VATICAN CITY — In a letter sent to German bishops last week, the Vatican has said that plans for a binding Church synod in Germany are “not ecclesiologically valid.” 

Plans for a “binding synodal process” were first announced by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German episcopal conference, earlier this year. 

CNA reported last week that draft statues for the planned “Synodal Assembly” were approved in August by the executive committee of the German bishops’ conference, ahead of a final hearing at a full meeting of German bishops, set to be held Sept. 23-26. CNA also reported that small working groups connected to the synod have already begun discussing a series of controversial Church topics.

In a Sept. 4 letter addressed to Cardinal Marx, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, said that plans for a Synodal Assembly must conform to guidelines issued by Pope Francis in June, especially that a synod in Germany could not act to change universal Church teaching or discipline. 

Cardinal Ouellet also sent Cardinal Marx a four-page legal assessment of the German bishops’ draft statues. 

Both the letter from Cardinal Ouellet and the attached legal assessment were obtained by CNA. 

The assessment, signed by the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, says that the German bishops’ plans violate canonical norms and do, in fact, set out to alter universal norms and doctrines of the Church.

In his legal review of the draft statutes, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, noted that the Germans propose to treat four key themes: “authority, participation and separation of powers,” “sexual morality,” “the form of priestly life” and “women in Church ministries and offices.”  

“It is easy to see that these themes do not only affect the Church in Germany but the universal Church and — with few exceptions — cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter,” Archbishop Iannone wrote.

In his letter to the Church in Germany issued in June, Pope Francis warned the German bishops to respect the universal communion of the Church.

“Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve,” Francis wrote.

The Vatican’s legal assessment raised a series of concerns about the proposed structure and the participants in the German “synodal path.” It concluded that the German bishops are not planning a national synod, but instead a particular Church council — something they cannot conduct without explicit Roman approval.

“It is clear from the articles of the draft of the statutes that the [German] Episcopal Conference has in mind to make a particular council pursuant to Canons 439-446 but without using this term,” the letter said, emphasizing the need for Vatican permission for such a gathering.

“If the German Episcopal Conference has arrived at the conviction that a particular council is necessary, they should follow the procedures provided by the Code [of Canon Law] in order to arrive at a binding deliberation.”

A council, unlike a synod, is a meeting of bishops given the authority to make laws for the Church in a particular country or region, but only under the direct authority of Rome, which defines the scope of its authority. A synod, which the German bishops have called their planned gathering, is instead supposed to be a pastoral and consultative group, without the authority to set policy. Holding a council at the national level is far less common than is holding a synod and requires that the Apostolic See approve its agenda, scope of action and its final resolutions.

The German bishops’ plan for the synod confers to the synod’s membership the ability to make new policies for the Church in Germany. This, the Vatican letter said, is not acceptable.

The Vatican letter also said that the proposed makeup of the Synodal Assembly is “not ecclesiologically valid.” It cited the bishops’ proposed partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay group that has taken public stances against a range of Church teachings, including on women’s ordination and sexual morality.

The Vatican assessment noted with concern that the Central Committee of German Catholics only agreed to be involved in the process if the synod assembly could make binding policies for the German Church. 

“How can a particular Church deliberate in a binding way if the topics dealt with affect the whole Church?” Archbishop Iannone asked.

“The episcopal conference cannot give legal effect to resolutions [on these matters]; this is beyond its competence,” his letter said.

“Synodality in the Church, to which Pope Francis refers often, is not synonymous with democracy or majority decisions,” Archbishop Iannone wrote, noting that even when a synod of bishops meets in Rome “it is up to the pontiff to present the results.”

“The synodal process must take place within a hierarchically structured community,” the letter added, and any resolutions would require the express approval of the Apostolic See.

The legal assessment concluded finally that the German proposals “leave open many questions that deserve attention.”

Senior officials at both the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts confirmed to CNA that both documents were sent to Cardinal Marx last week, with the instruction that their contents should form the basis for further discussions of the synodal process when the German bishops next meet as a full conference.

It is not clear whether the letter and attachment have yet been circulated among the German bishops.

Those instructions would seem to effectively call for the German bishops to scrap their plans entirely.

A senior official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA Sept. 12 that the questions raised by the assessment are “obviously urgent.”

“There is, of course, a sense that the Germans simply do not wish to listen. The Pope himself has written, and there seems to have been no notice of it,” the official said.

A high-ranking official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was not involved in the review of the German proposals, told CNA that there is a widespread impression among Vatican officials that the German bishops, led by Cardinal Marx, are largely indifferent to Vatican interventions.

“Everyone knows what the Germans want to achieve; they have been perfectly noisy about it. There’s a growing sense that Marx can’t wait for a conclave to act like the pope. He has decided he knows what is best for the Church, and he will see it done.”

“What more is there to do but wait and see? The Pope himself has already written to the Germans, and they ignore him. If they can ignore the Holy Father, they will ignore anyone else in the Curia, for sure.”

At an August meeting of the executive conference of the bishops’ conference, the German bishops rejected one synod proposal that was shaped directly by recent instructions to the German Church from Pope Francis. 

At that meeting, the 27 heads of Germany’s dioceses defeated an alternative proposal for a synodal process centered on the “priority of evangelization” called for by Francis, choosing instead to press ahead with the “Synodal Assembly” plan backed by Cardinal Marx.

While mirroring many of the structures of the Cardinal Marx plan, the alternative document proposed “a comprehensive and thoroughgoing spiritual renewal consistent with the universal Church and its faith in the sense of the ‘Priority of Evangelization’ called for by Pope Francis.” 

Instead of seeking to deal with topics beyond the bishops’ canonical authority — like universal Church teaching on sexual morality, clerical discipline and women’s ordination — it would have instead focused on themes like the role of laity in evangelization, youth ministry and catechesis, marriage and family support, vocations, and catechetical instruction for the evangelization. 

“There is no question that they know what the Pope wants of them,” a senior official at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts told CNA. “The question is if the German bishops remain interested in what the Holy Father says.”