The Permanent Council of the German bishops’ conference met late in August. It was the first such gathering of the 27-member body since the Vatican Congregation for Clergy issued an Instruction on the reform and renewal of parish life the month before.
As I noted last month in these pages, the document from Clergy told those of the world’s bishops who needed to hear it, that pastors of parishes have duties from which certain rights flow, and that they – the bishops – are bound to respect those rights.
The German bishops didn’t like the Instruction from Clergy, not least for its insistence on ordering parochial power in a way that does not go afoul of the Church’s hierarchical structure.
“It is a little strange,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Friesing, the long-serving former president of the German bishops’ conference, whose resignation in February 2020 surprised not a few Church watchers, “for a document to come from Rome without any talks taking place with us.”
Now, that’s rich.
Under Cardinal Marx’s leadership, the German bishops undertook a “binding synodal path” that they later assured Rome would be neither binding nor synodal, before reassuring their own people that it would be what they told Rome it wouldn’t be. They planned debates over a host of settled issues in the life of the Church, the lion’s share of which comes to a set of gimmicks.
Everyone wishing to understand what’s really going on in Germany would do well to follow the money.
The chief source of income for the Catholic Church in Germany is the “Church tax” collected by the German government. The government distributes the revenues collected to various Churches according to taxpayers’ membership affiliation. Without the Church tax revenue, Germany’s bishops can’t hope to continue bankrolling the range of initiatives by which they make their clout felt at home and abroad, including in Rome.
The problem is that the Catholic Church in Germany is haemorrhaging members.
If things keep at the current clip, the Church in Germany will collapse before another 40 years are come and gone. So, the German bishops have decided to stave off the impending disaster by undertaking dramatic reforms (or at least the appearance of them). Critical observers fear these proposed reforms represent too much of a compromise with contemporary secular ideas – which would be crippling – or at worst, risk conforming the institutional Church in the country to the Spirit of the Age, thus rendering her unrecognisable to herself or to anyone else.
Pope Francis warned Catholics in Germany of the dangers that attend such an approach.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter directly to the German faithful in June of last year, “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.”
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