On the face of it, the German Catholic Church contradicts much of what Pope Francis stands for. In 2013, the Pontiff said he wanted “a poor Church for the poor”. That same year the German Church received almost £4.6 billion via the church tax. Francis is deeply suspicious of bureaucracy, yet few bishops’ conferences are as elaborately organised as the German one. The Pope is a champion of Confession, but in parts of Catholic Germany the sacrament has all but disappeared. Francis wants to win back the lost sheep, yet in Germany weekly Mass attendance is now a mere 10.8 per cent. (As many nominal Catholics still pay the church tax the bishops have little incentive to tackle declining participation.)
The Pope is, nevertheless, associated with the German bishops theologically. He studied for a PhD in Germany and shortly after his election praised Cardinal Walter Kasper. He later invited the controversial theologian to address cardinals on the admission of remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. At last month’s family synod, the German-speaking bishops led the charge for change. We shall soon see if Francis endorses their approach when he releases his apostolic exhortation on the synod.
A cardinal says the criticism applies to ‘the entire Church in the West’.
This won’t do
Given this apparent theological alignment, some expected the Pope’s address to the German bishops on their ad limina visit to be lenient. It wasn’t. Francis noted the sharp fall in Mass attendance, Confessions and Catholic marriages, concluding that “one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany”.
Francis’s criticism of the German bishops’ “excessive centralisation” was especially piquant. They were, after all, the loudest critics of the centralising tendencies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis directed this critique back at
them, suggesting that control-freak tendencies were draining the German Church’s missionary energies.
The Pope’s diagnosis of German Catholicism’s ills was remarkably similar to that of his immediate predecessor. Addressing bishops from his homeland in 2006, Benedict XVI said that, while “there is no lack of tasks for committed lay Catholics … today, it is the missionary spirit, creativity and courage to set out on new routes that are sometimes lacking”.
How will the German bishops respond to Francis’s criticism? Conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx told an interviewer that the Pope had a duty to make “critical points”, but suggested that they applied to “the entire Church in the West”. This won’t do.
The German Church occupies a unique position in the Catholic world: it is rich, theologically self-confident to the point of arrogance and willing to throw its weight around in Rome. It needs to reflect deeply on Pope Francis’s address, commit itself anew to mission and halt the erosion of the faith before there is nothing left of Teutonic Catholicism but its mighty structures.
A wonderful appointment
This week brought wonderful news for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter – ex-Anglicans in North America who, like their counterparts in England, use a liturgy drawing on pre- and post-Reformation English spirituality. Pope Francis is giving them their own bishop. He is Mgr Steven Lopes, a youthful and dynamic cradle Catholic from San Francisco who is currently the specialist in Anglican-use worship at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Mgr Lopes will be the first ordinariate bishop anywhere. Until now, the American ordinariate has been run by Mgr Jeffrey Steenson, a former Anglican bishop and eminent scholar who cannot be ordained bishop because he is happily married; nor, for the same reason, can Mgr Keith Newton, head of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The ordinariate in the United States and Canada has taken off precisely as Benedict XVI intended. Whole parishes belonging to different denominations – traditionalist Anglicanism in North America has long been fragmented – have “come over”. In England, however, progress has been less spectacular. The reasons for this are complex. Anglo-Catholics who already use the Roman rite are less attracted by Cranmerian language. The ordinariate’s beautiful Missal, Divine Worship, is probably more appealing to mainstream members of the Church of England. It is here that there is potential for growth, though it is unlikely to take the form of Anglican parishes converting en masse in the near future.
That said, the missionary enthusiasm of the English ordinariate is impressive. Some cradle Catholics worship at their church in Warwick Street, Soho, and we suspect that more would do so if they had experienced its liturgy. The Bishops of England and Wales have stepped up their encouragement of the ordinariate. Also, contrary to expectations, small ordinariate groups around the country are forging warm relationships with priests of the Church of England. As Mgr Lopes has always emphasised, the ordinariate is a new dimension of ecumenism. We hope that his episcopal ministry will encourage Rome to make another bold gesture and give the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham its own bishop.