In the 1940s, a Jesuit theologian named Henri Bouillard proclaimed that a theology which is not “up to date” is a “false theology.” At such arrogance, the French Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange pounded his fist, and his pen, to insist that it’s not the eternal truths which should be conformed to a changing world, but a changeable world which must be conformed to the Unchangeable One.
The Church in Germany today is rather in the position of Henri Bouillard, demanding that a theology that is not up to date is false. The German bishops have proposed a controversial new approach to synodality, partnering with an influential lay group of progressives who are well-known in Germany for their dissent from Church teaching, especially on matters of human sexuality. The proposed Synodal Assembly was not submitted to Rome for approval, but was announced last week by the German bishop’s conference. It has sent shock waves around the world.
The Synodal Assembly led by Cardinal Marx will be composed of 200 members, with the bishops in the minority, and the “Central Committee of German Catholics” (ZdK) in the relative majority with 70 voting members. The key issues they have identified for their “binding synodal process” are clerical celibacy, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and the role of women in the ministries and offices of the Church. The soviet-sounding “Central Committee” (ZdK) is the most prominent voice of culturally-conformed Catholicism in Germany. They have a history of vigorously advocating for an “updating” of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination in particular. Senior members of ZdK have publicly insisted that the clerical abuse scandal requires a radical break in Church teaching on human sexuality, and that part of that must mean a change in the “ecclesiastical tabooing and pathologizing” of homosexuality.
A recent story by Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency focused on the long history of the Central Committee’s influence over the bishops, despite the fact that they very publicly dissent from Church teachings that are in conflict with the cultural zeitgeist. As Condon reports, “In 2015, ZdK members also voted to demand the Church offer liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, and this is expected to be one of the first recommendations of the Synodal Forum on sexual morality.”
Not every bishop in Germany will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Cardinal Marx. The Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki, has warned that this Synodal Assembly could cause a split within the Church in Germany. Likewise, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg warned that this was exactly where things were headed, stating last May that a synodal process which aims at inventing a new Church is on “a path of destruction.”
Most importantly of all, however, it very much seems that the Synodal Assembly proposed by Cardinal Marx does not sit well with Pope Francis himself. In a lengthy letter this summer, the Holy Father addressed Germany about the nature of synodality. The Pope wrote that synodality cannot be used for self-justification, or to achieve accommodations with the world. He warned that “a healthy aggiornamento” requires a “long fermentation” in the truth which cannot be found “in the quest for immediate results which generate rapid media consequences but are ephemeral because they lack maturity or do not respond to the vocation to which we have been called.”
Synodality, the Holy Father reminded the Germans before they announced their “binding synodal process,” must not only be “from the bottom up,” that is from the operation of the Diocese, but also from “top to bottom,” in union with Peter. Synodality needs a living Sensus Ecclesiae, that is, a sense for the whole Church, not just the Church today, but the Church as it exists always and everywhere, on earth and in heaven. The synodal path, the Pope said, must not end up “isolated in its peculiarities”.
His summer address also implored the Church in Germany to avoid seeking solutions in power structures, and rather seek them through evangelization. He warned of “a subtle temptation” towards Pelagianism, in which we seek to manipulate human structures rather than receive “the grace of the Lord who takes the initiative.” In retrospect, it is hard not to read this address as a gentle, fatherly appeal to wayward sons.
The Church in Germany today is going far beyond where modernizers once dared to tread in the 1940s. But there are signs that Pope Francis is every bit as prepared as Garrigou-Lagrange once was, to speak boldly, to offer correction to Catholics on the brink of schism, and to call Germany away from its Pelagian quest for the ephemeral standards of cultural change, and back to the Truth that is Jesus Christ.