The letter, which was made public on Friday but dated October 23, was a response to the German Synodal Way, a national-level assembly of Catholic leaders. This assembly was convened as part of Pope Francis's global Synod on Synodality.
The Vatican's letter, penned by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and addressed to Secretary General Beate Gilles of the German Bishops Conference, warned against radical propositions such as the approval of homosexual relationships and the ordination of women.
The German Bishops' Conference has repeatedly attempted to use its voice in the ongoing Synod on Synodality to rewrite church teachings on a variety of social issues, a move that threatens to undermine the historic authority of the Catholic Church.
The letter stated, "[I]t must be made clear from the outset that these issues are of varying relevance and cannot all be placed on the same level." It further clarified that some issues have aspects that can be discussed, while others, such as the ordination of women and the approval of homosexual relationships, have no room for a different assessment.
Cardinal Parolin cited a 1994 ruling by Pope St. John Paul II, which stated, "So that all doubt may be removed concerning this important matter, which concerns the divine constitution of the Church itself, I declare, by virtue of my office of strengthening the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), that the Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood, and that all the faithful of the Church must definitively abide by this decision."
The letter also referenced Pope Francis's 2013 affirmation of John Paul II's ruling, "With regard to the ordination of women to the priesthood, the Church has spoken, and she says: No — St. John Paul II said this, but in a definitive way. This door is closed." The Vatican further warned that any attempt to ordain a woman to the priesthood would be "punished with a major excommunication."
The Vatican's letter was equally dismissive of attempts to legitimize homosexual relationships. It stated, "Another issue on which a local Church has no possibility of taking a different view concerns homosexual acts. For even if one recognizes that from a subjective point of view there may be various factors that call us not to judge people, this in no way changes the evaluation of the objective morality of these acts."
This is not the first time that Pope Francis and the German Catholic hierarchy have clashed. Last year, the Holy See issued a letter reminding the prelates that they do not have the authority to counter established doctrine. The statement from the Holy See said, "In order to protect the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry, it would appear necessary to clarify that the ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the power to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals."
Just before the pope's letter, over 100 bishops from around the world issued an open letter to the German bishops, urging them to cease the synod and refrain from making illicit alterations. This ongoing dispute underscores the tension within the Catholic Church as it grapples with evolving societal norms and the preservation of its traditional doctrines.