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," 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 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.
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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.”