“Never infallible teaching authority”

Bishops with folded hands © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

Winfried Aymans, an emeritus expert in canon law from Munich, has warned against false expectations of the "synodal path" adopted by the German Bishops' Conference. Bishops also had a limited teaching authority.

Such an assembly could not make binding decisions, 82-year-old canon lawyer Winfried Aymans told the Catholic weekly newspaper Die Tagespost. No bishop could be released from his official responsibility in this way, either by coercion or by voluntary renunciation. At their spring conference in Lingen, the bishops had decided to take a "binding synodal path" to debate ies such as celibacy, sexual morality and the "necessary reduction of power" among clerics.

Unanimous decision needed

Bishops' conferences also have limited, never infallible doctrinal authority, says canon lawyer. However, statements to that effect could only be published after a unanimous decision has been made. In the case of a two-thirds majority, they would have to be reviewed by the Apostolic See beforehand. Doctrinal developments are possible, "because the faith handed down must always be understood and expressed in the horizon of historical time". The interpretation, however, "can never be in contradiction to the traditional doctrine".

On the introduction of further church courts in Germany, decided by the Bishops' Conference, the theologian said that bishops could only be called to account directly by a court staffed by bishops, apart from the Pope. Aymans speculated that setting up such a court at the level of the bishops' conference "would probably be an overreach".

Own commission with laymen?

For the prosecution of abuse cases under canon law, he pleaded for the establishment of a separate commission at the Bishops' Conference. This body could consist of three to five canonically trained investigating judges, including clerics and lay people. The process would initially end not with a verdict, but a vote.

This would have to be submitted to the commissioned bishop or three bishop colleagues, who would then have to pass judgment after a final review. But such a procedure would have to be approved by the Apostolic See.

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Christina Cherry
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