Two of Germany’s top canon lawyers have explained that the German Synodal Path must now end following a letter from Pope Francis to German bishops expressly stopping them from establishing a “permanent synodal council”.
Running to four pages, the letter states that German bishops do not have the authority to establish a permament synodal council composed of lay people and bishops to oversee the local Church.
It has been interpreted as a major intervention by the Vatican to bring an end to Germany’s controversial talks which many fear will tear the Church apart.
The letter, which was approved by Pope Francis in forma specifica, was dated 15 January and published by the German bishops’ conference on Monday evening 23 January.
It was addressed to the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, and signed by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, DDF Prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Prefect for the Dicastery for Bishops Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
The letter informed Bishop Georg Bätzing “that neither the Synodal Way, nor any body established by it, nor any bishops’ conference has the competence to establish the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan, or parish level”.
Top German canon lawyers Thomas Schüller and Norbert Lüdecke explained what the letter meant in a series of posts on social media.
The “stop sign” from Rome was “final”, Schüller said on social media, posting that the letter had been accepted by the Pope in forma specifica. The letter was therefore a “papal decision” and thus “non-appealable”.
Lüdecke explained that the Pope had taken the matter into his own hands and that it was no longer a matter for Curia.
“One can still always appeal to the Pope about curial decisions, but one can do nothing against a decision by the Pope himself.”
In his public statement on Monday, Bishop Bätzing was defiant saying that the latest “document from Rome will have the consequence for us in Germany that we will think much more intensively about the forms and possibilities of synodal consultation and decision-making in order to develop a culture of synodality”.
“While the Holy See is convinced that the establishment of a Synodal Council would weaken the episcopal office, in my experience synodal consultations virtually strengthen the office of bishop,” Bätzing said.
The letter was sent in response to a letter sent to the Vatican by five German bishops, asking Rome whether bishops were obliged to take part in a synodal commission to discuss the erection of a synodal council, but also whether they might take part should they wish to.
The five bishops were Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstädt.
The three Vatican cardinals underlined in their letter that they remained open to dialogue. In response, Bishop Bätzing said that the German bishops would “promptly” take up the “invitation to talk”.
The synodal way’s fifth and final plenary assembly of the German synodal path is scheduled for March 9-11 in Frankfurt.