We must resist a very bad idea emerging from the German Church

Cardinal Reinhard Marx says the German Church is 'not just a subsidiary of Rome' (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

To be a really good theologian, you have to speak German. There are a variety of reasons for this: there are lots of good German theologians around, and you need to engage with what they have written in the original language. Moreover, as so much theology rests on a philosophical basis, you really do have to master the vocabulary of philosophy, which is often German.

Take a word like Geworfenheit. Not one, I admit, that you will ever overhear in a supermarket queue, even in Berlin or Cologne, but a key existential concept that greatly informs the current debate on marriage (or should). Geworfenheit means the state of being thrown, or “thrown-ness”. It was coined by Martin Heidegger who was, as every one knows, a very bad man; but though he had all the wrong answers, he did ask some very interesting questions. And then there is Angst, and Sorge… deep down this marriage debate is about these existential concepts. I believe in Geworfenheit: we need to live with, and embrace the fact that there is a great gap between ourselves and the truth of Christ; and we need to hold to that truth at all costs, lest we drown in a sea of cares.

So, Germany is the land of theological ideas, some very bad and others very good. Thank goodness for Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the great theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In an interview this week he has introduced clarity to the question of the relationship between the centre and the periphery, between the papacy and local bishops’ conferences. 

This question was aired some time back between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he then was, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, as he still is. This somewhat technical-sounding debate was centred on the question of which was logically prior: the universal Church, or the local Church. There is a nice summing up of this problem by the late great Cardinal Avery Dulles. 

Is the Catholic Church merely a loose federation of local Churches, each of which can develop what it sees as locally appropriate “policies”? Or is it a unitary body, whose teaching is universal, and to be applied universally? The former seems to be the view of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference.

This question has a very long history. The desire for local autonomy, and not having to pay taxes to Rome or to allow appeals to Rome, was what drove the English Reformation. But let us not get bogged down in history. (We don’t have space for that.)

This was a question I thought about when I taught moral theology in Africa, and I once wrote a paper on it which I have lost. But I can recall what I said, more or less. The Church, in Africa, or elsewhere, is both local and universal at the same time. Step into a church in Nairobi and you will find you step into a community that is rooted in the land and culture of the place. As it should be: the people of the city find themselves very much at home in their churches and never ever experience them as “foreign”.

But at the same time, this highly inculturated and local sense of Church is also an experience of the universality of the Church. Your average church in Nairobi, whether it is in Westlands or in Kibera (do Google them), celebrates the same sacraments as churches the world over, and receives the same teaching, and embraces the same dogma. A lovely illustration, particularly dear to me, is the way the Kenyan people love Our Lady of Guadalupe, and call their children Gennaro and Consolata. Mexico, Italy, Kenya – the faith travels. It crosses borders. It is Catholic.

Our local understanding of the Church is God’s way of mediating to us the universal values of salvation. This has very important implications. For example, many people in East Africa want to practise female genital mutilation, and we say no, and have said no for over a century, because this local practice cannot be coherent in any way with the universal value of charity. Again, some people want to enter trial marriages, and then only get married absolutely when the wife has shown she can bear a male child. Again, we say no, because this is at variance with the sacrament of marriage as we have always understood it, as well as our understanding of the value of sexuality and the worth of women and children.

The relationship between particular and universal, local Church and the See of Peter, is a symbiotic union that is to the enrichment of both. Communion with Peter remains a safeguard against seeing local custom as normative, when local custom has to be evaluated through the prism of the universal nature of revelation and the universal nature of morality. Put bluntly, you cannot insist that “this is our way of doing things here, and we don’t care about what others do in other countries”.

We are indeed local, but we must be universal too. Cardinal Müller is right; Cardinal Marx, seeing Germany as having some special independence from Rome, is wrong. That sort of localism, at the expense of universalism, is a deadly poison. Let’s use German insight, but always evaluating it through the prism of universality, and let us resist the innovative and erroneous doctrine of German exceptionalism.