German bishops assure Vatican but vow to proceed with reform


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Germany’s Catholic bishops insisted Saturday that their reform process won’t lead to a schism and vowed…

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Germany’s Catholic bishops insisted Saturday that their reform process won’t lead to a schism and vowed to continue it after tense meetings with Vatican officials who want a moratorium on proposals to ordain women, bless same-sex unions and rethink church teaching on sexuality.

The head of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Baetzing, said the German church would not make decisions that were the Vatican’s to make. He said outsiders who fuel fears of the reform process leading to a separation from Rome were ignorant of what actually was getting debated.

“We are Catholic,” Baetzing said at a news conference after a week of meetings with Vatican officials. “But we want to be Catholic in a different way.”

The church hierarchy in Germany and the country’s influential lay Catholic group launched the process in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandals. A 2018 report found that thousands of crimes were systematically covered up by German church leaders and that structural problems in the way power was exercised “favored sexual abuse of minors or made preventing it more difficult.”

Preliminary assemblies of the reform process, known as the Synodal Path, have sought to address how power and authority are exercised in the church. During these meetings, lay representatives and German bishops have approved calls to allow blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women as deacons, though the proposals must be further debated and ultimately approved for them to be enacted.

Conservative Catholics have criticized the moves and warned the German reforms, if approved, could lead to schism.

Baetzing assured the Vatican that the German church would “not make any decisions that would only be possible in the context of the universal church,” such as changes to the church’s magisterium, or core doctrine.

“However, the church in Germany wants to and must provide answers to the questions being asked by the faithful,” he said.

The bishop said he was returning home with a sense of “relief and worry,” after a week of meetings with Vatican prefects and Pope Francis, as well as the belief that continued talks were necessary.

One proposal to emerge, after the Vatican unsuccessfully sought a moratorium on the German process, calls for involving Germany lay representatives in round-table talks with Vatican officials as the process continues.

The German lay group We Are Church said Saturday that it was fortunate the idea of a moratorium, floated by some Vatican and German bishops, was averted.

“But the bishops as well as the Catholics in Germany still have to wait for a clear word of appreciation of the German Synodal Way,” the group wrote in a statement.

The group defended the German reform process and wrote that it was needed not just for Germany’s Catholics, but globally.

One matter that was discussed, but not resolved concerns the fate of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, a deeply divisive figure in Germany who has faced strong criticism for his handling of sexual abuse cases.

Francis gave Woelki, 66, a “spiritual timeout” last year but has not acted on the cardinal’s offer to resign, which was submitted in March.

Baetzing said the Woelki case was raised several times, including with Francis, with the German bishops telling the pope the status quo was “unbearable for both the archbishop and the faithful” and that a decision must be taken.

Francis met individually with the 62 German bishops on Thursday and was expected to join a summit meeting Friday between the bishops and heads of top Vatican offices, including the secretary of state and the prefects of the Vatican’s bishops and doctrine office. Francis failed to show up at the Friday meeting, leaving it to the Vatican hierarchs to speak.

Baetzing suggested the pope’s absence might have been the work of a “clever Jesuit.” Francis had made clear a day earlier that he was comfortable living with a certain “tension” as the German reform process plays out, even if members of the Vatican bureaucracy were not.

Francis has initiated a global reform discussion that is taking place out alongside the German one but is a few steps behind.


Kristen Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.

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