Francis using progressive German Catholics for his own political ends - Operation "Bomb Defusal"

A new German connection to the Vatican?

In Rome they are talking about Operation "Bomb Defusal": Rarely has a high-level meeting in the Vatican been so successfully shielded as the meeting of the German bishops' delegation with top representatives of the Roman Curia last week. Possibly it marks a turning point.

Without any accompanying music from the media, theological faculties or ecclesiastical interest groups, five German bishops led by their chairman Georg Bätzing and five leading curia representatives spoke with each other for about three hours on 26 July about controversial theological and canonical issues.

Intimate setting

The discussion took place in the comparatively intimate setting of the "Sala Bologna" in the Vatican. A room conducive to an academic-courtly disputation - unlike the lecture hall of the Augustinian University next to the Vatican at the time. During the last ad limina visit of the German bishops to Rome in November 2022, the Curia leaders sat there elevated and frontally. At that time, they spoke ex-cathedra, so to speak, to the 60 or so German bishops gathered, who had taken their seats like students in the lecture hall.

But not only the external conditions were different. The composition was also different - in terms of numbers and personnel. The discussion in the new format "five to five" made it possible to deal with points in a factual and technical way that could not be discussed in a large group at that time. These included liturgical questions such as new blessing or baptismal forms under changed conditions as well as questions of priestly formation.

Implementing reform ideas in harmony with the universal church

According to reports, hot topics such as the ordination of women or the formation of a synodal council were not up for debate. In essence, it was apparently about how some German reform ideas can be implemented in such a way that they are compatible with world church rules.

What was remarkable at the meeting was the change of personnel at the top of two important curia offices. The former head of the Bishops' Office, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was no longer present. At the big meeting in November, he had still caused a hardening with his proposal of a "moratorium" for the Synodal Path as well as with some sharp formulations.

Robert Prevost instead of Marc Ouellet

His successor Robert Prevost from the Augustinian Order, a polyglot US-American with French-Italian roots and a lot of Latin American experience, has, unlike Ouellet, had little to do with German theology and church politics so far. Participants described him as open and unbiased.

Ouellet, on the other hand, probably had his own biographical-theological problem with some of the German bishops such as Bätzing, Ackermann or Genn: he had previously had close theological and spiritual ties with them through the Community of Saint John (Cathcon: Founded by Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar) . He probably perceived their far-reaching openness to the changes in church doctrine demanded by the Synodal Path as an aberration of former spiritual companions. He sometimes reacted with corresponding irritation.

Impartiality towards Germans

The second important doubter from November, Cardinal Luis Ladaria of the Faith Authority, was present again at the meeting in a smaller format, but this time he did not have a leading role. As a prefect on call, his speaking part was minimal. Although his appointed successor, Victor Fernandez from Argentina, was not yet present, it was already noticeable that the change at the head of the Faith Authority could also have an impact on Rome's handling of the German demands for reform.

In this case, too, impartiality towards the Germans could be an advantage. For unlike the Jesuit Ladaria, who studied in Frankfurt among other places, Fernandez has had little contact with German theology so far - except in specialist literature. In interviews he emphasised that he first wanted to get to know the demands of the Synodal Path.

Getting to know the Synodal Path

Opportunities for this could arise again and again in the coming months. In the Vatican, it is not ruled out that a delegation of the German lay umbrella organisation ZdK will come to Rome for talks in September. And at the World Synod in October, Fernandez could get to know the ZdK Vice-President Thomas Söding, one of the theological masterminds of the Synodal Path, and his positions. Söding is taking part as an official theological expert in the eagerly awaited large meeting of bishops, priests, religious and lay people from all continents in the Vatican.

At the next German-Vatican bishops' meeting, which will probably take place only a few weeks or months after the World Synod, Cardinal Fernandez can then play a leading role as the new chief dogmatist. By then, he should not only be more familiar with the reform ideas of the Synodal Path. The course of the World Synod in October will also provide important information on how willing other parts of the Catholic World Church are to change and reform and where the pain thresholds of moderates and conservatives lie.

Position on the "left" fringe has tactical advantages

For the moderate reformers around Fernandez and Francis, the fact that with the Synodal Path in Germany, which is perceived as very radical, there is a clearly visible position on the extreme "left" fringe that is not capable of gaining a majority in the world church, is quite convenient. Thus, in individual cases, they can always point out that one rejects demands that go too far, such as the ordination of women priests or the democratisation of the election of bishops, and instead promote compromise lines with which moderate reformers can live just as well as moderate conservatives. In this way, the demands of the German Synodal Path will always play a role (at least in the back of the mind) at the World Synod in Rome - even if they are not explicitly named.

Letters from conservative Catholics have an effect in the Vatican

But the greater attention paid to German affairs is not only for such tactical reasons. In the Vatican, right up to the top of the Secretariat of State, people are deeply concerned about the developments in Germany. Even more than the wave of people leaving the Church, the quarter of a million who stop paying their contributions every year because of the Church's bad media image, the Vatican is concerned about the many letters from conservative Catholics that reach the Vatican via the Nunciature in Berlin.

They complain that they no longer feel at home in a Church which, in the wake of the Synodal Path, wants to throw some of the traditional doctrines of faith and morals overboard. Unlike the letters of resignation from those who would like to see more reforms, these letters arrive at the Vatican unfiltered and not merely mediated through the media. They are having a considerable effect.

Fear of a split in the Church in Germany

Apparently, there is great concern that there will be divisions not only between the Synodal Path and the Vatican but also within the Church in Germany. Pope Francis had therefore ordered to intensify the dialogue with the German bishops in order to "defuse this bomb". This was recently reported in the Roman daily newspaper "Il Messaggero".


Cathcon: The Rhine must never, ever be allowed again to flow into the Tiber as it did at the Second Vatican Council 


Popular Posts