ROME – As the German bishops meet this week to advance their national reform process, the Vatican has threatened canonical action if they refuse to comply with an order to halt a vote on the statutes of a controversial new committee that had previously been disapproved.

As part of their current Feb. 19-22 general assembly in Augsburg, the roughly 60 members of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) attending were scheduled to address the results of their recently concluded “Synodal Path” reform process and vote on the statutes of a “Synodal Committee” that has the task of establishing a new national “Synodal Council.”

However, after receiving a new letter from the Vatican threatening punitive measures, the German bishops’ have apparently put that vote on hold.

A German-langue edition of the letter – dated Feb. 16 and signed by Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith Argentine Cardinal Victor Fernández, and Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Bishops American Cardinal Robert Prevost – has been published on the DBK website.

According to an Italian translation of the letter published on Italian news site Settimana News, Parolin, Fernández and Prevost said it was necessary to “express some concerns” and “provide some indications” regarding the vote on the statutes of the Synodal Committee.

These indications, they said, “have been brought to the Holy Father and approved by him.”

Noting that the proposed statutes say the commission’s “first task” is to establish the Synodal Council, the Vatican said this kind of ecclesial body is “not foreseen by current canon law and therefore a resolution of the DBK in this sense would not be valid, with the related legal consequences.”

Citing specific articles of Canon Law, the Vatican said there is no basis for the Synodal Council as conceived by the DBK, “nor has a mandate been issued by the Holy See” to establish it.

“On the contrary, [the Holy See] has expressed itself to the contrary,” the letter says.

The idea for the Synodal Council, a governing body composed of both bishops and laypeople that would permanently oversee the church in Germany, was approved during the fourth plenary assembly of Germany’s “Synodal Path” in September 2022, with the purpose of making “fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan importance.”

That assembly also approved of a “Synodal Committee,” to be co-chaired by Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, and layperson, which had the specific task of establishing the Synodal Council so as to be active by 2026.

In January of last year, the heads of several Vatican major departments wrote a letter to the German bishops vetoing the Synodal Council on grounds that it constituted a new form of ecclesial authority not canonically recognized, and which would essentially usurp the authority of the national bishops’ conference.

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In that letter, the Vatican said no bishop was obliged to take part in the Synodal Committee, and they insisted that the German church had no authority to establish a new canonical entity, such as the Synodal Council.

However, during the German bishops’ spring assembly a month later, in March 2023, Bätzing announced that plans would still move forward, and that the Synodal Committee would be formed regardless of the Vatican’s concerns.

Both the Vatican and Pope Francis have repeatedly directly intervened in the German bishops’ synodal process since it was launched in 2019, with the aim of reforming church structures to better respond to the national clerical abuse scandals.

Francis in June 2019 wrote a letter to German Catholics cautioning against placing too much emphasis on “purely structural or bureaucratic reforms.”

In a letter to German theologians and critics of the Synodal Path in November 2023, the pope criticized both the Synodal Council and the Synodal Committee, saying they “cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure” of the church, and that the initiatives risk fracturing church unity.

The Vatican and the German bishops have organized regular meetings since the German bishops’ November 2022 ad limina visit to Rome, during which a moratorium was proposed for the German synodal process, to continue dialogue amid their disagreements, however, the bishops in the meantime have continued to advance the Synodal Council planning process.

When the Synodal Committee held its inaugural meeting in November 2023, participants approved its statutes, which among other things allows the body to pass resolutions with a simple two-thirds majority, unlike the Synodal Path, which required two-thirds support from both bishops and laypeople to pass resolutions.

With just 23 bishop-members on the committee, after four refused to participate, over half of the body’s 70 members are laypeople, meaning resolutions could theoretically be passed without the approval of any of the country’s bishops.

In its Feb. 16 letter, the Vatican noted that the statutes of the Synodal Committee state that they can only enter into force by a joint resolution of the DBK and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – an influential lay body comprised of various Catholic organizations in Germany.

The statutes were approved by the ZdK shortly after the Synodal Committee’s November 2023 meeting.

However, the DBK resolution would be problematic, the Vatican said, because it “cannot act as a legal entity in the secular sphere.”

These and other problems were flagged during the German bishops’ 2022 ad limina visit, the Vatican said, noting that these concerns were reiterated in the letter sent by Vatican officials last January with the pope’s specific mandate “not to continue with the establishment of this council.”

“The approval of the statutes of the Synodal Committee would therefore be in contradiction to the instructions of the Holy See issued on the special commission of the Holy Father, and would once again present him with a fiat accompli,” the letter said.

In this regard, the Vatican noted that during a meeting last October, it was decided that the topic of a “supra-diocesan consultative and decision-making body” such as the Synodal Council would be discussed during the next meeting between the DBK and Vatican officials.

“If the statutes of the Synodal Committee are adopted before this meeting, the question arises as to the meaning of this meeting and, more generally, of the ongoing dialogue process,” the letter said.

The Vatican asked the DBK to take the contents of the letter into consideration and voiced hope that the letter would also be considered during the DBK’s general assembly this week.

A spokesman for the bishops’ conference told German agency KNA confirmed that a meeting between members of the Roman Curia and the DBK is currently on the schedule but did not disclose when that meeting would take place.

The Synodal Committee is currently scheduled to hold its second plenary meeting in June, however, it is unclear if that meeting will in fact be held given the Vatican’s most recent letter.

Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen