more submission and obedience to the world and ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour,” he said.
Signatories to the letter expressed concern over “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.”
In March, after a critical letter from the Polish bishops became public, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told KNA that Francis had not changed his position since a June 2019 letter to Catholics in Germany.
In his 2019 letter, Francis stressed that taking a synodal path is a process that must be guided by the Holy Spirit with patience and not a “search for immediate results that generate quick and immediate consequences.” Transformation “calls for pastoral conversion,” he said.
“Brothers and sisters, let us take care of each other and be attentive to the temptation of the father of lies and division, the master of separation who, by pushing us to seek an apparent good or an answer to a given situation, ends up in fact up to fragmenting the body of God’s holy and faithful people,” the pope said.
He also warned against the temptation to use evangelism as something “in the spirit of the times”.
Concerns about divisions and responding to the pressures of the times are some of the main issues cited by European bishops who have publicly expressed their concerns.
In response to the letter from the Polish bishops, Bishop Bätzing rejected the accusation that the reform process in Germany was watering down Church doctrine and pandering to the spirit of the times.
“We do not tread the path of conversion and renewal lightly, and certainly not outside the universal Church,” the German bishop said. “Several times I had the opportunity to speak with Pope Francis about the synodal journey.”
Bishop Bätzing said the German Church was doing exactly what Francis asked Catholics in the country in 2019, which was to embark on a “spiritual journey asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Public criticism of an episcopal conference by others is highly unusual, but in Germany too there has been debate about the process of the synodal path.
[Contributing to this story was Barb Fraze.]