News Analysis

Pope sends mixed message to divided German Church


In March, Cardinal Reinhard Marx announced that the German bishops had agreed to embark on a “binding synodal process” that would address the abuse crisis, sexual morality and priestly celibacy. Now Pope Francis has intervened with a long letter to German Catholics.

The letter has prompted much debate. Was the Pope endorsing the “synodal process” or was he warning the German Church that it could lead to schism?

If the reactions of German prelates are anything to go by, the answer would appear to be “a bit of both”.

Published on June 29, the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, the papal missive – consisting of more than 5,700 words and passages of dense theological jargon – was addressed to all Catholics and written out of “concern for the future of the Church in Germany”.

The letter was a call for conversion and evangelisation, urging Catholics to pray and fast in the face of the “erosion” and “decline of the faith” in Germany.

It was against this backdrop of crisis that Pope Francis offered his reflections on the “synodal process”.

“The forthcoming process of change,” he wrote, “cannot respond exclusively to external facts and needs, such as the sharp decline in the birth rate and the ageing of communities, which do not allow a normal generational change to be considered.”

A “true process of change”, Francis argued, would need to make demands “that arise from our Christianity and from the very dynamics of the evangelisation of the Church”.

The papal letter also expressed some reservations about how the process would be conducted. “What this entails in concrete terms and how it unfolds will certainly require further consideration,” Francis said.

Speaking to journalists on July 5, Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, noted that the letter expressed fears about the “dismemberment” of the Church. But he dismissed such concerns outright before reaffirming both the agenda and process as announced in March.

“But that goes without saying: no German bishop, no member of the ZdK [the lay Central Committee of German Catholics], wants to depart from the universal Church. That is not even an issue,” he insisted.

He said that the “synodal process” would still focus on the three topics previously mentioned. First, fighting clericalism by way of “participation and the separation of power”. Second, revisiting sexual morality in light of new theological insights. And third, as a separate topic, reviewing priestly celibacy (officially described as “the priestly way of life”). To these, a fourth was added at the suggestion of the ZdK: “women in service to and ministries of the Church”.

The agenda has been criticised since it was first announced. In an open letter to Cardinal Marx published by First Things, the US theologian George Weigel asked how the “synodal process” of a local Church could produce “binding” results on matters affecting the entire Catholic Church.

The answer is that those who are advancing this agenda do not consider it a German Sonderweg (“special path”), but rather a road on which the Church as a whole needs to embark.

Cardinal Marx has repeatedly asserted that the initial three-point agenda is predicated on the findings of a scientific study of sexual abuse commissioned by the German bishops’ conference.

However, that study has been called into doubt. Manfred Lütz, a leading Catholic psychiatrist and well-known author, sharply criticised the study’s methodology, labelling the project a “failed exercise” and cautioned against attempts to use questionable findings in a way that might be considered “an abuse of the abuse”.
When Cardinal Marx unveiled the “binding synodal process” in March, he not only said that it had the unanimous support of the German bishops. He also claimed that “Pope Francis encourages this”.

Since then, both these claims have been called into question.

Several bishops broke ranks and criticised the process prior to the Pope’s intervention. Days before his retirement Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg publicly denied voting for the synodal path, saying that he “abstained” and was not a supporter of what he considered “nonsense” (“Unsinn”).

Following the papal letter, two senior churchmen expressed concerns about the process. Mgr Michael Fuchs, vicar-general of the Bavarian Diocese of Regensburg, said: “Following this papal letter, simply ‘carrying on as planned’ is no longer an option, neither in content nor in form. Actually, the letter urges a complete rewriting of the process, which should be directed towards evangelisation and spiritual renewal”.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne said: “It is refreshing how clearly and fearlessly the Holy Father also puts into words the terms which we often express in this country only with hesitation and a certain timidity, which we have almost lost: repentance, conversion, mission”.

He appealed to Germany’s Catholics: “Let’s take on the words of the Holy Father, let’s take them seriously! Let us carry the Good News into the world of today!”