VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The German bishops' plan to establish a binding "Synodal Assembly" is provoking backlash in Rome.
Canon lawyer Ed Condon reports that in a Sept. 4 letter to the German Episcopal Conference, Cdl. Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, warned that the initiative — designed to re-examine Church teaching on fundamental issues of morality and discipline — is "not ecclesiologically valid."
Ouellet's pronouncement is reinforcing concerns that the "Synodal Way of the Catholic Church in Germany," as the assembly is called, could trigger schism within the Church in Germany, leading to a break with Rome.
As envisioned, the 200-member synod would be headed by leading leftist Cdl. Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, and include bishops and laity. According to draft statutes passed last month, the assembly aims to address four key themes: "authority and separation of powers," "sexual morality," "the priestly mode of life" and "women at the service of ecclesiastical offices."
Accompanying Cdl. Ouellet's letter was a legal assessment of the statutes, authored by Abp. Filippo Iannone, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
In his analysis, Iannone warned," 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."
Iannone identified serious problems with the structure of the assembly. Germany's bishops, he noted, are not setting up a national synod; rather, they are constructing a national or "particular" council, unauthorized by Rome.
A synod is simply a consultative body, and lacks authority to set policy. A council, on the other hand, has power to establish laws for the Church in individual countries or regions, when authorized by the pope.
"It is clear from the articles of the draft of the statutes that the Episcopal Conference has in mind to make a Particular Council ... but without using this term," said Iannone. "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."
In addition to the synod's structural flaws, the Vatican identified problems with its make-up — namely, the inclusion of leftist organization the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), whose representatives would occupy 70 of the synod's 200 voting seats.
The ZdK is a leading advocate of women's ordination and actively campaigns for the Church to "update" its teaching on homosexuality. Notably, the dissident group agreed to participate only if the synod could create binding policies for the Church in Germany — a fact not lost on the Vatican.
In his assesment, Iannone noted that the German bishops, in collaboration with the ZdK, are proposing a sweeping revamp of critical moral and disciplinary teachings.
"How can a particular Church deliberate in a binding way if the topics dealt with affect the whole Church?" he asked. "The episcopal conference cannot give legal effect to resolutions [on these teachings], this is beyond its competence."
"Synodality in the Church, to which Pope Francis refers often, is not synonymous with democracy or majority decisions," Iannone warned. "The synodal process must take place within a hierarchically structured community."