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What does the Vatican's 'synodal way' statement aim to achieve?

The Vatican on Thursday issued a brief statement which warned that the German “synodal way” is an exercise devoid of authority — that the multi-year process of consultation, deliberation, and drafting of documents and statements on various elements of the Christian life can’t actually change anything at all.

The booklet of the first synodal assembly in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on Jan. 31, 2020. © Synodaler Weg/Malzkorn.

Attentive readers of The Pillar already knew that the process was consultative, that the votes of the entire assembly on documents calling for even disciplinary changes are consultative, and that only some definitive deliberation of the country’s bishops might have the power to change canon law, under very limited circumstances.

And astute readers of The Pillar know that on doctrine, things are even more straightforward: that doctrinal development, much less reversal, is not determined by a body of lay and episcopal Germans.

But whatever readers of The Pillar know, the Holy See apparently felt it necessary to clarify again that the German synodal process is neither a gathering of policy-makers nor an ecumenical council, and that its deliberations have “no power to oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governing and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

The statement reminded Germans that if particular churches “find themselves separated from the entire ecclesial body, they weaken, rot, and die.”

The text seems meant to be a twofold call, for leaders of the “synodal way,” and for diocesan bishops in Germany.

It seemed to urge “synodal way” leaders to reframe their process, so that it would be integrated into the global synod on synodality — not ending with concrete proposal of doctrinal or disciplinary change, but instead collecting a broad sense of how German Catholics perceive the life and mission of the Church.

To diocesan bishops, the Vatican’s statement emphasized that it “would not be lawful to initiate new official structures in dioceses before agreement at the level of the universal Church.”

German bishops, in short, should not approve in their dioceses the recommendations of the synod on things like the liturgical blessings of same-sex unions or the creation of permanent “synodal councils” exercising governance in place of the bishop.

But will bishops or the “synodal way” leaders take heed? Will the warning make any kind of difference? There’s good reason to be skeptical.

The Holy See’s warning came just days after Marc Frings, leader of the powerful lay organization at the heart of the German process, wrote that the process is intended as “a conscious statement against the current Catholic catechism, which has been critical and disparaging of homosexuality since the mid-1970s and still reproaches homosexual activity as sin.”

The goal, he said, is to urge the pope to “reassess church doctrine on homosexuality.”

If that goal is a central aim of the “synodal path,” there is very little reason to think that an unsigned statement from the Holy See will be a deterrent, any more than were the already issued letters and statements from Pope Francis and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

And there are German bishops who already approved, tacitly at first, liturgical innovations that the Holy See has said would undermine Catholic doctrine. A reminder that such things are not lawful is not likely to carry much weight, except as a kind of backstop for bishops resisting clerical pressure to take up synodal way proposals in their own local churches.

Given its limited prospects to effect much change, it’s not clear what purpose the Vatican’s statement is intended to have. Few canonists would regard it explicit enough to constitute a formal warning against schism. While it may have been intended as a rebuke, or a clarification to prevent scandal, it offered a very light touch for either of those purposes.

But whatever the intended purpose, the statement is already getting a very unusual reading in some German circles.

Fr. Wolfgang Rothe, a controversial German theologian and canonist, tweeted Thursday that when the statement says “no one can oblige” Catholics to adopt new structures or doctrinal approaches, “this means that such things are legitimate wherever they are accepted VOLUNTARILY.”

“This opens up the possibility of gaining experience at the level of a particular church, which can then flow into the synodal process of the whole Church,” Rothe wrote.

That take seems at the moment a fringe argument. But it indicates that German supporters of the synodal way do not seem especially chastened by the Holy See’s July 21 statement.

Of course, the German process does not represent entirely the synods underway in most other parts of the Church — even in places with similar ideas, the German “synodal way” is uniquely well-organized, with uniquely clear objectives, and a plan to present specific petitions to the Holy See at its conclusion.

But Rome has nevertheless affirmed that the process represents a real and serious threat to the unity of the Church - and the pope, who is the “visible source and foundation” of Church unity seems to realize he needs to act. But if he expects to see anything change ahead of the next plenary session in Frankfurt, he will probably need to speak more deliberately than Rome did this week.

If Thursday’s statement was meant as a kind-of warm up, it has set the stage for what Francis will say next. But even if the statement was meant to be the last word, it will certainly not be the end of the story.

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