VATICAN CITY — The German bishops’ conference has responded to the Vatican’s intervention in preparations for a binding synodal process to be held in that country beginning in Advent. The conference said Friday that detailed criticisms from the Vatican’s legal department concerned older draft documents and did not take into account changes made to the German plans.
But a review of conference documents indicates that issues flagged by the Vatican remained unaddressed by the German bishops’ draft statutes, provisionally approved Aug. 19 and still unchanged Aug. 30, five days before the Vatican’s intervention.
On Sept. 4, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote to Cardinal Marx as head of the German bishops’ conference, expressing concerns at the German plans to form a “Synodal Assembly” as part of the “binding process” announced by Cardinal Marx earlier this year.
CNA reported that the letter, and an accompanying four-page legal assessment of the German plans by the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts (PCLT), expressed reservations about the German plans, especially the intention to consider and pass binding resolutions on matters of universal Church teaching and discipline.
On Sept. 13, the German bishops’ conference published both Cardinal Ouellet’s letter and the accompanying legal assessment, but rejected the concerns expressed in them, saying the Vatican’s critique was not based on the current version of German plans.
“The opinion of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts addresses the draft version of the statutes as of June 2019 and does not take into account the version updated July and after the Permanent Council meeting in August, which already no longer contains some passages to which the opinion refers,” said a statement from the conference released Friday.
Cardinal Marx will travel to Rome next week to meet with Cardinal Ouellette to “dispel any misunderstandings” about the German plans, the German bishops’ conference said Sept. 13.
Several key “misunderstandings” that could be addressed in that meeting appear to be reflected in the version of the synodal plan approved by the German bishops’ executive committee on Aug. 19.
The Vatican’s legal critique, dated Aug. 1, explained that both proposed content areas and the method proposed for addressing them exceed the German bishops’ authority.
The analysis draws attention to the intention that the Synodal Assembly pass resolutions on four areas concerning universal Church teaching and governance: “authority, participation and separation of powers,” “sexual morality,” “the form of priestly life” and “women in Church ministries and offices.”
All four subject areas remain intact in the August version, passed by the executive committee.
The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ assessment also responded to the proposal that the synod would have deliberative power, saying that the German plan seemed to convene a particular council “but without using this term.”
“How can a particular Church deliberate in a binding way if the topics dealt with affect the whole Church?” asked Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
“The episcopal conference cannot give legal effect to resolutions; this is beyond its competence,” his analysis said.
Despite the German bishops’ insistence that the Vatican had critiqued an earlier version of the proposed statutes, the version passed by the executive committee in August provides, in Article 3, “The Synodal Assembly is the superior body and has deliberative power. Members of the Synodal Assembly have an equal right to vote in decision-making matters.”
Also retained in the August draft were provisions for the coequal representation in the assembly for the German bishops’ conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).
Archbishop Iannone’s analysis said this particular arrangement would not be acceptable.
“There is an impression that the Episcopal Conference and ZdK are equal to each other: They send an equal number of participants, belong with equal rights to the presidency [of the assembly], have a deliberative vote, and so on.”
“This parity between bishops and laity is not ecclesiologically valid,” Archbishop Iannone concluded.
Another key point of concern in the Vatican’s assessment is the lack of Vatican involvement in ratifying resolutions presented.
“Article 12 determines, with respect to the publication of decisions, that those which concern issues that are reserved to the universal Church are to be transmitted to the Apostolic See. As has already been said, the aforementioned topics exceed the competence of a particular Church,” Archbishop Iannone wrote, before drawing particular attention to the intent to “transmit” the decisions to Rome.
“One asks: What does it mean, ‘transmit’? Is it only a matter of making the deliberations known, or is it a request for the recognitio [formal approval] as foreseen for the decrees of a particular council? The draft of the statutes leaves many open questions.”
In the revised draft, approved by the executive committee of the German bishops on Aug. 19, Article 11, 2, states: “Resolutions that concern issues that fall under the authority of the universal Church will additionally be transmitted to the Apostolic See.”
The Friday statement from the German bishops’ conference said that PLCT concerns are largely moot after revisions made to the synodal statutes in “July and after the Permanent Council meeting in August.” But internal documents of the German bishops’ conference, obtained by CNA, say the most recent version of the statutes was “drafted Aug. 1, 2019,” with “no changes through Aug. 30, 2019.”
It is not known whether relevant changes were made between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, when Cardinal Ouellet sent his letter to Cardinal Marx.