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German and Polish Prelates at odds over proposed Roman Catholic reforms  

15 December 2023


Nativity scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree in St Peter’s Square, Rome, on Saturday. The presence of the Franciscan figures marks what is thought to be the 800th anniversary of the first crib scene, created by St Francis. Letters

Nativity scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree in St Peter’s Square, Rome, on Saturday. The presence of the Franciscan figures marks what is thought to be the 800th anniversary of the first crib scene, created by St Francis. Letters

DISPUTES have deepened in the Roman Catholic Church over projected reforms, after the President of the German Bishops’ Conference attacked his Polish counterpart for publicly warning the Pope against German church demands.

“Instead of dialogue, you chose a letter to Pope Francis, where you complain very strongly, helped by imprecise, distorting statements, about our Church’s synodal pathway,” the Bishop of Limbug, the Most Revd Georg Bätzing, told the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan last month.

“By what right, I wonder, does the president of one Bishops’ Conference dare judge the Catholicity of another Church and its episcopate? I consider your letter a massive overstepping of your authority.”

The German bishop was reacting to an open letter from Archbishop Gadecki to Pope Francis, published by Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, in which he urged the Pope not to give in to German lobbying.

He said that the Polish hierarch had been “unsynodal and unfraternal”, and appeared to lack an understanding of democracy, legality, and human rights.

“I strongly reject your approach, your tone and your way of presenting the facts,” Bishop Bätzing said.

“Given the rising global trend towards autocratic, dictatorial forms of government, the achievements of democracy should be a special concern that unites our peoples, who have both suffered under dictatorships.”

The controversy comes in the wake of October’s General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the so-called Synod on Synodality, during which the German RC Church circulated a 150-page manifesto to all participants, outlining reform proposals made during its own synodal-pathway discussions, launched in 2019 (News, 3 November).

In his letter to the Pope, Archbishop Gadecki said that German reformers were pushing for “a moral and legal revolution in the universal Church . . . inspired by Left-liberal ideologies”, and should not be allowed to “use or manipulate” wider church discussions “to authorise German theses which openly contradict Catholic Church teaching”.

He said that the German pathway had demanded the blessing of same-sex unions and a “power structure parallel to the hierarchy”. He was worried that “discernments by a single Episcopal Conference” might be deemed to carry “authentic doctrinal authority”.

“The main themes are change to the Church’s order and teaching on sexual morality, and ordaining women to the diaconate and priesthood. . . The Church should become as similar as possible to the liberal democratic world, which exemplifies humanism,” Archbishop Gadecki said. His Church is widely considered to be Europe’s main standard-bearer for conservative RC teaching.

“There’s a risk the scientific claims being cited are wrong, as happened with another once-popular theory about racism. If doctrinal competence were granted to Bishops’ Conferences or continental assemblies, then such theses could be imposed on other Conferences, despite their obviously non-Catholic character.”

Bishop Bätzing and other German prelates discussed their pathway proposals with Vatican dicastery heads in July and October, and are to continue talks in Rome next year.

In a message last month to a group of German laywomen, however, the Pope expressed concern about moves to steer the German Church “increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path”, and urged German RCs “not to persist in self-absorbed dialogues rehashing the same themes”.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also warned the German bishops, in note at the end of last month, that “parallel initiatives” by national Churches on contentious issues could incur “disciplinary consequences”, including potential excommunication.

In his letter to Archbishop Gadecki, however, Bishop Bätzing said that a “clear and binding teaching” had not yet been announced by Rome on issues such as women priests, which could still be “a subject for investigations”.

“Throughout the Synod gathering, there was a deep sense of love, mercy, and compassion for people feeling hurt or neglected by the Church,” Bishop Bätzing said. “People who feel sidelined or excluded from the Church because of their marriage situation, identity, and sexuality are asking to be heard and accompanied, and to have their dignity protected.”

Pope Francis, who is 87 on 17 December, is expected to remain under intense pressure from pro- and anti-reform groups before a follow-up synodal assembly in October 2024, which will propose practical changes.

In late November, Vatican sources confirmed that the Pope had stripped the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of his foremost conservative critics, of his monthly Vatican salary and right to rent-free accommodation.

Vatican Radio said that the Pope had opened a meeting on Monday of his Council of Cardinals, known as C9, on “the feminine dimension of the Church”.

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