Out of their hands: Have the Germans lost control of their synodal way?

Analysis

Cardinal Camillo Ruini painted on Tuesday a frank, and frankly bleak, picture of the situation for the Catholic Church in Germany. The cardinal warned against a risk of schism, even while affirming his trust that God will protect the unity of the Church. 

“Problems are coming to a head that unfortunately have existed for some time, especially in German-speaking countries, as demonstrated by the so-called German Synodal Assembly currently underway, which has clearly indicated its objectives: not only the blessing of same-sex couples, but also the priesthood of women, the abolition of the obligation of ecclesiastical celibacy, the intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants,” said Ruini, the former head of the Italian bishops’ conference and vicar of the Diocese of Rome. 

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“I do not deny that there is a risk of schism, but I trust that, with God's help, it can be overcome,” concluded the cardinal in a May 4 interview.

Ruini’s hope in Providence is admirable. But barring divine intervention, there seems little to stop the momentum within the Church in Germany that aims to challenge or disregard Catholic doctrine in both word and action.

The country’s “synodal way,” by which the German bishops aimed for a systematic challenge to Catholic doctrine and discipline seems now to have escaped the lab and gone viral, well beyond the control of Catholic hierarchy in both Germany and Rome.

Next week, clergy in dioceses across Germany plan to simultaneously bless hundreds of same-sex couples. The mass blessing are intended as an answer to the recent document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which restated the inherently disordered nature of same-sex acts, and the impossibilty of the Church offering a liturgical blessing to such unions. 

Similar moves have been announced by clergy in some Austrian dioceses.

And despite Rome’s “no” to intercommunion with Protestants, a Catholic-Protestant “Eucharistic Congress” in Germany, also set for next week, has said that participants are free to follow their own conscience on the subject of sacramental sharing, regardless of Catholic doctrine.

For the last two years, German bishops have ignored pointedly the pope’s “dramatic concern” about their ecclesiological direction of travel, most explicitly laid out in his 2019 pastoral letter to Germany, which urged them to preserve communion with Rome and warned that discommunion is a self-repeating spiral. 

And the German bishops have been unambiguous about their desire to set a kind of example for Catholic bishops in other parts of the world. All the German synodal documents, across a range of issues, including women’s ordination, human sexuality, intercommunion, clerical celibacy and so on, have been made available in multiple languages. And Germany’s bishops are keenly aware national synods or councils are now set to begin in Ireland, Australia, and Italy. 

Moreover, the German bishops have expended considerable diplomatic and financial influence in recent years, both in Rome and in dioceses across the world, trying to build a sense of inevitability and consensus around their agenda. 

Nevertheless, there has been hope in Rome that the bishops of Germany would keep control of their project, before widespread disavowals of Catholic doctrine and discipline among clergy led to a situation of obvious schism. 

To date, the German bishops have stopped short of outright provocation of the Holy See and been careful to leave the ball in Rome’s court as they proceed — effectively daring the pope to stop them by declaring they have gone too far and triggering an unthinkable schism.

But the calculated hand which the German bishops, led by the president of their conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, have sought to play against Rome is beginning to tip, and the extent to which they are truly in control of the process they set in motion is increasingly in doubt.

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The mass blessing of same-sex “lovers” by German clergy, set for May 10, has not been welcomed by the local hierarchy. And the German bishops may have cause to worry that their long-term strategy, slowly ratcheting up expectation and pressure that Rome accept a de facto federalized Church, could be derailed by tactical acts of provocation by their own clergy.

Bätzing himself called the plan for mass blessings “not a helpful sign,” and noted that “blessing services have their own theological dignity and pastoral significance. They are not suitable as an instrument for Church political manifestations or protest actions.”

Bätzing was equally clear that welcoming same-sex couples qua couples into the Church remains a priority for him, and for the Church in Germany, and that “there have been discussions for a long time about the way in which church sexual morality, including with regard to homosexuality, can be further developed with viable arguments.”

“This also includes an appropriate discussion of the question of blessing services,” Bätzing said, but stressed that “in the current situation, the Synodal Way is a central place to discuss the topic… in a comprehensive way."

The note of caution from Bätzing and the German bishops will almost certainly be ignored, much as those bishops have themselves ignored Roman warnings for years.

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While they have at times appeared belligerent in their refusal to listen to the Vatican’s corrections, they have been careful to keep themselves within the bounds of their synodal way and to frame their agenda within a process of “dialogue.”

While same-sex blessings and intercommunion with Protestants have been a reality in many German parishes for some time, the policy of the bishops has been not to publicly aknowledge or encourage them, and to insist their reforming demands are still in the theoretical stage. 

If, as the May 10 mass blessing event suggests, they have over-stoked the fire for change among their rank and file clergy, they may no longer be able to drive the train of events they have set in motion, or stop what appears to be an inevitable, violent collision with Rome.

Rather than slowly boiling a frog, the bishops will be forced to choose a side, exactly what they seemed to want to avoid.

Cardinals like Ruini, who hope to avoid wholesale conflict between Rome and the German-inspired attempts at reform, have pinned their hopes on next year’s “synod on synodality” in Rome. The hope is that a meeting of bishops from around the world, led by the pope, will make clear what is and is not up for debate in a “synodal Church.” Some German bishops may have been quietly hoping that as well — that a Vatican fence around their activities would at least set forth a playbook from which to proceed. 

But the projects set in motion by the German bishops are now well underway. Rebellion against Roman hierarchs seems to have fomented rebellion against German hierarchs. If the situation is indeed well out of control, a 2022 meeting in Rome may well be far too little, and come far too late.