Bätzing v. Gądecki: What’s behind the clash?

The Pillar [Washington DC]

November 27, 2023

By Luke Coppen

A simmering dispute between the chairman of the German bishops’ conference and his Polish counterpart heated up dramatically Sunday.

Poland’s Rzeczpospolita newspaper published Nov. 26 what it said was the full text of a letter from Bishop Georg Bätzing and Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki.

In the Nov. 21 letter, Bätzing sharply criticized Gądecki for writing a letter to the pope about Germany’s contentious “synodal way” without consulting him, describing it as “very unsynodal and unfraternal behavior.”

Who are these two Church leaders? Why are they at odds? Does it really matter? And what’s likely to happen next? 

The Pillar takes a look.

Who are they?

Bätzing, the 62-year-old Bishop of Limburg, has served as chairman of Germany’s mighty bishops’ conference since March 2020, when he was elected to a six-year term.

Gądecki, the 74-year-old Archbishop of Poznań, is due to finish his second five-year term as president of Poland’s bishops’ conference in spring 2024.

Given that Germany and Poland share a border, Bätzing and Gądecki are ecclesiastical neighbors. Although Bätzing’s election coincided with Europe’s coronavirus shutdown, the two men have met face to face frequently since restrictions were lifted. 

When Bätzing visited Gądecki in Poznań in November 2021, the two men hoped to continue the sensitive but fruitful dialogue between German and Polish bishops launched after the Second World War and advanced by their predecessors.

But two years on, their relationship is evidently rocky. 

Why are they clashing?

When Bätzing succeeded Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx as bishops’ conference chairman, Germany’s synodal way was already underway. 

The initiative bringing together the country’s bishops and select lay people to discuss sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice amid a demoralizing abuse scandal was gaining momentum.

Although Bätzing was less well-known than Marx, he quickly emerged as a forceful and articulate champion of the synodal way, which critics claimed could lead the Catholic Church in Germany into schism.

Among those concerned by the German experiment was Gądecki. On Feb. 22, 2022, he put his worries in writing with an almost 3,500-word letter to Bätzing.

“The Catholic Church in Germany is important on the map of Europe, and I am aware that it will either radiate its faith or its unbelief onto the entire continent,” he wrote. 

“Therefore, I look with unease at the actions of the German ‘synodal path’ so far. Observing its fruits, one can get the impression that the Gospel is not always the basis for reflection.”

Bätzing replied on March 16, 2022, with a 1,100-word letter that expressed irritation that Gądecki’s text was made public at the same time that the German bishop received it.

Bätzing suggested that the Polish archbishop had not truly grappled with the “theological argumentation” of the synodal way’s resolutions. He said he “would be interested in a genuine theological exchange with you about the argumentation of these texts, since they try to pave ways to make evangelization possible.”

On March 28, 2022, Gądecki had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican at which he shared his fears about the German project. A communiqué from the Polish  bishops’ conference said pointedly that Francis was “briefed on the difficulties caused for the universal Church by the issues raised — in the words of the pope — by the so-called German ‘synodal way.’” 

“Francis distances himself from this initiative,” it said.

Bätzing and Gądecki found themselves face to face again at the European synodal continental assembly in Prague in February 2023. Participants spoke of tensions that did not specifically involve the two men, but rather the broader visions of the Church that they embodied. 

The two men then spent weeks in the same hall at the synod on synodality’s first session in Rome in October this year. Soon after the assembly ended, with the publication of a synthesis report, Gądecki gave a forthright interview to the U.S. Catholic World Report. 

He said that on the synod’s opening day, participants had received the synodal way’s documents via email. 

“Almost all of the demands listed there raise serious concerns for me. I believe the Church in Germany is in the greatest crisis since the Reformation,” he said.

Gądecki suggested that the documents’ mailing was an effort “to disseminate the German problems across the Church.”

“The documents draw profusely from Protestant theology and the language of modern politics. From there comes the conviction that the Church should conform to the world by adopting a democratic system and the standards of a liberal bureaucracy,” he argued.

“In Germany, we generally have a Church with an expanded bureaucracy. From this comes the desire to limit the power of the bishops and the intention to build a secular power structure parallel to the hierarchical one, as well as to introduce a secular supervision of the bishops.”

Shortly after the interview was published, an Oct. 9 letter emerged from Gądecki to Pope Francis. In the almost 1,000-word text, the Polish archbishop expressed alarm at the prospect that the German “synodal way” could shape the outcome of the synod on synodality at its final session in October 2024.

