"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 make-up 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?" 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," 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.
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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 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."