The surprising rejection of a long-prepared basic text on the reform of church sexual ethics by parts of the German bishops’ conference has brought the synodal path in the Catholic Church in Germany, which was associated with great hope, to the brink of failure. The chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, Limburg’s Bishop Bätzing, and the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Irme Stetter-Karp, sharply criticized the voting behavior of the blocking bishops on Friday. Despite the blockade, advocates of far-reaching changes were combative.

The question of a possible failure of the synodal path is “in the room,” said Stetter-Karp. From her point of view, the behavior of the bishops in the pending votes on other important texts is now of crucial importance. If the “pattern” were to repeat itself, that there were “secret blockers” in the ranks of the bishops, the ZdK would have to reassess the situation in the future. “We’ll see – if things continue like this, we’ll be there, but not yet,” said Stetter-Karp, with a view to possible failure.

Bätzing spoke on Friday of a “crisis” caused by the voting behavior of some bishops on a “very good text”. There are those among the German bishops who have openly articulated their negative attitude. These are not the problem, he emphasized to journalists. “Those who don’t are the problem.” Based on previous statements and mood pictures, he himself also assumed that the text would be approved.

Bätzing, who belongs to the reformer camp, reminded the German bishops of their “responsibility” and campaigned for a continuation of the synodal path. In view of the deep division in the bishop’s camp that had come to light as a result of the events, he reacted aggressively. “I don’t leave the field to those who don’t want to move,” Bätzing replied to a question about his resignation. When a text “gets such an overwhelming vote from the general assembly and not the two-thirds majority of the bishops, then something falls apart that shouldn’t fall apart,” he continued. In his own diocese, Limburg, he still wants to introduce the text.

Originally launched as a reaction to church abuse scandals, the synodal path strives for fundamental reforms of the Catholic Church, including with a view to the priesthood and the participation of lay people. Representatives of the clergy and Catholic lay organizations work together in the discussion format to develop a new theological understanding that is intended to promote reforms in the church. The Bishops’ Conference and the ZdK are the main sponsors of the process.

The more than 200 delegates are currently meeting in Frankfurt am Main at the fourth of five planned synodal assemblies. At the fourth synodal assembly on Thursday evening, the vote on a text that aimed at liberalizing the church’s sexual morality failed because the bishops did not have a two-thirds majority. It met with 82 percent approval in the general vote – but only 33 bishops voted for the text with 21 votes against and two abstentions.

It was seen as particularly problematic that the text had previously been developed over a long period of time in joint committee work until it was supposedly ready for consensus. Stetter-Karp accused blocking bishops of sometimes not acting openly in advance and then “pressing red buttons in voting”.

The synodal assembly is scheduled to last until Saturday. The vote on another basic text, which deals with the assumption of offices by women within the church, was already planned for Friday afternoon. These texts are extensive theological-pastoral documents that argue for changes in church approaches.

In view of the dramatic decline in membership and a deep crisis of confidence in the institution of the church, the synodal path is seen by proponents as an important pillar of a strategy for inner renewal involving the faithful. But it is controversial within the church. The Vatican, too, recently clearly put the German efforts to make changes in this context in their place. In July, Rome warned of a threat to the unity of the worldwide Church. Pope Francis was also critical.