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The Vatican has told German bishops that women priests and Church teaching on homosexual acts are not up for discussion in talks scheduled for next year.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

Rome set out its red lines in an Oct. 23 note to Beate Gilles, the general secretary of the German bishops’ conference. A conference spokesman confirmed that the bishops had received the message — reportedly sent by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin — during a meeting of their permanent council at the start of this week. 

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The three-page Vatican document, published Nov. 24 by the weekly Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, addressed discussions between German bishops and curial officials that are expected to take place in January, April, and June 2024.

The talks — which will focus on resolutions issued by Germany’s contentious “synodal way” — are due to involve the Vatican’s dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Promotion of Christian Unity, Bishops, Divine Worship, and Legislative Texts.

The note’s publication follows the release of a Nov. 10 letter in which Pope Francis said he shared concerns that elements in the German Church are taking steps “to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

The pope was referring to the decisions of the synodal way, an initiative that brought together the country’s bishops and select lay people at five “synodal assemblies” between 2020 and 2023. 

Participants endorsed texts calling for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, and a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.

The note from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State said that not all of the issues raised by the German initiative could “be placed on the same level.” 

“Some of them have aspects that cannot be put up for discussion, but also aspects that can be subjected to joint in-depth discussion,” it explained, according to an English translation published by the website Rorate Caeli. 

The note said that two topics where “there is no possibility of arriving at a different assessment” were the teachings that priestly ordination is reserved to men and the Church’s negative judgment on homosexual acts. 

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The document provided an extensive explanation of the Church’s teaching on priestly ordination, beginning with Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

The note also cited statements by Pope Francis reiterating the teaching and 2021 norms on delicts reserved to the Vatican’s doctrine office, which set out punishments for “attempts to confer sacred ordination on a woman.”

The document said that “although today this issue must be considered closed throughout the Church,” Pope Francis had encouraged Church leaders “to find other ways to favor greater participation of women” in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

In a July response to questions from questions from five cardinals, Pope Francis said that when John Paul II taught that Catholics must affirm “definitively” the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, he was not offering “a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all.”

“No one can publicly contradict it, and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion,” he said.

In September 2022, synodal way participants — including bishops — passed a resolution that said: “The doctrine of Ordinatio sacerdotalis is not accepted and understood by the people of God in large parts. Therefore, the question must be addressed to the highest authority in the Church (Pope and Council) whether the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis should be reviewed.”

The Vatican note described homosexual acts as “another issue on which a local Church has no possibility of taking a different view.”

“For even if one recognizes that from a subjective point of view there may be various factors that call us not to judge people, this in no way changes the evaluation of the objective morality of these acts,” the note said.

It cited a 2001 notification by the Vatican doctrine office, which said that in Catholic doctrine, “there is a precise and well-founded evaluation of the objective morality of sexual relations between persons of the same sex” and “the degree of subjective moral culpability in individual cases is not the issue here.”

Synodal way participants endorsed a resolution in September 2022 calling on the pope to engage in “a re-evaluation of homosexuality in the Magisterium.” It said that sexual acts between people of the same sex should not be considered “a sin that separates a person from God” or “be judged as bad in itself.”

The resolution also called for the revision of passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church addressing homosexuality, including paragraph 2357, which says that “under no circumstances” can homosexual acts be approved.

This is not the first time that the Vatican has stressed the Church’s teaching on women priests in its interactions with the German bishops. 

The topic was raised at a Nov. 18, 2022, meeting between the bishops and three senior Vatican cardinals during the bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome.

Quoting from Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Vatican’s then doctrinal prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria said: “The decisive point in this regard is not that women in the Catholic Church cannot access priestly ordination; the point is that one must accept the truth that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.’” 

The call for a re-evaluation of Church teaching on homosexuality was also mentioned at the meeting, by the then bishops’ dicastery prefect Cardinal Marc Ouellet. He included it in a list of items that he described as “the agenda of a limited group of theologians from a few decades ago” that had “suddenly became the majority proposal of the German episcopate.”

During the ad limina visit, Vatican officials and German bishops agreed to continue their dialogue over the synodal way’s resolutions.

In January this year, Ladaria, Ouellet, and Parolin informed the German bishops that they had no authority to enact a resolution calling for a permanent “synodal council” of lay people and bishops with governing powers over the Church in Germany.

Representatives of the German bishops met with the heads of Vatican dicasteries in July, shortly after the synodal way formally ended.

In October, German delegates at the synod on synodality met with curial officials, along with bishops’ conference general secretary Beate Gilles.

A committee of lay people and bishops designed to implement the synodal way’s decisions held its inaugural meeting Nov. 10-11. The “synodal committee” will pave the way for the creation of the synodal council in 2026, despite the Vatican’s veto.

Archbishop Nikola Eterović, the apostolic nuncio to Germany, had a private audience Pope Francis Nov. 13. It is not known what they discussed.

Thomas Söding, the vice-president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), which co-sponsored the synodal way with Germany’s bishops, questioned the designation of issues as non-negotiable.

“It’s not about negotiating. It’s about the question of whether you face up to the problems that exist in the Catholic Church,” he said Nov. 24.

He suggested that women priests should be discussed, “and we will then see the result.”

Regarding homosexuality, he noted that the synthesis report endorsed by the synod on synodality’s delegates in October said that sometimes the “anthropological categories” developed within the Church “are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study.”

The Vatican’s note also referred to the synod on synodality, which will continue in Rome in October 2024.

“In view of the course of the German synodal journey so far, it must first be borne in mind that a universal synodal journey is currently taking place, convened by the Holy Father,” it said. 

“It is therefore necessary to respect this path of the universal Church and to avoid the impression that parallel initiatives are underway that are indifferent to the endeavor to ‘journey together.’”

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