ROME – As part of an ongoing tug of war with the German bishops over the country’s controversial reform path, the Vatican has asked that several changes be made to a new national ecclesial body which curial officials have said has no foundation in Church law.

In a June 28 statement after a day-long workday with representatives of the German Episcopal Conference (DBK), the Vatican said the discussion lasted the entire day and “was again characterized by a positive, open and constructive atmosphere.”

It followed a similar meeting held March 22, which was part of a broader dialogue that began in 2022 amid a national consultation of German Catholics known as the “Synodal Way,” and after officials in the DBK ignored Vatican warnings to cease and desist with certain projects.

During the March meeting, the Vatican drew a hard line in the sand, demanding the German bishops pledge to respect canon law and to give the Holy See a final say over any proposed reforms.

The Vatican said this promise was the basis of the day’s meeting.

Namely, it said, they discussed “concrete forms of the exercise of synodality in the Church in Germany, in conformity with the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, the provisions of canon law, and the fruits of the synod of the universal Church, to be presented to the Holy See for approval.”

During Friday’s discussion, the bishops gave Vatican officials an update on the most recent meeting of the Synodal Committee, a controversial body tasked with establishing a disputed Synodal Council, pitched as a new governing body for the Church in Germany composed of both laypeople and bishops.

On this point, “the theological foundations and the possibility of the legal realization of a national body were discussed,” the statement said.

Friday’s meeting, it said, “focused on the relationship between the exercise of episcopal ministry and the promotion of the co-responsibility of all faithful, and, in particular, on the aspects of canon law for the establishment of a concrete form of synodality in the Church in Germany.”

“The desire and the commitment to strengthen synodality in the life of the Church, with a view to a more effective evangelization, is shared,” it said.

As part of the ongoing dialogue between the German bishops and the Vatican, according to the statement, a new commission will be established by the Synodal Committee that deals specifically with “questions related to synodality and the structure of a synodal body.”

This commission, the statement said, will work in close collaboration with a similar commission on the Vatican’s side composed of representatives from the competent curial offices, to propose a draft on the topic.

According to the statement, curial officials Friday asked the German bishops for “a change in the name and in several aspects of the previously formulated proposal for a possible national synodal body.”

“As regards the position of this body, there is agreement that on the fact that it is neither above nor at the same level as the national episcopal conference,” the statement said, clarifying that whatever nature this body holds, it would not be able to overrule the bishops’ conference.

On Friday, the future composition of the delegation of the DBK participating in the ongoing dialogue with the Vatican was also discussed.

Representatives from the Roman Curia included Cardinals Victor Manuel Fernandéz, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Christian Unity; Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State; Robert Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops; Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Liturgy; and Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts.

On the German side, participants included Bishops Georg Bätzing of Limburg; Stephan Ackermann of Trier; Bertram Meier of Augsburg; and Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who respectively hold the positions as president of the German bishops’ conference, and presidents of the episcopal commissions for Liturgy, for the Universal Church, and for the Faith.

The secretary general of the DBK, Beate Gilles, and its spokesman, Matthias Kopp, were also present.

Friday’s meeting came after the Vatican earlier this year ordered the German bishops to halt a vote on the statutes of the Synodal Committee, and threatened canonical action if they did not comply.

As part of their Feb. 19-22 general assembly in Augsburg, the roughly 60 members of the DBK who attended were scheduled to review 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, the bishops refrained from holding the vote after receiving a letter from the Vatican threatening punitive measures if they moved forward.

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 a 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.

At the time, the German bishops ignored the Vatican’s warnings, announcing during their March 2023 spring assembly that plans for establishing the Synodal Committee were still moving forward.

Pope Francis and several dicastery heads within the Roman Curia have repeatedly intervened in the German bishops’ synodal process, which was launched with the aim of reforming Church structures to better respond to the national clerical abuse scandals.

The process quickly became a lightning rod over proposals to end priestly celibacy, allow women’s priestly ordination, broadly approve blessings for same-sex couples, and to give women the authority to administer baptisms.

In 2019, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the German bishops warning that their reform process risked fracturing church unity, and he later criticized proposals for both the Synodal Committee and the Synodal Council in a November 2023 letter to German theologians critical of the national reform process, saying these bodies “cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure of the Church.”

Among the primary concerns with the Synodal Council is that it would constitute a new governing Church body not recognized by canon law and would essentially usurp the power of the national bishops’ conference.

Part of the Synodal Committee’s powers enable it to pass resolutions with a simple two-thirds majority. 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.

When the German bishops visited the Vatican for their regular ad limina visit in November 2022, members of the Roman Curia proposed a moratorium on the process, however it was instead agreed that an ongoing dialogue be established with regular meetings.

An initial meeting took place at the Vatican on July 26, 2023, and further discussion of major reform topics took place during the October 2023 first session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, with the second and final session set to take place this year.

During their last meeting in March, Vatican officials drew a hard line in the sand, having the German bishops pledge that any national Church reforms would not breach canon law as is, and that no new measure would be adopted without prior approval from the Holy See.

The next meeting between representatives of the Roman Curia and the German bishops will take place after the conclusion of the second and final Rome-based session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, set to last the entire month of October.

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