German synod plans to be vetted by controversial lay group, not Vatican

CNA 5c8187cbbcb10 152822 1 Cardinal Reinhard Marx at the German Bishops' Press Conference at the Pontifical Teutonic College on October 5, 2015. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA

The plan for a "binding synodal process" recently approved by the German bishops will be sent to a controversial lay group for amendment and approval, CNA has learned.

On Sept. 25, the German bishops' conference concluded a three-day plenary session at which bishops debated and voted to adopt statutes for the creation of a Synodal Assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

According to senior sources in the German bishops' conference, those statutes, the text of which has not yet been released, will now be passed to the ZdK for review and approval. The group's consideration of the plans includes the opportunity for the committee's membership to amend the text before voting to adopt the statutes.

Earlier this year, ZdK leaders assured their members that the groups' participation in the synodal process was predicated on a guarantee from the German bishops that its resolutions would be "binding."

The role of the ZdK as co-equal participants with the German bishops was identified as a point of special concern in a Vatican assessment of the German synodal plans. A review of a draft of the synodal statutes was produced by the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts in August and sent to the German bishops by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

The PCLT concluded that the German plans would essentially form a particular council – a canonical body which can, though only with explicit Roman approval, legislate and teach authoritatively – instead of a synod, which is a purely consultative body. The commission also concluded that the German synodal plans created a "parliamentary" forum for treating universal Church teaching which was "ecclesiologically invalid" and sought to address topics which "cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father."

After meeting with Pope Francis and Cardinal Ouellet last week, Cardinal Reinhard Marx insisted that the German "binding synodal process" could not be properly classified as either a council or a synod, but should be understood as something unique. Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German bishops' conference, later insisted that while the synodal process is said to be "binding," this is not meant to imply any Church figure would be bound by the synodal conclusions. "Binding means it is a vote," not simply a discussion, said Kopp.

After approving their own version of the statues, the ZdK president and vice president will meet with the head of the German bishops' conference, Cardinal Marx, and Bishop Franz-Joseph Bode, vice chair of the conference. This group of four will consider and reconcile any changes between the statutes for the Synodal Assembly as approved by the two groups, and agree upon a final version before the Assembly is due to convene on at the beginning of Advent.

Senior Churchmen in Germany also confirmed to CNA that, regardless of any changes proposed by the Central Committee and agreed by Marx and Bode, there is no intention to seek Vatican approval for the final version.

A senior source in the German bishops' conference confirmed to CNA that the ZdK is expected to make changes "only on a very minor scale," but confirmed that it will be up to Cardinal Marx to determine whether the rest of the German bishops will be involved in approving the final version agreed upon with the ZdK leadership.

Although passed by the bishops by a margin of 51-12 in Wednesday's vote, the German synodal plans have attracted open expressions of concern that have become more frequent in recent days. Both Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolph Voderholzer of Regensburg issued statements explaining that they had voted against the statutes.

Voderholzer said there is a "a dishonesty at the beginning of the Synodal Process" and "a lack of a theological hermeneutics and an affirmation of the principles of the Catholic foundation of faith recognized by all those involved."

The German bishops have already announced that the synodal process will consider proposals from four working groups on the issues of power sharing in the Church, the role of women in offices and ministry, sexual morality, and clerical discipline.

ZdK leaders have taken consistent positions in opposition to settled universal Church teaching and discipline including calling for the ordination of women, the blessing of same-sex unions in churches, the abdication of Church teaching on homosexuality, and the ending of clerical celibacy.

The working groups, constituted in partnership with the ZdK have already begun their deliberations.

On Saturday, Marianne Schlosser, a theologian appointed by Pope Francis to the International Theological Commission and the committee assigned to study the historical role of female deacons, said she was ending her participation in the synodal forum on the role of women in Church ministries and offices, calling the process "fixated" on the ordination of women to the priesthood.

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