After Cardinal Marx visits Vatican, Germany’s ‘synodal way’ up for bishops’ vote

Fulda, Germany, Sep 23, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The German bishops are set this week to vote upon statutes for a “binding synodal process,” days after Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, held talks about the plans with Pope Francis and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

On Monday, the German bishops began a three-day plenary session in Fulda, which will conclude Sept. 25. 

Sources close to the conference told CNA that the bishops plan to debate a “substantially unchanged” draft of statues for the creation of a Synodal Assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, despite concerns about the plan expressed in a Sept. 4 letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts.

According to senior sources at the conference, Marx has sought to reassure the bishops that he was able to “clarify” the Germans’ intentions during meetings in Rome last week.

“Cardinal Marx wished to return with an unambiguous sign of support from the pope, preferably in a letter or statement,” one senior Churchman told CNA. “He did not, but has said that the misunderstandings are resolved.”

Speaking last week, Marx called his meetings with the pope and Ouellet “constructive,” but did not elaborate. Cardinal Ouellet has not spoken publicly about the meetings.

Senior officials in the Congregation for Bishops told CNA that Marx had used the meeting to attempt to “minimize” the significance of the synodal plans, and to insist that Vatican criticisms are unfounded.

“Marx told the cardinal [Ouellet] that they would not have a synod, certainly not a [particular] council, according to canon law, but only a forum for discussion called a synod,” one official told CNA after the meeting.

“If this is true, there is nothing for the Congregation to do – a discussion is a discussion, it does not touch the power to teach or govern and there can be no intervention.”

The German bishops have previously defined their synodal plans as a “binding” path, and the statutes for the assembly that received preliminary approval in August indicate that the assembly can pass “binding” resolutions, even while conceding that individual bishops need not observe them.

On Sept. 20, 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.

Senior sources at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA on Monday that Marx’s reassurances in Rome run contrary to the August draft of the synodal statutes, which proposed to form a “deliberative” and “decision-making” body to pass resolutions on the subjects of sexual morality, clerical discipline (including celibacy), and women’s inclusion in Church offices and ministry.

The Pontifical Council for Legislative Text’s September assessment concluded that the proposed synodal assembly’s structure and methodology is “not ecclesiologically valid.” It noted that the assembly is planned to treat matters of universal Church teaching and discipline which “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.”

In June, Pope Francis wrote to the entire Church in Germany about the bishops’ synodal plans, warning them against a “new Pelagianism” and trying to “adapt” the Church “to the spirit of the age.” 

On Saturday, Marianne Schlosser, a theologian appointed by Francis to the International Theological Commission and the committee assigned to study the historical role of female deacons, said she was pulling out the German synodal process.

Scholesser said she was ending her participation in the German synodal forum on the role of women in Church ministries and offices, calling the process “fixated” on the ordination of women to the priesthood.

“We must see what the German’s vote on this week,” a second official at the Congregation told CNA Monday morning. “For the moment, Marx asks that we not to believe our eyes when we read the [draft] statutes.”

While Marx has attempted to assure Vatican officials that the “binding synodal process” first announced earlier this year will not be “binding,” the German bishops’ conference has also assured the Central Committee of German Catholics that resolutions passed during the assembly will become normative in Germany.

Asked about the apparent contradiction between Marx’s assurances to Ouellet, and both the draft synodal statutes and the “guarantee” given to the Central Committee, both officials at the Congregation said they are waiting for a clear indication from the German session this week.

“If you are asking if Cardinal Marx will say one thing in Rome and another in Germany, perhaps,” the senior official told CNA. “[But] we know there will be a text and a vote, and we will see then what the fact is.”

However, both officials told CNA, Marx’s insistence to Ouellet that the Synodal Assembly would have no actual ecclesiastical power could limit the Vatican’s scope to intervene.

“The insistence that the synod is not a synod but an open forum for discussions creates difficulties to intervene,” one official noted. “We must see what the mechanisms are to conclude the discussions.”

Since meeting with the pope last week, Marx has – according to multiple sources in Rome and the German bishops conference – told several German bishops that Francis said he was “unaware” of the Sept. 4 letter from Cardinal Ouellet, in an effort to reassure them that the synod would not meet with opposition from the pope.

A senior official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA that there is “no question” that the pope had been sent the letter and legal assessment sent to Marx.

“All of this was done on behalf of the Holy Father – it is because of his concerns, in his [June] letter, that it was written at all.”

The official told CNA that “It cannot be said what the Holy Father said to Cardinal Marx in private, no one knows but him.”

“Though,” he noted, “if the Holy Father said [to Marx] that he was happy with the German plans to continue, Cardinal Marx would share that statement, I am sure.”

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