The Vatican released on Thursday a far-reaching critique of the “synodal way” delivered by senior officials to German bishops.
L’Osservatore Romano published on Nov. 24 the theological reports prepared by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, and Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The cardinals presented their reports to Germany’s bishops on Nov. 18, the last day of their ad limina visit to Rome, at an “interdicasterial meeting” in the auditorium of the Augustinianum Patristic Institute, near St. Peter’s Square.
The synodal way is a controversial multi-year initiative bringing together Germany’s bishops and lay people to discuss power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality.
Participants have endorsed texts calling for women’s ordination, changes to the Catechism on sexual morality, and the creation of a “permanent synodal council” overseeing the German Church, prompting criticism from bishops outside Germany.
The cardinals’ texts, originally in Italian, were also published in German by Vatican News.
In his approximately 1,500-word intervention, Cardinal Ouellet began by praising the German bishops for the seriousness of their response to an abuse crisis that has shaken the country’s Catholics and led to a mass exodus of Church members.
But he said that the synodal way’s proposals raised “serious difficulties from an anthropological, pastoral, and ecclesiological point of view,” referring to criticisms that they could lead to schism.
The Canadian cardinal said he understood that German bishops were not seeking a break with the universal Church, but were making “concessions” under “very strong cultural and media pressure.”
“It is striking, however, that the agenda of a limited group of theologians from a few decades ago has suddenly become the majority proposal of the German episcopate: abolition of compulsory celibacy, ordination of viri probati, access of women to the ordained ministry, moral re-evaluation of homosexuality, structural and functional limitation of hierarchical power, reflections on sexuality inspired by gender theory, major proposed changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc,” he said.
“‘What happened?’ and ‘Where have we ended up?’ many believers and observers ask in astonishment. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the extremely serious matter of the abuse cases has been exploited to push through other ideas not directly related to it.”
He added that the synodal way appeared to seek the “transformation of the Church” and “not only pastoral innovations in the moral or dogmatic field,” arguing that this “hurts the communion of the Church because it sows doubt and confusion among the people of God.”
The cardinal accused synodal way organizers of downplaying Pope Francis’ 2019 letter to German Catholics, in which he reflected on the principles of genuine reform.
“After this initial distancing from the papal magisterium at the methodological level, increasing tensions with the official magisterium at the substantive level emerged as the work progressed over time, leading to proposals that openly contradict the teaching affirmed by all the popes since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council,” Ouellet said, highlighting the synodal way’s call for women’s ordination.
Ouellet appealed for the initiative to be suspended and followed by “a fundamental review at a later date,” in light of the outcome of the global Synodal Process.
“It is obvious that the method of the global Synod is different from the one used in Germany: it is certainly less parliamentary, more focused on general participation and reaching a consensus based on a deep spiritual listening to the People of God,” he said.
He added: “The fundamental motive for this moratorium is concern for the unity of the Church, which is based on the unity of the bishops in communion and obedience to Peter.”
“The endorsement of this controversial proposal by an episcopate in difficulty would sow even more doubt and confusion among the People of God.”
In his roughly 2,000-word address — entitled “Part of a larger body,” in reference to the pope’s letter to German Catholics — Cardinal Ladaria identified five main concerns about the synodal way.
His first was that the initiative’s documents did not form a coherent whole and needed to be summarized in a final document.
Second, he said, the texts seemed to present the Church “from the outset as a structurally abusive organization, which must be brought under the control of supervisors as soon as possible.”
“In this respect, the greatest danger of many operative proposals of the synodal way’s texts is that one of the most important achievements of the Second Vatican Council is lost, namely the clear teaching of the mission of the bishops and thus of the local Church,” he commented.
Third, Cardinal Ladaria said that the texts suggested that “everything must be changed” concerning Church teaching on sexuality, especially as expressed in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Fourth, he argued, the texts did not do justice to the Church’s teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men, suggesting reductively that “the fundamental dignity of women is not respected in the Catholic Church because they do not have access to priestly ordination.”
Fifth, the Spanish cardinal said that synodal way texts overlooked a precept in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum that “in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them ‘the authority to teach in their own place.’” The cardinal said it was “not possible to equate this delicate and decisive task in the life of the Catholic Church with other offices in the Church, such as those of theologians and experts in other disciplines.”
The cardinals’ reports were first mentioned in a joint communiqué issued by the Vatican and the German bishops’ conference on Nov. 18.
The statement said that the Vatican officials “spoke frankly and clearly about the concerns and reservations regarding the methodology, content, and proposals of the synodal way, proposing, for the benefit of the unity of the Church and its evangelizing mission, that the requests that have emerged so far be included in the Synod of the universal Church.”
L’Osservatore Romano also published on Thursday an introductory address at the interdicasterial meeting by German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing.
The text was published in English by the German bishops’ conference on Nov. 19.
In his intervention, Bishop Bätzing underlined that the bishops decided to launch the synodal way in response to the abuse crisis.
He said: “The Synodal Path of the Church in Germany neither seeks a schism nor leads to a national church. Whoever speaks of schism or national church knows neither the German Catholics nor the German bishops. I am saddened by the power this word has acquired, with which one tries to deny us catholicity and the will to stay united with the universal Church.”
Germany’s bishops met with Pope Francis on Nov. 17 for an around two-hour gathering behind closed doors. The pope had been expected to attend the interdicasterial meeting, but was not present.