Published April 12, 2022
In a time of unrest and confusion, well-intended efforts at decentralizing any community or organization can have unwelcome consequences. The Church is not immune to this simple fact. Catholics in Germany seem determined to prove the point.
In late-March remarks to the German magazine Stern, Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx appeared to encourage a change in Church teaching on homosexuality. Acknowledging that he had previously blessed same-sex couples, Marx noted that “the catechism is not set in stone.” He added that, “For years I have felt freer to say what I think, and I want to take Church teaching forward.”
Marx’s comments should not surprise. They align with the work, to date, of the German “Synodal Path,” a multiyear national Church consultation process. Synodal Path documents, though non-binding on German Church leaders, have already expressed support for optional priestly celibacy, for same-sex union blessings; for revisions to Catholic teaching on homosexuality and the ordination of women priests; and for a greater lay voice in the appointment of bishops.
Especially in a period of planning for a 2023 “synod on synodality,” the drift of the German Synodal Path has deeply troubling – and for some, schismatic – implications. On March 9, bishops of the Nordic countries publicly expressed their concern about the direction of German events. This followed a late-February similar public letter from the president of the Polish bishops’ conference. Now, in an April 11 letter made public earlier today and first reported by Catholic News Agency, more than 70 bishops, including four cardinals, from the United States, Canada, and Africa have added their own voices.
In their “Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany,” the signatories note that “as your brother bishops, our concerns include but are not limited to the following”:
1. Failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel, the Synodal Path’s actions undermine the credibility of Church authority, including that of Pope Francis; Christian anthropology and sexual morality; and the reliability of Scripture.
2. While they display a patina of religious ideas and vocabulary, the German Synodal Path documents seem largely inspired not by Scripture and Tradition – which, for the Second Vatican Council, are “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” – but by sociological analysis and contemporary political, including gender, ideologies. They look at the Church and her mission through the lens of the world rather than through the lens of the truths revealed in Scripture and the Church’s authoritative Tradition.
3. Synodal Path content also seems to reinterpret, and thus diminish, the meaning of Christian freedom. For the Christian, freedom is the knowledge, the willingness, and the unhampered ability to do what is right. Freedom is not “autonomy.” Authentic freedom, as the Church teaches, is tethered to truth and ordered to goodness and, ultimately, beatitude. Conscience does not create truth, nor is conscience a matter of personal preference or self-assertion. A properly formed Christian conscience remains subject to the truth about human nature and the norms of righteous living revealed by God and taught by Christ’s Church. Jesus is the truth, who sets us free. (Jn. 8)
4. The joy of the Gospel – essential to Christian life, as Pope Francis so often stresses – seems utterly absent from Synodal Path discussions and texts, a telling flaw for an effort that seeks personal and ecclesial renewal.
5. The Synodal Path process, at nearly every step, is the work of experts and committees: bureaucracy-heavy, obsessively critical, and inward-looking. It thus itself reflects a widespread form of Church sclerosis and, ironically, becomes anti-evangelical in tone. In its effect, the Synodal Path displays more submission and obedience to the world and ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
6. The Synodal Path’s focus on “power” in the Church suggests a spirit fundamentally at odds with the real nature of Christian life. Ultimately the Church is not merely an “institution” but an organic community; not egalitarian but familial, complementary, and hierarchical – a people sealed together by love of Jesus Christ and love for each other in his name. The reform of structures is not at all the same thing as the conversion of hearts. The encounter with Jesus, as seen in the Gospel and in the lives of the saints throughout history, changes hearts and minds, brings healing, turns one away from a life of sin and unhappiness, and demonstrates the power of the Gospel.
7. The last and most distressingly immediate problem with Germany’s Synodal Path is terribly ironic. By its destructive example, it may lead some bishops, and will lead many otherwise faithful laypeople, to distrust the very idea of “synodality,” thus further impeding the Church’s necessary conversation about fulfilling the mission of converting and sanctifying the world.
In a time of confusion, the last thing our community of faith needs is more of the same. As you discern the Lord’s will for the Church in Germany, be assured of our prayers for you.
While acknowledging that “[m]any of those involved in the Synodal Path process are doubtless people of outstanding character,” the signing bishops note that “Christian history is littered with well-intended efforts that lost their grounding in the Word of God, in a faithful encounter with Jesus Christ,” and in “a true listening to the Holy Spirit.” Among those efforts one might arguably count the Reformation itself, which began almost exactly 500 years ago. . .in Germany.
The heart of the April 11 letter lies here: “[T]he urgency of our joint remarks is rooted in Romans 12, and especially Paul’s caution: Do not be conformed to this world. And their seriousness flows from the confusion that the Synodal Path has already caused and continues to cause, and the potential for schism in the life of the Church that will inevitably result.”
As others have previously cautioned: What happens in Germany will not stay in Germany. History has already taught us that lesson once.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.