The fifth German synodal assembly in Frankfurt March 9, 2023 (OSV News photo/Heiko Becker, Reuters)

Six months out from the second assembly of the Synod on synodality, two issues continue to dominate the discourse: Fiducia supplicans, the document on blessings for “irregular” and same-sex couples issued by the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith in December, and the continuing tensions between the Vatican and the German Synod.

Of course, the synodal process itself is at the center of both issues. But there’s a particular intensity surrounding the German Synod, dating prior to Francis opening the global “synodal process” in 2021; Germany has the most advanced national synodal experience, has developed the most organized synodal reaction to the abuse crisis, and has generated the most concern among and warnings from both the Vatican and the pope himself, along with a series of outright scoldings. 

The most recent of these is a February 16 letter signed by Secretary of State Parolin and Cardinals Victor Manuel Fernández (prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) and Robert Prevost (prefect of the Dicastery for the Bishops). They asked the German bishops’ conference (whose assembly took place from February 19 to 22) to postpone their vote on the creation of the new “synodal council” for the Catholic Church in Germany, an institution in which bishops and laypeople for the first time would share power. The cardinals stated that this is essentially contrary to canon law. Therefore, a decision adopted by the bishops’ conference on such a “synodal council” would also be null and void, because it would have no authority to approve its statute.

It seems that this letter was sent with the knowledge and consent of the pope. Francis’s worries about the German Synod go back to 2019, but now the Catholic Church in Germany has completed its “synodal path”—the conclusion of which sets into motion precisely the “synodal councils” at the center of the current tension. In a November 2023 letter to four dissenting women members of the German synod, Francis wrote that the new structure “cannot be harmonized with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church.” The leaders of the episcopal component of the German synod and of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) deny the charges. For now, the German bishops have agreed to postpone the vote and the implementation of the new synodal council. Representatives of the German bishops’ conference and the Curia will likely meet in Rome sometime in March for talks. 

Two issues continue to dominate the discourse: "Fiducia supplicans" and the continuing tensions between the Vatican and the German Synod.

Call it a suspension—not a solution. There are significant issues at play here.

One of those is terminology. The majority of German bishops and the ZdK maintain that the term “synodal council” is compatible with what Pope Francis allowed in 2020 in the Amazon region with the creation of a permanent “ecclesial conference” consisting of laypeople, religious, priests, and bishops. But there’s a reason why Francis trusts Latin Americans with an institution that on paper does not look substantially different from the German “synodal council.” Words might mean different things in different ecclesial systems and cultures across the global Church. In Germany, the notion of “co-responsibility” is something closer to a democratic idea of decision-making and decision-taking processes, with bishops and laypeople participating at the same level. In other parts of the world, that’s not necessarily so. Pope Francis, Cardinal Fernandez, and Cardinal Prevost (an American Augustinian who spent a decade as a bishop in Peru before his appointment in the Vatican in January 2023) are more familiar with the ecclesial context of Latin America—and somewhat distanced from the German theology that was prevalent on the continent immediately after Vatican II and that has shaped the German synod.

The second reason is the participants in this drama. The absence of the leaders of Rome’s Synod Secretariat—Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich especially—is not really a problem; it makes sense in order to keep the Synod super partes and to preserve its relative “freedom.” But there remains an asymmetry between the German synod and the Roman Curia. In Germany, leaders of the bishops’ conference and the laity argue, on the basis of theology, that change is needed (“change track for the future”). Rome, meanwhile, handles this as if the reform of the Curia of 2022 had no effect on the way it deals with the local churches. Francis has largely avoided a personal confrontation with the Germans, which leaves things to Cardinal Parolin, functionally the prime minister of the Holy See and its top diplomat, whose argument is almost by default rooted in canon law. Cardinals Fernandez and Prevost come from a pastoral background that doesn’t translate well to Germany.

Where Germany is concerned it cannot help but be about theology.

The most prominent German-speaking prelates cautioning the German synod against the danger of schism are Cardinals Walter Kasper and Christoph Schönborn; both are eminent theologians, one is retired (Kasper) and the other is soon to be (Schönborn), and neither is in Rome. There seems to be no prelate at the Vatican who can speak to the Germans on the same theological level that Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Mueller did, which is a problem because where Germany is concerned it cannot help but be about theology. Also, it’s not a coincidence that this is unfolding at the same time many African countries are rejecting Fiducia supplicans. Can a Vatican with a Latin American leadership mediate the differences between Germany and Africa? With its attention focused on stopping the former’s “synodal council,” Rome is less able to deal with the latter’s response to Fiducia supplicans. Yet Africa (and Latin America) can hew to their specific paths on synodal issues, while Germany may not. 

The third is the next papal conclave. Already, the vultures are beginning to circle around this pontificate (as Robert Mickens put it). A second version of the “Demos” memorandum of 2022 (the author of which was later revealed to be Cardinal George Pell) was published on February 29; it’s not just a wishlist of the qualities of the next pope, but also a strong criticism of the current one on a range of issues (administrative, theological, and political). Francis’s opposition is openly preparing for the next conclave, and they seem ready to take bold, and possibly preemptive and unprecedented, action to elect a successor very different from Bergoglio, perhaps in fast-tracked fashion. This may be a good reason to slow down the pace of meetings leading to the next conclave, as Church historian Alberto Melloni recently argued.

Regardless, when that day comes, the main issue is likely to be the continuation of the Synod—or its reversal. Inasmuch as it’s a recapitulation of Francis’s pontificate (both its strengths and weaknesses), the Synod will play a role in determining who among the cardinalate may be considered on the various lists of papabile. Suffice to say it will not be like June 1963, when with the intent of continuing the work of Vatican II the cardinals selected Paul VI. Today, being on the side of synodality could be a handicap, not an asset. This dynamic, and not fears about the possibility of schism, may be the real reason for slowing down the German synod. It’s a way to strengthen synodality for the long run—and preserve what would be Francis’s legacy achievement. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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