A Fore-Bode-ing Sign for the Synodal Way?

National Catholic Register - EWTN [Irondale AL]

March 27, 2023

By Jonathan Liedl

ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, a major proponent of the Synodal Way in Germany, is widely seen as a blow to the controversial process. But was this a ‘strategic element’ of the Vatican’s decision?

Pope Francis’ acceptance of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode’s surprise resignation is a clear blow to the German Synodal Way — at least according to the reactions of others championing the controversial process, which is pushing for blessings of same-sex unions, women’s ordination and other changes at odds with Church teaching.

Johannes Norpoth, the spokesman for the German Bishops’ Conference’s (DBK) advisory board of abuse victims, described the erstwhile bishop of Osnabrück as “an episcopal engine of the Synodal Way,” noting that his resignation “will clearly and permanently weaken the wing in the German Bishops’ Conference that is willing to reform and change.”

Irme Stetter-Karp, the president of the powerful Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), who served with Bishop Bode on the Synodal Way’s four-person presidium, described him as a major advocate for the reforms sought by the initiative, adding that he “initiated a large part of this new beginning in his diocese.”

And Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the DBK, said that with the resignation of Bishop Bode, DBK’s vice president, he is “losing my closest comrade-in-arms on the Synodal Way, which still has many stages in store for us.” 

After concluding its opening, five-part “assembly stage” earlier this month, the German synodal process moves forward into the more uncharted territory of implementing adopted measures in German dioceses while also attempting to mollify resistance from the Vatican and the universal Church.

Bishop Bode, the longest-serving diocesan bishop in Germany, with more than 30 years of episcopal experience, likely would have served as a key figure on both fronts, using his experience and relationships to enforce compliance among his German confreres and also curry favor — or at least nonresistance — to Synodal Way initiatives from Church leaders in places like Latin America and Africa, where the Church in Germany has long exerted its influence through financial assistance drawn from its Church tax-infused revenues.

But while there seems to be little doubt that Bishop Bode’s resignation is a setback for the Synodal Way in terms of losing a key proponent, a deeper question remains: Should Pope Francis’ acceptance of the bishop’s resignation, allegedly offered due to mishandling of sex-abuse cases, be seen as a reproachment of the entire process? A Vatican “shot across the bow” of the German Bishops’ Conference, as the Synodal Way moves into even more dangerous waters?

That’s an interpretation being considered by Norpoth, who is part of the newly established Synodal Committee tasked with carrying the German synodal process forward. In his March 25 interview with Dom Radio, Norpoth explained that, given “the current constitution of the Church” in which bishops exercise governance in their dioceses, resignations of past offenders are not as important for securing desired outcomes as is having “bishops who are willing to reform and change” Church structures by using their “creative power.” 

Because of Bishop Bode’s known status as an all-too-willing activist for changing Church teaching and practice, Norpoth openly suspects that there was a Synodal Way-related “strategic element of the Vatican’s decision” to accept — or even force — his resignation. 

With the Synodal Way threatening to export its problematic ideas elsewhere in the universal Church, many Catholics are desperately looking to Rome to use more than words and intervene with direct consequences for those behind it. But is there evidence that that’s what the Pope’s acceptance of Bishop Bode’s resignation is?

A Conspicuous Resignation

At a general level, Bishop Bode’s resignation is deeply conspicuous — not because it was apparently offered, but because the Holy Father accepted it. 

While German prelates like Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Archbishop Stefan Hess of Hamburg, as well as Cologne Auxiliary Bishops Ansgar Puff and Dominik Schwaderlapp have all submitted their resignations in the past two years over mishandling sex-abuse cases, Bishop Bode’s is the only one that Pope Francis has actually accepted. 

Another conspicuous element: Unlike his confreres, Bishop Bode’s offer of resignation to the Holy Father was never made public beforehand. It was simply announced March 25 by the Diocese of Osnabrück at noon Rome time, the same time the Vatican daily bolletindisclosed that Pope Francis had accepted it

In fact, as recently as January, Bishop Bode had underscored that he had no intention of following the example of his brother bishops by offering his resignation, after a study on abuse in Osnabrück published in September 2022 found him at fault for multiple failures during his nearly 30-year reign as bishop.

