The Pillar [Washington DC]
March 27, 2023
By Luke Coppen
What reason did the Vatican give when it made the surprise announcement Saturday that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of one of Germany’s most prominent bishops?
The answer: none whatsoever.
That’s not unusual. When the pope accepts a diocesan bishop’s resignation before the customary age of 75, the Holy See press office rarely gives a reason.
In the absence of an official explanation, speculation is rife. Was the 72-year-old Bishop Franz-Josef Bode’s resignation accepted because he was one of the chief organizers of Germany’s controversial “synodal way”?
Or was it because he was one of the first German bishops to invite same-sex couples to receive blessings after the synodal way endorsed the practice earlier this month — despite an emphatic Vatican prohibition on doing so?
Or could it have been on account of his errors in handling abuse cases, which prompted a canonical complaint to Rome?
Let’s consider each of three principal theories.
A symbolic strike on the synodal way?
As deputy chairman of the German bishops’ conference since 2017, Bode played a leading role in the synodal way. He was one of just four members of the initiative’s steering committee and served as co-chairman of one its four forums, on “Women in ministries and offices in the Church.”
Bode, Germany’s longest-serving diocesan bishop, was one of the most outspoken proponents of the radical changes to Church teaching and practice advanced by the initiative. He advocated for female deacons and church blessings for same-sex couples long before those positions were embraced by the majority of German bishops.
The acceptance of Bode’s resignation came exactly two weeks after the synodal way formally ended in Frankfurt on March 11. The timing prompted observers to ask if the move was the Vatican’s response to the initiative’s defiant endorsement of lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, and “gender diversity” at its final plenary assembly.
But beyond the timing, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to suggest that Bode’s resignation was linked to the synodal way.
If that were the reason, you might expect the Italian media to be citing sources “close to the pope,” saying that the move was aimed at the German initiative. But so far, that’s not the case.
Also, if the Vatican wanted to express its displeasure with the synodal way, it would have made more sense to ask for the resignation of bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing or synodal way architect Cardinal Reinhard Marx (who has previously sought to step down). Both men are more identified with the initiative internationally than Bode, who has a relatively low profile outside of Germany. (For evidence that Pope Francis is willing to effectively fire bishops, consider the case of Puerto Rico’s Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres.)
Furthermore, why would the Vatican accept Bode’s resignation after the synodal way had ended if it intended to strike at the process? Although he is currently listed as a member of the “synodal committee” that will oversee the implementation of synodal way resolutions, Bode’s successor as Bishop of Osnabrück is likely to take over his seat.
But even assuming that Bode’s resignation was unconnected to the synodal way, it will still have an impact on the movement behind it.
In an interview published Monday, the theology professor Dorothea Sattler, the other co-chair of the synodal way forum on women, said that Bode’s departure undoubtedly marked “a weakening of the reform forces.”
A signal on same-sex blessings?
Just three days after the synodal way’s last assembly ended, Bode announced that he would put into practice the initiative’s call for bishops to permit same-sex blessings officially in their dioceses.
Following preparatory work in his Osnabrück diocese, he said March 14, “I can encourage all couples in our diocese who cannot or do not want to marry in church but still want to place their relationship under a church blessing to contact us.”
His position contrasted sharply with that of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who indicated that he was “waiting for the opinion of the Holy See.”
Woelki probably meant a formal Vatican ruling on the synodal way document “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other.” But an informal Vatican response came days after synodal way participants endorsed the text.
Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Rome that “the Holy See has already expressed itself very clearly with the document of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.” He was referring to the 2021 Vatican declaration that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”
But although it seems clear that Bode openly defied the Vatican by pressing ahead with official blessings, was that the reason for his resignation? The headline writer at the Italian daily La Stampa, among others, seemed to think so.
But if that was the case, why didn’t the pope also demand the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, who underlined after the synodal way vote that same-sex and remarried couples would be “supported and accompanied” in his Diocese of Essen “in their desire and the planning of a blessing ceremony”?
There is no indication that Overbeck is facing Vatican action. In fact, the bishop is currently preparing to be one of Germany’s representatives at October’s synod on synodality in Rome.
Also, if the Vatican intended to remove German prelates who endorsed same-sex blessings, it would have to be prepared for a sweeping overhaul of the local hierarchy given that 38 bishops voted in favor of the synodal way text.
Despite the precedent of Chile, Rome is unlikely to want 38 new episcopal vacancies and a direct confrontation with a country it depends upon financially to a certain extent.
Paying the price for ‘wrong decisions’?
Bode’s resignation was announced on the same day that Pope Francis promulgated a revised version of the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which holds bishops accountable for their handling of abuse cases.
The coincidence was interesting because Bode had faced growing pressure to resign since the publication last September of a damning report on the treatment of cases in the Osnabrück diocese.
The 600-page interim report, prepared by the University of Osnabrück, accused Bode of negligence — a charge he accepted, although he insisted that he would not resign because he wanted to oversee the process of strengthening safeguarding procedures in the diocese.
In December, the Vatican received a canonical complaint against Bode concerning his handling of cases and the bishop indicated that he expected to face a Vos estis investigation.
It’s not clear whether the complaint was a factor in the pope’s acceptance of Bode’s resignation or if the investigation proceeded. But the bishop acknowledged his poor record on abuse cases in his resignation statement, noting that he had “misjudged cases, often acted hesitantly and made some wrong decisions, and failed to live up to my responsibility as a bishop at these points.”
A spokesman for Osnabrück diocese said Monday that Bode had submitted a resignation letter dated Jan. 21 to the pope and the resignation was accepted at the end of February, but only announced last Saturday.
That chain of events fits in with Bode’s explanation that the decision to resign had “matured in me in recent months.” The bishop had previously acknowledged growing opposition in his diocese following the interim report’s publication. “Even priests ask me, why don’t you resign?” he said last December.
And yet, if the pope accepted Bode’s resignation because of his poor decision-making on abuse cases, why did he decline the resignation of Bode’s metropolitan archbishop, Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who made errors in the handling of cases while previously serving in the Archdiocese of Cologne?
Perhaps the difference between the two cases lies in another factor: health. Heße is only 56, so perhaps the Vatican felt he had learned the lesson and it was better to leave him in place for the next two decades. Bode, in contrast, was just three years from the typical retirement age and had undergone back operations.
In his resignation statement, Bode described his health as “increasingly failing,” to the point that he could no longer “carry out my leadership tasks in Osnabrück and in the Church in Germany in the manner required.”
The uses of ambiguity
The lack of official clarity over the reasons for Bode’s departure may suit both Rome and the German Church.
The belief that Bode might have been punished for his role in the synodal way is useful when the Vatican is facing accusations that it has done too little too late to stop Germany’s rupture with the worldwide Church.
Speculation that Bode was removed for running ahead of other bishops over same-sex blessings is also convenient for Rome as it may temporarily reduce pressure for it to intervene on the matter in Germany.
The ambiguity over whether Bode was let go because of his errors in abuse cases permits German Church leaders, such as Bishop Bätzing, to lionize their colleague as a trailblazing reformer without provoking uproar among abuse survivors.
It also allows Bode to continue to exercise behind-the-scenes influence on the German reform program. His synodal way colleague Dorothea Sattler said Monday that she assumed he would “still be active in an advisory capacity” in the years to come.
This strategic ambivalence ensures that there are plenty of winners — and only two losers: truth and transparency.