News Analysis

Why the German bishops are in such a hurry

Prelates and other clergymen attend Mass at an annual meeting of Germany's bishops in Cologne (CNS)

Tensions between Rome and the German bishops are high at the moment, with repeated warnings from several high-ranking curial officials and one strongly worded letter from Pope Francis having thus far gone unheeded.

Led by the president of their conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, the German bishops continue their pursuit of a “binding synodal path” which – as they practically admit – seeks to put settled matters of doctrine on the table for discussion, and propose their own solutions to problems of order and discipline in the Church, which touch the whole body of the faithful. They know they are risking a serious break with Rome. Why the game of brinkmanship?

One of the wealthiest Churches in the world, the Catholic Church in Germany’s principal source of income is the “Church tax” collected by the German government and apportioned to institutions according to taxpayers’ membership affiliation. Without the revenue from that tax, the German bishops cannot maintain their structures, let alone support the range of charitable activities and development initiatives they currently do around the world. The German Church is also a major financial supporter of the Holy See.

If the German Church cannot stop the hemorrhaging of members, it will face institutional collapse within a generation. The German bishops feel they need to give not only a voice, but also a real say to Catholics in their country, even if that means running the risk of creating a situation in which the German Church becomes officially and institutionally committed to conformity with the spirit of the age.

The goal of giving a voice and a say to people of every age and sex and state of life in the Church may be laudable, but Vatican officials believe the way the German bishops are going about it is incompatible with the nature of the Church and afoul of Church law.

Cardinal Marx met with Pope Francis and Cardinal Marc Ouellet: the latter is Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who wrote one of the letters exchanged in September, with which he sent Cardinal Marx an unfavourable legal assessment prepared by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts of the Germans’ draft statutes for the binding synodal path. Cardinal Marx did not come back from those meetings with an endorsement from the Vatican, where the attitude among high officials reportedly remains sceptical.

This state of affairs could also go some ways towards explaining Pope Francis’s direct appeal to German Catholics in June of this year, in which he urged them not to try and go it alone, but to remain united to the worldwide body of believers.

“Brothers and sisters,” wrote Francis in his letter of June 29, “let us take care of each other, and let us be wary of the temptation of the father of lies and division, of the master of separation, who, spurring us on to seek an apparent good or response to a given situation, ends up fragmenting the body of the holy faithful people of God.”

This high-level ecclesiastical contretemps is therefore unfolding against a backdrop of a German Church that is bleeding out. Not only that: Francis’s position is weakened by both his own commitment to a vaguely defined notion of “synodality” and persistent crises in the Church, which he has yet to bring under control.

Pope Francis has been willing to exercise the papal powers given to St Peter and dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council, but so far only narrowly and pointedly. One of his first acts as Pope was to canonise one of his favourite confrères, Peter Faber SJ, by “equipollent canonisation”, circumventing the normal process. (Faber, incidentally, spent several years working tirelessly for the restoration of German Christians to full communion with Rome.) For all his talk of synodality, Francis has made it abundantly clear by his acts of governance that the only way to work cum Petro (“with Peter”) is to be sub Petro (“under Peter”) .

Pope Francis, moreover, is a Jesuit, and the Society of Jesus has never had a straightforward relationship with the hierarchy. Traditionally, Jesuits have been stalwart “Pope’s men” and, at the same time, fearless pastoral and theological envelope-pushers. The Jesuit charism is fairly described as a modus for managing the tension created when those two poles are activated. The problem is that, when you put a Jesuit at the head of the Church’s hierarchical leadership structure, there’s going to be an increase in the risk that the tension will cause a break, or else collapse.

This assertion of German Church leaders’ power could be the catalyst that will push Francis into an open and unequivocal assertion of papal supremacy, of which he has often spoken, but heretofore exercised only closely and specifically. To defuse the situation in Germany, Francis may choose to play against type, or he may choose to commit fully to his embodiment of the role.