“I did a lot of things wrong, but I think I still have time to build new trust,” he said at the time. “It’s a balancing act. I want to take responsibility to make things better.”

But in his March 25 announcement, Bishop Bode said that his decision to offer his resignation had “matured in recent months,” given a profound loss of trust in his leadership in the aftermath of the sex-abuse study’s release, “especially among the diocese’s staff.”

So is the presence of deep mistrust within his diocese the reason why Pope Francis accepted his resignation but not the other German bishops who offered theirs?

Not if Cardinal Woelki’s situation in Cologne is any precedent. The cardinal has faced profound and near-crippling resistance from his archdiocesan apparatus since the release of a sex-abuse study in March 2021, resistance perhaps exacerbated by the cardinal’s opposition to the Synodal Way

But despite this dysfunction, Pope Francis has made no decision to accept the Cologne cardinal’s March 2022 offer of resignation and instead asked him to resume his ministry after a return from a months-long spiritual sabbatical. So why did the Holy Father go in a different direction with Bishop Bode?

Brazen Disobedience

If Bishop Bode’s case is not unique among other German bishops in terms of offering a resignation over mishandling sex-abuse cases or the dysfunction caused in his diocese, it’s worth considering other ways that he might differ from those who also submitted their resignations but have not had them accepted — in other words, why the Vatican seems to have singled him out for special treatment. 

In his March 25 announcement, the 72-year-old bishop cited health and age as additional reasons for resigning. And he is, in fact, three years older than the next oldest bishop who has also offered to resign, Cardinal Marx.

But although he has previously noted health concerns, it doesn’t appear that there has been a dramatic change in Bishop Bode’s condition nor his age from his January 2023 reiteration that he would not resign to his announcement of resignation this past weekend. So these factors alone do not seem relevant reasons for why Pope Francis accepted his resignation but no one else’s.

Other factors likely offer a better explanation. Given the timing of his resignation, it is impossible to overlook Bishop Bode’s recent and brazen March 14 public declaration that he would move forward with blessings for same-sex relationships in Osnabrück — ahead of even the approved Synodal Way text that called for blessings beginning in March 2026.

The Vatican, of course, had already responded to German calls for blessings of same-sex unions by issuing a March 2021 affirmation that the Catholic Church has no power to offer them. And the day after Bishop Bode made known his intentions to officially endorse the practice in Osnabrück, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, emphasized that a local Church “cannot make a decision of this kind affecting the discipline of the universal Church.” 

Cardinal Parolin said that any proposals for such blessings must be brought to Rome in the context of the upcoming October gathering of bishop delegates from around the world, part of the universal Church’s ongoing Synod on Synodality, “to clarify what are the decisions to make.” 

It’s been speculated, though, that by officially endorsing and putting into practice such blessings in Germany ahead of the October meeting, Synodal Way proponents were seeking to bolster their rhetorical hand by being able to make a case in Rome that such blessings weren’t theoretical but were already part of the on-the-ground pastoral practice in Germany. 

If this is true, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pope Francis was eager to nip such intransigence and ideological gamesmanship in the bud and factored Bishop Bode’s role as lead provocateur into his decision to accept the German bishop’s resignation.

The Vos Estis Factor

Bishop Bode’s beyond-the-pale Synodal Way activism may indeed be part of the Vatican’s calculus in accepting his resignation — and his, so far, alone — for mishandling sex-abuse claims. But it’s likely not the only, or even the primary factor, in the premature end of Bode’s episcopal career.

Unlike other German bishops who have submitted resignations, Bishop Bode is the only one who seems likely to have been subject to a formal Vatican investigation under the auspices of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the new norms first implemented by Pope Francis in 2019 for addressing episcopal errors regarding sex-abuse cases. An advisory body of sexual-abuse survivors in the metropolitan Archdiocese of Hamburg, which includes Osnabrück, filed an official complaint with the Vatican on Dec. 12, 2022, citing misconduct under canon law. 

In a possible contrast, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster attempted to bring a Vos Estis complaint against Cardinal Woelki on Dec. 11, 2021, but the Vatican reportedly did not respond. There has been no such indication that the request of the Hamburg advisory body, which would have involved Archbishop Hess forwarding the complaint on to Rome, has gone unheeded.

