Bonn, Germany, Feb 26, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- The secretary of the German bishops’ conference has announced that he will step down from his position ahead of the group’s next general assembly in early March. Fr. Hans Langendörfer, SJ, has held the position since 1996.
Langendörfer made the announcement Feb. 26, through the official media outlet of the Church in Germany. He said that he is stepping down to make way for someone younger.
“I have come to the conclusion that it is now a good time to hand this position over to younger hands,” he said Feb. 25. Langendörfer is 68.
According to Katholisch.de, the Jesuit priest noted during his announcement that it was not necessary for his successor to be a cleric and suggested that layperson could fill the role, which would be a first in the 172 year history of the conference.
The announcement comes two weeks after the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Münich and Freising, said he would not seek a second term leading the conference, and that he wanted to see a “younger generation” assume leadership. Marx is 66.
Under the leadership of Langendörfer and Marx, the German bishops’ conference opened a so-called “binding synodal process” to review a range of Church teachings and disciplines including clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, and the blessing of same-sex unions in churches.
In an interview last month, Langendörfer said that it is “unacceptable” for the Holy See to continue to exercise final authority over universal teaching and discipline. Citing the example of the Church in Germany’ “synodal process,” he called on other regions to follow the German’s example and effectively force through a new federal model on the Church.
Shortly after Marx announced that he would step down, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice-chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said he would not stand for election to replace Marx. Bode, 69, has been outspoken in favor of substantial changes in Church discipline.
In a 2018 interview, Bode predicted that Pope Francis would allow the ordination of married men for service in remote regions of the Amazon following a synod on the region, convened in Rome last year.
Bode said that if and when the Pope allowed married priests to be ordained in the Amazon, German bishops would insist on the same authorization.
“This is obvious,” Bode said at the time, insisting that the “pastoral emergency” in his diocese of Osnabrück and in other German dioceses is “different but also very severe.”
A possible leading candidate to replace Marx is Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, 56, who is also president of Adveniat, the Church in Germany’s aid organization for Latin America.
Essen, like Bode, predicted that last year’s synod on the Amazon would lead to important changes to universal Church discipline. Before the synod met, Overbeck called the Amazonian synod “a point of no return” for the Church and that “nothing will be the same as it was.”
On Feb. 12, Pope Francis published the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia in which he did not allow for any exception to clerical celibacy in the Amazon.
The German “synodal process” is being conducted in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), a group which publicly opposes Church teaching and discipline on the subjects being discussed by the synodal assembly.
Last year, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the whole Church in Germany, warning against a false synodality rooted in making the Church conform to modern secular morals and thought, which he called “a new Pelagianism” which seeks “to tidy up and tune the life of the Church, adapting it to the present logic.”
The result, Francis said, would be a “well organized and even ‘modernized’ ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty.”
Vatican officials subsequently informed the German bishops’ conference that the synodal plans were “not ecclesiologically valid,” and had to be substantially revised. Roman opposition notwithstanding, the synodal process formally began in the first week of Advent, 2019, and the first session was held in January, 2020.
Following the first meeting last month, the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Woelki, expressed his disappointment in the “synodal process.”
“I basically saw all my fears confirmed. We witnessed the implementation of a de facto Protestant church parliament,” Woekli said in an interview Feb. 1.
The cardinal said that attempts to democratize Church teaching and discipline, and subvert the authentic teaching office of bishops in the synodal assembly went against “the hierarchical constitution of the Church, as documented again in Vatican Council II and expressed in Lumen Gentium.” Cardinal Woelki is 63.
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