In the 1940s, a Jesuit theologian named Henri Bouillard proclaimed that a theology that is not “up to date” is a “false theology”. At such arrogance, the French Dominican Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange pounded his fist and insisted that it’s not eternal truths that should conform to a changing world, but a changeable world that must conform to the Unchangeable One.
The Church in Germany today is rather in the position of Henri Bouillard, arguing 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 bishops’ conference. It has sent shock waves around the world.
The synodal assembly led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx will be composed of 200 members, with the bishops in the minority, and the Central Committee of German Catholics in the relative majority with 70 voting members. The 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 (known by its German acronym, ZdK) is the most prominent voice of culturally conformed Catholicism in Germany. It has a history of vigorously advocating an “updating” of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination in particular.
Not every bishop in Germany will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Cardinal Marx. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne has predicted that the synodal assembly could cause a split within the German Church. Likewise, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg stated 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 [updating]” 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”.
The Pope’s summer address also implored the Church in Germany to avoid seeking solutions in power structures, and rather seek them through evangelisation. 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 to read this address other than as a gentle, fatherly appeal to wayward sons.
The Church in Germany today is going far beyond where modernisers 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.
Cardinal Woelki noted last spring that those pushing for these changes have never bothered asking themselves the most basic sociological question: “Why are Protestant Christians in Germany not flourishing?” Cardinal Woelki writes that, despite having implemented everything currently proposed by Catholic bishops in Germany, the Protestants “are not in a better position – seen by their practice of faith, how few they recruit for pastoral ministry, and the number of people leaving their churches. Does that not indicate that the real problems lie elsewhere, and that the whole of Christianity has to confront a crisis of faith and understanding, rather than adapt to a ‘new reality of life’ that is presented as irresistible?” Precisely that.
My sense is that they do not ask Cardinal Woelki’s excellent question because they have no interest in the answer. They labour under a counterfeit definition of mercy which deceives them and their flock. This past week, the Vatican said that the German bishops’ plan for a “binding synodal process” was, in fact, “not ecclesiologically valid”. That is not subtle.
In June, the Pope himself warned the bishops: “Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.” That is also not subtle.
The bishops in Germany should start listening to the Pope rather than those who want to be pope. The Holy Father has given them a blueprint ordered to evangelisation. Sadly, as with all counterfeits of grace, liberty and mercy, the German bishops seem set on a self-destructive path. The “priority of evangelisation” that the Holy Father has called them to embrace for their synodal process may need to begin with the bishops in Germany themselves.
CC Pecknold is associate professor of theology and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Read his columns at CatholicHeraldUS.com