Interesting times just got more interesting, as the Fall plenary of the German bishops’ conference opened in Fulda, Germany, with a message from the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, which did not mince words when it came to the German bishops’ controversial plans for a “binding synodal path”, on which they are scheduled to vote this week.
The plans are controversial because they deliberately seek to put settled matters of doctrine on the table for discussion and a “binding” vote, and to address disciplinary issues directly involving the good of the whole Church in a way Vatican officials fear would sidestep the Roman oversight necessary to preserve order in the Church throughout the world.
Vatican officials have expressed the opinion that the mechanics of the German operation as currently planned are basically unsound from an ecclesiological point-of-view and afoul of Church law. They have urged the German bishops to review both the scope and the methods of their designs for a binding synodal path.
Recalling Pope Francis’s letter of June 29th to the people of God in Germany, Archbishop Eterović reminded the German bishops that the last time a reigning pontiff took it upon himself to write to the German people, it was Pius XI with his 1937 encyclical letter, Mit brennender sorge, on the Church and the German Reich, in which the pope decried the encroachments of National Socialism on the rights of the Church and the disorder the Nazi regime introduced to national affairs more generally.
“The letter of the Holy Father deserves special attention,” said Archbishop Eterovic. “It is indeed the first time since the encyclical of Pius XI, Mit brennender sorge, that the Pope dedicates a separate letter to the members of the Catholic Church in Germany,” he went on to say. “The difference between the two documents is great,” the nuncio explained, “because the encyclical of 14 March 1937 denounces the inadmissible interventions by the National Socialist regime in the affairs of the Catholic Church, while the current letter takes up issues proper to the Church.”
“We thank God that the relations between the Church and the Federal Republic of Germany are very good,” Archbishop Eterović said, “and therefore no intervention by the Holy See is necessary.” That is about as stark an admission of serious dysfunction and as blunt a warning as one will find in any dialect of curialese. That Francis felt the need to write and send the letter in the first place establishes the gravity of the situation. That the nuncio had to remind the bishops of the historical precedent for such an intervention at three months’ remove establishes the persistence of the crisis.
Archbishop Eterović repeated Pope Francis’s line to the effect that a synod — whatever it is — “is not a parliament,” and matters belonging to the common patrimony of the faith are not ever up for grabs, nor are matters touching the common weal of the Christian faithful subject to particular discussions apt to produce any sort of separate peace.
The apostolic nuncio invoked the memory of the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed for his participation in the resistance against their evil regime. Bonhoeffer described attempts to negotiate solutions to the problems that inevitably arise from time to time when Christians live in the world without becoming conformed to it as “cheap grace”. Noting that Francis sees the current crisis in society as a call and opportunity for evangelisation, Eterović said, “[T]he evangelization demanded at this time cannot be reduced to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’, but, in order to remain in [Christ’s] words, to which [Bonhoeffer] has attested by his heroic testimony, we must search for the ‘costly grace’.”
Eterović recalled one of Bonhoeffer’s enlargements upon the notion. “For example,” Eterović offered, “in 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our Church. Our struggle today is over expensive grace’.”
In short: the threat to the Church in Germany in 2019 comes from within. The German bishops’ decisions at this moment in history cannot fail to have far-reaching consequences, not only for Catholicism in Germany. Pope Francis warned of this in his June 29th letter, writing, “In the land of my birth, there exists a suggestive and powerful saying that may illuminate the point: ‘Let brothers and sisters be united, for this is the first law; let them be truly united in every moment, for if they contend against one another, those without shall devour them.”
The appropriation of Bonhoeffer’s economic vocabulary is not likely to have been casual. The Church in Germany is a major financial supporter of the Vatican. The message may have been that Pope Francis is prepared to do what is necessary to thwart the centrifugal forces the German bishops have unleashed, even if the cost of doing so may be dear. The question is not whether the German bishops heard the message, but whether they took it seriously.
The address came only a few days after Cardinal Marx sought to calm the waters in Rome, where he met with Pope Francis and Cardinal Ouellet. Marx described those meetings as “constructive” but offered no specific details. In a report filed early Tuesday, the Catholic news Agency reported that Marx’s attempts to reassure the Vatican that the binding synodal path the bishops have charted will not be “binding” in any sense that is cause for their alarm may mean that Rome will have to take an attitude of wait-and-see.
CNA also cited Vatican sources that sounded sceptical regarding the process, and even questioned Cardinal Marx’s forthrightness. “If you are asking if Cardinal Marx will say one thing in Rome and another in Germany, perhaps,” CNA quotes one senior official as saying, “[but] we know there will be a text and a vote, and we will see then what the fact is.”