The Vatican issued a statement Thursday that will be seen as a shot across the bows of the Catholic Church in Germany.
The unsigned declaration, issued July 21, underlined that the country’s controversial “synodal way” - an initiative bringing together bishops and lay people to vote on hot-button issues - has no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
“Prior to an agreed understanding at the level of the universal Church, it would not be permissible to initiate new official structures or doctrines in the dioceses, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church,” it said.
The intervention is the latest in a series of Vatican moves that started even before the initiative formally began in December 2019.
Here is The Pillar’s timeline, moving back through the key events:
March 9-11, 2023 The synodal way’s fifth, and possibly final, synodal assembly - the synodal way’s supreme decision-making body - is due to take place.
Sept. 8-10, 2022 Synodal way members are expected to meet for the fourth synodal assembly in Frankfurt. They are likely to vote on draft proposals including the creation of a permanent “synodal council.” This “advisory and decision-making body,” consisting of both bishops and lay people, would mark a radical change in the structure of the Catholic Church in Germany.
July 21, 2022 The Vatican issues a statement on the synodal way, underlining that the initiative has no power to introduce “new modes of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
July 17, 2022 Marc Frings, the general secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zdk), describes the synodal way as a “conscious statement against the current Catholic catechism” on homosexuality. He makes the remark in an article on the U.S. website Outreach.
June 14, 2022 In a conversation with Jesuit journal editors, Pope Francis recalls that he told Bishop Bätzing: “In Germany, there is a very good Evangelical Church. We don’t need two.” The pope adds: “The problem arises when the synodal path comes from the intellectual, theological elites, and is much influenced by external pressures. There are some dioceses where the synodal way is being developed with the faithful, with the people, slowly.”
Feb. 5, 2022 The synodal way’s third synodal assembly concludes after votes in favor of draft documents supporting women priests, same-sex blessings, and changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sexual morality.
Oct. 2, 2021 The second synodal assembly ends in Frankfurt after votes on draft texts backing same-sex blessings and a discussion of whether the priesthood is necessary.
Sept. 1, 2021 Pope Francis is asked in an interview if the synodal way keeps him up at night. He recalls his letter to German Catholics, saying it’s important not to “get too tragic.” He adds: “There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke. It is a pastoral desire, but one that perhaps does not take into account some things that I explain in the letter that need to be taken into account.”
June 10, 2021 German Cardinal Walter Kasper says he is “very worried” about the synodal way. “I have not yet given up hope that the prayers of many faithful Catholics will help to steer the synodal way in Germany on Catholic tracks,” comments the former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
May 4, 2021 Cardinal Camillo Ruini, former vicar of the Diocese of Rome, suggests that the synodal way presents a “risk of schism.” He says: “Problems are coming to a head that unfortunately have existed for some time, especially in German-speaking countries, as demonstrated by the so-called German synodal assembly currently underway, which has clearly indicated its objectives: not only the blessing of same-sex couples, but also the priesthood of women, the abolition of the obligation of ecclesiastical celibacy, the intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants.” The former head of the Italian bishops’ conference adds: “I do not deny that there is a risk of schism, but I trust that, with God’s help, it can be overcome.”
June 27, 2020 Bishop Georg Bätzing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s successor as chairman of the German bishops’ conference, has a private audience with Pope Francis. The bishop says afterward that “the pope appreciates this project, which he associates closely with the concept of ‘synodality’ which he coined.”
Dec. 1, 2019 The synodal way is formally launched with a Mass at Munich cathedral.
Sept. 4, 2019 Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, writes to Cardinal Marx, then chairman of the German bishops’ conference, indicating that plans for the resolutions of the “synodal way” to be “binding” on the German Church are “not ecclesiologically valid.”
His letter is accompanied by a four-page legal assessment of the initiative’s draft statutes, signed by Archbishop Filippo Iannone, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. The archbishop notes that the synodal way will focus on four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexual morality.
“It is easy to see that these themes do not only affect the Church in Germany but the universal Church and - with few exceptions - 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,” Archbishop Iannone writes.
June 29, 2019 Pope Francis issues an extensive letter “to the pilgrim people of God in Germany,” in which he reflects on the qualities of authentic reform. He recalls that he told German bishops in 2015 “that one of the first and greatest temptations in the Church was to believe that the solutions to current and future problems would come only from purely structural or bureaucratic reforms.” He later reveals that it took him a month to write the letter, “between praying and thinking,” in his native Spanish.