Germany: The Holy See (Finally) Warns the Synodal Path

July 23, 2022

The news came out this Thursday, July 21, 2022: a text published by the Press Office of the Holy See warns the members of the German Synodal Path (Synodaler weg) and – at least on paper – puts an end to the independent process initiated by the Church of Germany in 2019.

On the Vatican website, the text bears the title of “Declaration of the Holy See,” and it is not signed. It is comprised of two paragraphs: the first gives the actual warning, and the second sets out the cause and the consequence to be drawn from it.

The text specifies the legal or legislative capacity of the “Synodal Path”: “In order to safeguard the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry, it seems necessary to clarify that the ‘Synodal Path’ in Germany does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new doctrinal and moral orientations.”

A Reminder on the Synodal Path

This warning was in fact given as early as September 2019, in the commentary on the draft Statutes of the Synodal Path produced by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which accompanied a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for bishops, to Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

The first criticism issued by the Pontifical Council concerned the themes to be discussed in the Synodal Path – power in the Church, sexual morality, women in the ministries and offices of the Church: “It is obvious that these subjects concern not only the Church in Germany, but the universal Church, and that these subjects – with a few exceptions – cannot be the subject of resolutions and decisions of a particular Church.”

The second criticism noted that it “is clear from the articles of the draft Statutes that the Episcopal Conference intends to convene a particular [plenary] council in accordance with Canons 439-446, but without using this term,” this to avoid the procedure to be followed, and in particular the submission of the decrees voted on to the Roman Curia.

The draft Statutes, at the express request of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), include the mention that the votes should create an obligation of application for the bishops, this point conditions the participation of the Committee in the process. This requirement is formally opposed to canon law, when it comes to a plenary council: the decrees voted on must be submitted and validated by the Curia to take effect.

Finally, a third criticism noted that the composition of the Synodal Assembly was contrary to law, since, from the point of view of numbers, the clergy and the laity were equal, which is prohibited by a canon on particular councils.

Cardinal Marx's Response

The then president of the German Episcopal Conference made a scathing response to Cardinal Ouellet, affirming with solid aplomb that the synodal journey was a “sui generis,” i.e., unique, process which must in no case be interpreted “through the prism of the instruments of the canon law,” and above all not as a particular council.

It also justifies the large presence of the ZdK: the particularity of the Church of Germany in which the laity have a strong involvement, and the need to change the “institutional factors of influence” which allowed the abuses.

On the Synodal Path site he even allowed himself to explain: “A Synod [council] is a format clearly defined by Canon Law, in which everything is regulated, from the definition of the themes to the composition of the participants and their competences. A Synod requires the approval of the Holy See, which can often only be given after a more long-term procedure. This slows down the speed needed to process the questions under study.”

“In the current situation, a sui generis synodal approach opens a focused debate on current challenges. It makes it possible to discover an ‘enlarged horizon’ which opens up new spaces in which innovative actions can be undertaken.”

It should be noted that after this letter, Cardinal Marx met with the pope – behind the scenes of the meetings of the council of cardinals, of which he is a member – and that the Synodal Path was no longer disturbed thereafter, until the recent statement.

Finally, the only notable correction made to the Statutes of the Synodal Path concerns the “binding character of the decisions” demanded by the ZdK: this passage has been deleted. The German bishops knew very well that such a requirement was contrary not only to canon law, but to the divine constitution of the Church.

The reason given to explain the first paragraph notes that it “would not be permissible to introduce new official structures or doctrines in dioceses before an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church, which would constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

It is therefore on the principle of “ecclesial communion” and on the danger concerning “the unity of the Church” that the warning is based. Which settles the question only regarding the form, but not the substance: the profound deviations observed in the debates and the texts accumulated by the Synodal Path Assemblies.

There is also a limiting factor here, since most of these deviations are found in a number of the national summaries from the diocesan phase of the Synod on synodality, as can easily be seen for Belgium, France, or Spain.

The text is supported by a quotation from the “Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany,” by Francis, dated June 2019, and sent to the German bishops.

Finally, the consequence is drawn from this criticism: “Therefore, it is desirable that the proposals made by the Particular Churches in Germany may be incorporated into the synodal process on which the universal Church is undertaking, in order to contribute to mutual enrichment and to bear witness to the unity with which the Body of the Church manifests it fidelity to Christ the Lord.”

The declaration therefore demands neither more nor less than the integration of the Synodal Path into the Synod on Synodality, which would result in the cessation of this process, at least in its current form. Indeed, the summaries produced by the various countries must reach the Synod's secretariat before mid-August. That would be a real bringing to heel.

It will however be necessary to count on two elements: what will be the German reaction to this text? It is unlikely that the Synodal Path will capitulate without a fight.

Moreover, the number of people leaving the Church in Germany, which reached a record number in 2021, is largely explained by the disappointment of those who would like to see things move faster: understood as meaning that the Church must reform herself to adopt democratic ways of functioning and to adopt the world’s way of thinking. The 2022 figure is likely to exceed all forecasts.

We must certainly rejoice to see Rome finally taking matters into its own hands. But the lack of strength, in 2019, to demand that the Germans not embark on a path that was revolutionary in essence, risks having to pay very dearly for the Church in Germany, and for the Church in general.