‘Useless to pretend’: Vatican official dismisses German ‘binding synodal path’

Screen Shot 2019 10 11 at 14136 PM Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa.

A senior legal official in the Vatican has dismissed the idea that a planned "synodal process" in Germany will be "binding," noting that bishops must exercise their authority in unity and obedience to the authority of the pope.

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the idea that a synodal process in any particular country could change universal Church teaching and discipline is "not a possible way of thinking" in the Church.

"It is useless for anyone to pretend that the German synod is binding, because no one has given that authority to the German synod. No one can bind the faithful beyond their authority to bind or pastors beyond their authority to bind," Arrieta said in an Oct. 11 interview.

Arrieta was one of the drafters and signatories to a legal assessment of the draft statutes for a Synodal Assembly currently being advanced by the bishops of Germany.

That assessment, which concluded that the German plans were "not ecclesiologically valid" was sent to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops' conference, on September 4 by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops.

Speaking to Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of the ACI Group, of which CNA is a part, Arrieta explained that bishops' conferences are not autonomous bodies, but subject to the authority of the Congregation for Bishops because of their obligation of obedience to the pope.

"The bishops and their synods, and episcopal conferences, fall under the authority of the Congregation for Bishops," Arrieta said. 

"The connection is direct; they depend upon the pope, but through the Congregation for Bishops. In a vicarious, stable, delegated way, the pope has entrusted them to the direction of the congregation."

In March of this year, Cardinal Marx announced that the Church in Germany would embark on a "binding synodal process" to tackle what he called the "key issues" arising from the clerical abuse crisis: clerical celibacy, the Church's teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.

The synodal proposals call for the creation of an assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a group whose leadership supports the ending of clerical celibacy, the changing of Church teaching on sexual morality to endorse homosexual unions, and the ordination of women to the priesthood.

In May, the committee's leadership informed its members that the group would participate in the synodal process because it had received guarantees that the synod assembly could and would treat issues of universal teaching and discipline and pass "binding" resolutions, something Arrieta said went far beyond the authority of any country's bishops to do.

"The philosophy of legal positivism is not the way of the Church," Arrieta said. "For the Church it is not a possible way of thinking. What truly links the Church, and the faithful, are the sacraments, the word of Christ. No authority is binding that rejects the sacraments; that is not possible, acting that way would not be possible, even if some say that it could be so."

"Pastors depend upon the pope, and only the pope can give the authority by which a synod would be binding," Arrieta added. "Without that, saying 'this is binding,' or 'I accept that this is binding' does not make it so; no one would be bound. It is not useful for anyone to say that it is, or for someone to pretend that it is, or write a norm about it, because the norm itself would not have authority."

In response to Ouellet's September letter and the PCLT assessment, Marx flew to Rome and met with both Pope Francis and Cardinal Ouellet last month. Officials in the Congregation for Bishops told CNA that Marx had used the meetings to attempt to "minimize" the significance of the synodal plans, and to insist that Vatican criticisms are unfounded.

Before Marx arrived in Rome, Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the German bishops' conference told Catholic News Service that the term "binding" was not meant to imply any Church figure would be bound by the synodal conclusions. "Binding means it is a vote," not simply a discussion, Kopp said.

The German bishops' conference subsequently voted to adopt the statutes by a margin of 51-12 with 1 abstention during their plenary session on Sept. 25. At that time, Bishop Rudolph Voderholzer of Regesburg said that there was "a dishonesty at the beginning of the Synodal Process." 

The statutes are now with the Central Committee of German Catholics, the leaders of which will agree on an amended version with Cardinal Marx.

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The synodal process in Germany is due to begin on the first day of Advent.

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