“The authors seem so ashamed of the way the German bishops reacted to reports of sexual abuse by clergy that they decide to make a moral and legal revolution in the universal Church,” Gądecki wrote. “However, it seems that this would not be an evangelical revolution, but rather one inspired by left-liberal ideologies.”

The archbishop highlighted synod discussions summarized in a passage in the synthesis report that spoke of the possibility of bishops’ conferences addressing “questions of doctrine that arise locally.” 

Gądecki said that if episcopal conferences were recognized as having doctrinal competence, then the synodal way’s radical theses “would be considered Catholic and — perhaps — would be imposed on other conferences of the continental assembly, despite their clearly non-Catholic character.”

“Awareness of the power that lies in the truth rekindles my hope regarding the ongoing synod, that it will not be manipulated in any way and used to authorize German theses that openly contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church,” he commented.

In his Nov. 21 response to Gądecki’s letter to Francis, Bätzing again criticized the way that the Polish archbishop had expressed his views. 

“We spoke to each other several times during the four weeks of the synod. It is — let me put it bluntly — very unsynodal and unfraternal behavior that you, the archbishop, did not mention a word about this letter to me in these conversations,” the German bishop reportedly said in the letter, which so far is only available in Polish.

In the letter, which the German bishops’ conference does not appear to have commented on, Bätzing wrote: “I ask myself … under what right does the president of the bishops’ conference of a Church dare to judge the catholicity of another Church and its episcopate? Let me therefore make it clear that I consider the archbishop’s letter to be a huge overstepping of his authority.”

Bätzing suggested that, far from breaking with the wider Church, the German initiative was in harmony with the synod on synodality, quoting from the synthesis report to support his contention.

He said that the convergences between the two initiatives did not prove that “the German bishops have infiltrated, indoctrinated, or even corrupted the world episcopate or the synod of bishops.” 

“Such ideas simply belong in the realm of convoluted conspiracy theories,” he said. “The points of contact arise from the fact that very similar issues arise in many places in the universal Church and many local Churches in very comparable ways.”

Why does it matter?

The clash between Bätzing and Gądecki could be dismissed as a local quarrel — a regrettable case of neighbors yelling over the garden fence, but with little wider significance.

But the dispute is exposing the stark disagreements among Catholic leaders over what constitutes true reform at the local, continental, and universal levels of the Church.

Behind the war of words are unresolved questions about the authority of bishops’ conferences, the direction of the global synodal process, and the role of the papacy in a polarized 21st-century Church.

They also touch on unsettled issues about how far the Church can absorb the ethos of modern parliamentary democracies without undermining its hierarchical structure.

Inevitably, the exchanges also address hot-button issues such as women priests and same-sex blessings.

While the written exchanges between the two men do dwell on matters of courtesy and ecclesiastical etiquette, it would be unfair to reduce them to a mere personality clash.

In their back and forth, Bätzing and Gądecki are representatives of competing — and seemingly incompatible — views of the Church shared by Catholics around the world.

What happens next?

Bätzing and Gądecki were due to meet today — just a day after the publication of Bätzing’s fiery letter. Both men are expected to attend the Nov. 27-30 plenary assembly of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) in Malta. 

After this face-to-face encounter, the next significant moment is likely to come in spring 2024, when Gądecki’s second and final term as Polish bishops’ conference president ends. That could be an important moment as it’s possible — though far from certain — that Gądecki’s successor will take a different tack on the German Church.

Then in October 2024, Bätzing and Gądecki may meet again at the second and decisive session of the synod on synodality. Yet that isn’t completely clear at the moment: the Vatican has said that participants in the first session will attend the second. But if Poland’s next bishops’ conference president is not already part of the Polish synod delegation, will Gądecki make way for him?

The debate between Bätzing and Gądecki has a third participant we have barely mentioned: Pope Francis.

Will he decide to engage directly in the disagreement between the two local Church leaders? Or will he prefer to address the issues both men are raising indirectly?

The rekindling of Bätzing and Gądecki’s dispute has coincided with a series of Vatican moves seemingly intended to constrain the German project. They include a letter from Pope Francis to four concerned German Catholics and a message from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin that talks with German bishops in 2024 will not address women priests or Church teaching on homosexual acts.

Were these actions connected to Gądecki’s letter to the pope? It’s impossible to say given the lack of publicly available evidence.

There seems to be only one certainty: That the argument between Bätzing and Gądecki is not over yet.