VATICAN CITY (AP) — Germany’s Catholic bishops on Saturday insisted their reform process will not result in a schism and vowed to push it through after tense meetings with Vatican officials who want a moratorium on proposals for same-sex ordination of women Bless unions and reconsider church teaching on sexuality.
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Baetzing, briefed reporters on the week-long series of meetings he and 60 other German bishops have had with Pope Francis and heads of Vatican headquarters. The visit, which takes place regularly every five years, took on a far greater meaning this time in view of the demands for change and reforms among ordinary Catholics in Germany after the German church had reckoned with decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups by clergymen.
Summarizing the German position, Baetzing said the German church would not make any decisions that the Vatican would have to make, and that outsiders stoking fears of a reform process that would lead to separation from Rome did not know what was actually being debated.
“We are Catholic,” said Baetzing at a press conference. “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 reforms after a 2018 report found thousands of abuse crimes by German church leaders were being systematically covered up. It found that structural power problems in the church “encouraged or made it more difficult to prevent the sexual abuse of minors.”
Preparatory meetings of the reform process known as the Synodal Path have attempted to address how power and authority is exercised in the Church. During these meetings, lay representatives and German bishops agreed to calls to allow blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women deacons, although the proposals need further discussion and approval before they can be passed.
Conservative Catholics have criticized the moves, warning that the German reforms, if adopted, 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 core church doctrine.
“But the church in Germany wants and must give answers to the believers’ questions,” he said.
The main lay Catholic group involved in the reforms, the Central Committee of German Catholics, said the meeting made it clear that the German church was right to continue the dialogue in Germany because “there is no solution, taking responsibility for the reform to see proceedings exclusively in Rome.”
The group’s leader, Irme Stetter-Karp, contradicted the joint statement by the Vatican and the German bishops, which called on the faithful to be patient.
There is no longer a “patient people of God,” she said.
A proposal, which emerges after the Vatican unsuccessfully requested a moratorium on the German trial, calls for German lay representatives to be included in roundtable talks with Vatican officials while the trial proceeds, Baetzing said.
The German lay group Wir sind Kirche said on Saturday it was fortunate that the idea of a moratorium, put forward by some Vatican and German bishops, was averted.
“But both the bishops and the Catholics in Germany still have to wait for a clear word of appreciation of the German Synodal Way,” the group said.
One matter that has been discussed but not resolved concerns the fate of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, a deeply divisive figure in Germany who has been heavily criticized for her handling of sex abuse cases.
Francis gave Woelki, 66, a “spiritual sabbatical” last year but did not go through with the cardinal’s offer to resign, which was made in March.
Baetzing said the Woelki case had been raised several times, including by Francis, with the German bishops telling the pope the status quo was “unbearable for both the archbishop and the faithful” and a decision had to be made.
Francis met individually with the bishops on Thursday and was scheduled to attend a summit meeting between the bishops and the heads of the Vatican’s chief offices on Friday. Francis did not show up for the Friday meeting, leaving the Vatican hierarchs to speak.
Baetzing suggested that the Pope’s absence may have been the work of a “clever Jesuit”. Francis had made it clear a day earlier that he would live with a certain “tension” as the German reform process unfolded, even if members of the Vatican bureaucracy did not.
Francis has initiated a global reform discussion that is being conducted parallel to the German one, but lags a few steps behind.
Kristen Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.