Writing on the quincentennial of the Reformation and its parallels with emerging problems in the twenty-first-century German Church three years ago, Charles Chaput, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, noted that:
Being human, bishops often disagree. Internal differences are common in any episcopal conference, and they’re handled—no surprise—internally. But two things set the German situation apart: the global prominence of the [German intercommunion] controversy and the doctrinal substance of the debate. Who can receive the Eucharist, and when, and why, are not merely German questions. If, as Vatican II said, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Christians and the seal of our Catholic unity, then the answers to these questions have implications for the whole Church. They concern all of us.
Chaput went on to caution that “What happens in Germany will not stay in Germany. History has already taught us that lesson once.” Exactly as predicted, confusion within the German Church has since metastasized to other key issues of Catholic belief like marriage, sexuality, priesthood, and the nature of the Church. And given the exhaustive global procedures mandated by Rome for the 2023 “synod on synodality,” the likelihood of containing such problems in Germany seems vanishingly low.
Bishops in other countries have noticed. Many have expressed private concerns. Some are beginning to respond.
In an open letter “to my brothers in the [world] episcopate and most especially to the bishops of Germany,” Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila offers A Response to “Forum I” of the German Catholic Synodal Path. Delivered to Pope Francis prior to its release, the letter was made public today.
At 8,500 words, Aquila’s letter is not, and was not intended to be, casual poolside reading. It has a more serious purpose: a methodical, thorough-going deconstruction of errors in the German synodal process. The text is an articulate and targeted theological critique. It’s grounded extensively in Scripture, Vatican II, and constant Church teaching. And while its tone is scrupulously respectful, the content is damning. As the letter notes, among the “deeper maladies” of the German Synodal Assembly’s Fundamental Text “and the theological posture of the Synodal Path to which the document gives expression” is a pattern of intentionally proposing “truly radical revisions of the structure of the Church and of her understanding of her mission.” Aquila provides a few examples:
. . . [W]hile claiming to anchor itself in the Second Vatican Council, the Synodal Path exploits a selective and misleading interpretation of the council’s documents to prop up untenable views of the nature of the Church (Lumen Gentium), her relationship with the world (Gaudium et Spes), and her foundation on divine revelation (Dei Verbum), views that are impossible to square with a full reading of the council. The result is a vision of the Church that risks abandonment of the only One who has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
. . . The approach adopted [by the Fundamental Text] seems calculated to undermine the definitive and permanent character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders . . . [and] displays an astonishing paucity of references to the Gospels, which are, according to Dei Verbum No. 18, “the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.”
. . . [T]he Fundamental Text assumes that the best or only way to reform the exercise of power [in the Church] is by diffusing it through a system of checks and balances. The assumptions behind such a system are worth bringing to light. Are the clergy and laity members of the one Body of Christ, seeking the same common good of eternal salvation, or are they separate interest groups who must pursue their own agendas in competition with one another? Is power always a question of self-seeking, or can it be purified by God’s grace in Christ? Rather than issuing a clarion call to holiness, as proposed by the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, No. 5) and reinforced by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, the document appeals to worldly models that are not shaped by Christ or guided by the Holy Spirit.
And finally, regarding the inevitable price of a genuinely Catholic Christian life:
. . . [T]he Fundamental Text evinces virtually no appreciation of how the specific demands of the Gospel, as proclaimed by the Church in faith and charity, can and do prompt the acute opposition that the New Testament consistently posits between the spirit of the world and fidelity to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the text ignores the cost of discipleship as articulated by Christ in the Gospel [emphasis in original].
In the end, as the Aquila letter notes, the German Synodal Assembly “reimagines the role of the Church’s Magisterium,” reducing it to one of “dialogue moderation.” Its Fundamental Text is thus marked throughout by “an explicit, radical doctrinal relativism.” As a result, “the Synodal Assembly leaves us wondering: has God spoken to his people, or has he not?”
A letter like Archbishop Aquila’s, with a bishop or bishops in one nation addressing a bishop or bishops in another, is hardly novel in Church history. The college of bishops is finally global, and today’s mass media and rapid communications mean that “what happens in Germany” inevitably, and promptly, ends up on the wind in Denver, Nairobi, Calcutta, and everywhere else on the planet with an internet connection. Luther had the printing press. Today he’d have the world wide web.
What the Aquila letter, with admirable filial discretion, does not address, is perhaps the most obvious and awkward question of all: To what degree have the current Holy Father’s good intentions, and the ambiguity embedded in his meaning of “synodality,” fed the turmoil his papacy now faces in Germany?
That drama, for better or worse, will play out globally over the next two years in the run-up to the “synod on synodality.”
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.