After a warning from the Vatican Thursday to German bishops against stoking division in their “Synodal Path” consultation process, pioneers of the initiative have hit back, saying they were “astonished” by the rebuke and hope to discuss contentious matters in a more formal setting.

In a statement Thursday, the Vatican said Germany’s synodal path is a threat to church unity at a universal level and stressed that the undertaking lacks the authority to compel bishops to make changes on doctrine or morality.

“In order to protect the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of episcopal ministry, it seems necessary to specify that the ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany has no power to oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governing and new approaches to doctrine and morals,” the Vatican said in a July 21 statement.

“It would not be lawful,” the Vatican said, “to initiate in dioceses, before an agreement reached at the level of the universal Church, new official structures or doctrines, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

In a response issued later on Thursday, the leadership of the synodal path – laywoman Irme Stetter-Karp, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, President of the German Bishops’ Conference – said the Vatican’s statement was “a source of astonishment for us.”

Regular communication with the Holy See, “which we consider necessary and which we are looking for,” was provided for in the rules of procedure and statutes of the synodal path, they said, noting that the Vatican’s envoy to Germany, Croatian Archbishop Nikola Eterović, is also participating as an observer.

Since it began in 2019, the organizing synodal committee “has endeavored to find direct ways of communication with the Roman bodies,” Stetter-Karp and Bätzing said, voicing their belief that this direct communication would be “the right place” for any necessary clarifications to be made.

“Unfortunately, the synodal committee has not been invited to a discussion to date. We regret with irritation that this direct communication has not yet taken place,” they said.

The Vatican’s statement, issued without any prior communication with the synodal path’s leading committee, “is not a good example of communication within the church,” they said, and took issue with the fact that the Vatican’s statement was “not signed by name.”

Launched in a bid to revitalize the Catholic Church in Germany and restore trust following the publication of a September 2018 church-commissioned report detailing thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests over a span of six decades, the German Church’s synodal path is largely aimed at giving laypeople more prominent roles in church leadership.

However, the process has become increasingly controversial due to the outspoken calls of prominent participants, laypeople and bishops alike, for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.

There have also been votes in favor of eliminating mandatory priestly celibacy and allowing clergy to marry, and to declare that same-sex marriage is not sinful. The process has also insisted that laity have a greater say in the election of bishops.

Bätzing has previous acknowledged that there are divergent opinions on these and other issues and has reportedly pledged to submit the proposed reforms to the worldwide Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which is currently unfolding in three stages, and which will culminate with a large gathering of bishops in Rome in 2023.

In their statement, Bätzing and Stetter-Karp said they welcomed the Holy See’s emphasis of “what we have already committed to in the statutes and rules of procedure before the start of the synodal path.”

Any resolutions passed, they said, “have no legal effect of their own accord.”

However, Bätzing and Stetter-Karp insisted that “the authority of the bishops’ conference and of the individual diocesan bishops to issue legal norms and exercise their magisterium within their respective spheres of competence remains unaffected by the resolutions.”

As part of the synodal path’s rules and regulations, resolutions related to topics affecting the church at a universal level, they said, are to be transmitted to the Holy See as a vote from the synodal path.

Bätzing and Stetter-Karp stressed that the German Church “will not follow a ‘special German path,’” however, they said it is their duty “to clearly state where we believe changes are necessary.”

In doing so, they said, “we already sense that the problems and questions we have named are similar worldwide.”

They affirmed their plans to participate in Pope Francis’s three-year Synod of Bishops on Synodality and intend to contribute to the process “with the experiences and results gained from the synodal path.”

“We have always stressed that we want to actively shape this process through our work. Because we are convinced that this leads to a ‘mutual enrichment,’” they said, saying the 2023 synod in Rome will be a place to discuss the Vatican’s concerns.

“As presidents of the synodal path, we would like to emphasize that we are interested in an early discussion with as many authorities within the Roman Curia as possible,” they said.