The Vicar General of the Essen diocese has denounced a “frightening” Vatican attempt to “stifle discussion” in the German Church’s binding synodal path.

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The German Bishops’ Conference confirmed Friday that its President, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, received a letter September 4 from the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

Along with that letter, Ouellet sent an analysis by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts of proposed statutes for the German synodal path.

In that analysis, Council President Filippo Iannone considered the four key themes of the synodal path – “authority, participation, and separation of powers”, “sexual morality”, “the form of priestly life”, and “women in Church ministries and offices” – in the context of guidelines set out by Pope Francis in June.

Iannone warned:

“It is easy to see that these themes do not only affect the Church in Germany but the universal Church and – with few exceptions – cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter”.


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In response to Ouellet’s letter and Iannone’s analysis, German Bishops’ spokesman Matthias Kopp said Vatican authorities had considered an early and not definitive plan for the synodal path.

“The assessment of the Pontifical Council deals with the draft version of the Statutes as of June 2019 and does not yet take into account the version updated in July and after the meeting of the Permanent Council in August, which no longer contains some passages to which the assessment refers”, Kopp explained.

“Cardinal Marx has already contacted the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops on the matter. He will refer to the letter and the assessment and will hold talks in Rome next week to clear up any misunderstandings”, the spokesman added.

Kopp also said the German bishops have already been provided with a translation of Ouellet’s letter and Iannone’s analysis, and will discuss these in their Autumn Plenary Assembly in Fulda from September 23-26.

In the meantime, a meeting of the Joint Conference – comprising members of the Bishops’ Conference and of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – was due to meet Friday and Saturday in Fulda, Kopp confirmed.

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For the record

In response to the Pontifical Council analysis of the draft statutes, Essen Vicar General Klaus Pfeffer took to Facebook to deplore the attitude of some in the Vatican to the synodal path.

“It is frightening”, Pfeffer said.

“Obviously, it still has not been understood in Rome what a huge crisis the Catholic Church is in not only in Germany, but worldwide”, he lamented.

“Anyone who still believes today in stifling discussion in the Church with powerful warnings or even threats doesn’t solve a single problem – on the contrary, divisions and cracks are greatly compounded, and more and more people will turn away from such a Church”, Pfeffer warned.

“I sincerely wish our German Church will continue on its path of open dialogue – because we are guided and led by the Spirit of God, we need not fear the conflicts and the clashes”, the priest added.

For his part, ZdK President Thomas Sternberg also lamented the Vatican attitude and promised to “stick to our plan” of a synodal path.

“Does anyone really believe — given the Church’s current crisis — that one can suppress open discussion that seeks answers and urgently needed reforms?”, Sternberg asked.

“Does anyone really believe we would not take action on the loss of confidence, anger and insecurity in our communities, and beyond that, on renewal?”

“We listen to Pope Francis, who assured all Catholic believers in Germany of his nearness on the common path and encouraged us ‘to seek an outspoken response to the present situation'”, Sternberg continued.

“We will continue the preparations for the implementation of the Synodal Path in order to speak again with credibility of what and who sustains our lives”, the ZdK President concluded.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.