ROME – Warning that Germany’s contentious “Synodal Path” process risks fracturing the unity of the Catholic Church, the Vatican said Thursday that the undertaking lacks any authority to compel bishops to make changes on doctrine or morality.

“In order to protect the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of episcopal ministry, it seems necessary to specify that the ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany has no power to oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governing and new approaches to doctrine and morals,” the Vatican said in a July 21 statement.

“It would not be lawful,” the Vatican said, “to initiate in dioceses, before an agreement reached at the level of the universal Church, new official structures or doctrines, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

Launched in a bid to revitalize the Catholic Church in Germany and restore trust following the publication of a September 2018 church-commissioned report detailing thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests over a span of six decades, the “Synodal Path” has largely been aimed at giving laypeople a more prominent role in running the church.

Punctuated by a series of large assemblies drawing both laypeople and bishops alike, the process has become increasingly controversial due to the outspoken calls of prominent participants for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.

There have also been votes in favor of eliminating mandatory priestly celibacy and allowing clergy to marry, and to declare same-sex marriage is not sinful. The process has also insisted that laity have a greater say in the election of bishops.

Germany’s 22-million strong Catholic Church has an outsized influence on ecclesial affairs given its wealth, derived largely from funds collected as part of Germany’s church tax system.

Limburg Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, recently acknowledged that there were highly divergent opinions on issues such as blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples or the ordination of women as deacons or priests during a February Synodal Path assembly, which was the third of five such gatherings.

German Catholic news agency KNA reported that after the February assembly, Bätzing said he would submit the proposed reforms to the worldwide Synod of Bishops on Synodality that is unfolding in three stages, and which will culminate with a large gathering of bishops in Rome in 2023.

In a June 2019 letter to Catholics in Germany, Pope Francis cautioned against stoking division, saying that the synodal path is a process that must be guided by the Holy Spirit with patience and not a “search for immediate results that generate quick and immediate consequences.”

He warned against “the temptation of the father of lies and division, the master of separation who, in pushing us to seek an apparent good or a response to a given situation, in fact ends up fragmenting the body of the holy and faithful people of God.”

In Thursday’s statement, the Vatican quoted from a 2019 papal statement, saying, “The universal Church lives in and of the local churches, just as the local churches live and flourish in and from the universal Church, and if they find themselves separated from the entire ecclesial body, they weaken, rot, and die. Hence the need to keep communion with the whole body of the Church always alive and effective.”

“It is hoped,” the Vatican said, that the proposals emerging from German’s “Synodal Path” “will converge on the synodal path that the universal Church is taking, for a mutual enrichment and a testimony of that unity with which the body of the Church manifests its fidelity to Christ the Lord.”

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