If Bishop Bode has indeed been found guilty of violating Church law in his handling of sex-abuse cases, it would seem to set him apart from other prominent German bishops who have offered their resignations. 

A Vatican apostolic visitation to Cologne in 2021 to assess the pastoral situation, for instance, found that Cardinal Woelki had “made major mistakes” in his approach to sex-abuse cases, “especially at the level of communication,” but that there was no evidence that he had acted unlawfully. And, indeed, Bishop Bode’s documented mistakes are far more severe than Cardinal Woelki’s.

It’s also noteworthy that Bishop Bode’s resignation was announced on the same day that the Vatican permanently decreed an updated version of Vos Estis. But if Bishop Bode were, in fact, found guilty of canonical violations under Vos Estis, there would be at least one apparent difference from a recent precedent. 

When American Bishop Michael Hoeppner resigned from the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, after an 18-month Vos Estis investigation, official statements from the diocese, as well as the metropolitan Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, indicated that the resignation was requested by Pope Francis due to Bishop Hoeppner’s failure to observe applicable norms. 

In the case of Bishop Bode’s resignation, neither the Diocese of Osnabrück nor the Archdiocese of Hamburg have indicated that the move was requested by the Pope. And the Vatican, just as it did in the case of Bishop Hoeppner, has provided no additional details in its announcement of the Holy Father’s acceptance of the resignation. 

Of course, the lack of an admission from Bishop Bode that he was ousted by the Pope doesn’t mean he wasn’t. Writing for the German newspaper WELT, Lucas Wiegelmann similarly suspects that the Osnabrück bishop’s resignation was not voluntary.

Given his incriminating record, the fact that a formal Vos Estis complaint was submitted against him not too long ago, and the conspicuous circumstances around his departure, a requested resignation due to canonical violations seems like the best possible explanation for why Bishop Bode is out of office while Cardinals Woelki and Marx, Archbishop Hess and Auxiliary Bishops Schwaderlapp and Puff all remain.

Two Birds, One Stone?

That being said, even if canonical violations in handling sex-abuses cases are the primary reason Bishop Bode’s been put out to pasture, it doesn’t mean that his role in the Synodal Way wasn’t factored into the Holy Father’s decision to accept or ask for his resignation — nor that the move won’t be perceived as a warning by other German bishops going forward.

Asking for Bishop Bode’s resignation could have been an opportunity for Pope Francis to be strong on sex abuse, while cutting off one of the heads of the Synodal Way hydra in the process. At the very least, Bishop Bode’s prominent role in the Synodal Way wasn’t a deterrent to the apparent request being made, though one could ask why the decision didn’t come earlier, before the March assembly in Frankfurt. According to Wiegelmann, Bode submitted his resignation to Pope Francis on Jan. 21 and knew since the end of February that the Holy Father would accept it.

While we can’t know for sure if Bishop Bode’s Synodal Way activism played a role in Pope Francis’ acceptance of his resignation, perhaps a more significant question is whether or not the German episcopacy thinks it did. To answer that, watch how its members react in the wake of his departure. 

For instance, will other bishops be eager to play ecclesial chicken with the Vatican by endorsing same-sex blessings in their dioceses ahead of the October gathering in Rome?

And how will pro-Synodal Way bishops who have possible abuse cover-up investigations hanging over them react in the coming months? 

This may be especially applicable to DBK president Bishop Bätzing, who could possibly be implicated in the recently released study on abuse in the Diocese of Trier, where alleged or convicted perpetrators were regularly transferred to new locations in and outside the diocese, where they abused again. Bishop Bätzing was vicar general of Trier from 2012 to 2016.

For a process that has attempted to justify its heterodoxical proposals with dubious claims to be addressing the root causes of clerical sex abuse, some might find it poetic if the primary mechanism by which Synodal Way ideologues were removed from the German episcopacy ended up being their own abuse-related misdoings. 

Jonathan Liedl Jonathan Liedl is senior editor for the Register. His background includes state Catholic conference work, three years of seminary formation, and tutoring at a university Christian study center. Liedl holds a B.A. in Political Science and Arabic Studies (Univ. of Notre Dame), an M.A. in Catholic Studies (Univ. of St. Thomas), and is currently completing an M.A. in Theology at the Saint Paul Seminary. He lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Follow him on Twitter at @JLLiedl.