German bishops leave Vatican at a stalemate over homosexuality, women

Religion News Service - Missouri School of Journalism [Columbia MO]

November 22, 2022

By Claire Giangravé

[Via the Washington Post]

German bishops departed the Vatican with mixed feelings of “relief and concern,” after renewing their loyalty to Rome over the weekend but leaving questions about sexuality, the role of women and how to reform power structures in the church still unanswered.

Speaking at a news conference Saturday, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said that despite a ban from the Vatican, he plans to personally continue blessing same-sex couples.

“For me, as a bishop, these blessings for people who ask God’s blessing for their committed relationship, I would not take that away from them,” Bätzing said.

Sixty-two German bishops came to Rome last week for the traditional “ad limina” visits with members of the Vatican departments and offices that make up the Roman Curia. The bishops also had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and an extraordinary meeting with all the Vatican department heads.

This was the first time the German bishops had visited the Vatican since they started their “synodal path,” a series of nationwide discussions among clergy and laity to address clerical sex abuse in the country, in 2018. A report issued the same year showed that a pervasive culture of coverup and clericalism had led to numerous abuse scandals in the church.

The German synodal path has included discussions challenging the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality, female ordination, and the role of clergy and lay people in the church. It adopted a number of resolutions but has encountered pushback from Rome as the Vatican attempts to rein in the German bishops.

In March 2021, the Vatican’s doctrinal department banned the blessing of same-sex couples taking place in the German church. Some German priests continued to bless the unions anyhow. That summer, the Vatican secretariat of state reminded German bishops that the synodal path “does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to assume new modes of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

While conversations between bishops and Vatican officials were “tough but civil” last week, Bätzing insisted that “it is wrong to speak of a so-called ‘showdown’ in Rome.”

German bishops had a chance to voice their concerns with Vatican officials on Friday, including Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the department overseeing bishops; and the Vatican’s doctrine czar, Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer. Bätzing said the topics of power structures, priestly life, female leadership and sexuality were openly addressed.

In his speech to the Vatican curia, Bätzing said he was “astonished” that some within the Vatican departments fail to recognize the need for renewal in the church’s practice and teachings. He pointed to clericalism, understood as “the use of power and the exploitation of dependence” of the faithful, as the main culprit for the sexual abuse crisis and called the question of the role of women in the church “the decisive question for the future.”

The bishop underlined that “the synodal path of the church in Germany neither seeks a schism nor leads to a national church,” pushing back against critics. There are tensions, Bätzing said, and, like in many families, “it sometimes gets loud.” But the German church, he said, seeks to participate in “a better Catholic Church” where “we will stay together.” A joint statement between German bishops and the Holy See states that Ferrer and Ouellet spoke “frankly and clearly” about their reservations regarding the German synodal path.

Notably absent from the meeting was Francis, a move Bätzing described as characteristic of “a clever Jesuit” who left the prelates to “argue like brothers.” The bishop said he was “encouraged” when he met with the pope the day before.

Francis has been ambivalent toward the German synodal discussions, which are taking place amid a global consultation of lay and religious faithful, to be concluded in 2024. While promoting open discussions and ideas, the pope, in a 2019 letter to the German church, also reinforced the need to avoid becoming too polarized or political.

The German synodal path, though, will go on. A fifth general assembly is scheduled for March.

“The follow-up phase begins now,” Bätzing said, “as does the phase of reflection on what was said and heard: our concerns, which we raised in Rome, and the considerations that Rome gave us to take home.”