Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks at the Vatican Press Office on Oct. 17, 2014. (Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)
EDITORIAL: A primary reason for the synodal push is that, for decades, many Church leaders in Germany have been convinced that only novel and radical change can stave off the impending collapse of Christianity in their country.
Thanks to the efforts of the German bishops under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, the Church in Germany is poised to pursue a radical “binding synodal path” that seeks to dislodge settled Church teaching in the name of “synodality.”
In so doing, these German Catholic “Marxists” appear bent on emulating the disastrous ideological mistake so often made by the followers of Karl Marx, of insisting on the implementation of a flawed revolutionary “solution” despite an abundance of evidence that their radical measures are making the problem far worse, not better.
The German Church’s controversial plan includes the creation of an unprecedented “Synodal Assembly” in close partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay group that has demanded the ordination of women, an end to clerical celibacy, the blessing of same-sex unions by the Church and rethinking of all Catholic teachings on sexuality.
This proposed Synodal Assembly will have “deliberative power” to force these changes upon Catholics in Germany, and its proponents openly intend to offer the largely preordained fruits of this synodal process to Catholics worldwide as a blueprint for the future.
“We hope that the results of forming an opinion [on these matters] in our country will also be helpful for the guidance of the universal Church and for other episcopal conferences on a case-by-case basis,” Cardinal Marx wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
But why have Cardinal Marx, most of the German bishops and their lay and religious collaborators embarked upon such a radical rejection of Church authority in their embrace of the “synodal way”?
The ostensible motive, according to the German organizers, is to respond to the clerical sexual-abuse crisis.
But it’s debatable, to put it mildly, that this was the main reason for initiating such a radical initiative, given that the initiatives it is seeking to advance — an end to clerical celibacy, new ministerial roles for women, and fundamental changes to what the Church teaches about sexual morality — have been atop the wish list of German Church leaders for many years, completely independent of the abuse crisis.
In fact, a primary reason for the synodal push is that, for decades, many Church leaders in Germany have been convinced that only novel and radical change can stave off the impending collapse of Christianity in their country.
According to a recent study commissioned by the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and conducted by researchers at the University of Freiburg, membership in both churches — already in free fall — will drop from about 45 million in 2019 to 34.8 million by 2035 and 22.7 million by 2060.
In the last year alone, the Catholic Church lost almost 220,000 members in Germany. The primary causes are adults leaving the churches, dwindling baptism rates and an aging population.
As bad as these numbers are, the actual attendance rates are even worse. In the last four decades — even as Church leaders in Germany have continued to soften, not strengthen, long-standing Church teaching — Mass attendance has plummeted.
Of the nearly 24 million registered German Catholics, who make up the largest religious denomination in the country at 30%, only one in 10 now attends Mass on any given Sunday.
However, Cardinal Marx and the majority of other German bishops don’t see these grim numbers as any reason to reconsider their steadfast commitment to promoting “progressive” Church agendas.
In their view, the answer to this crisis is to double down on their surrender to culture and to swallow the same secular prescriptions for liberalization that have laid even greater waste to the mainline Protestant communities in Germany.
They aren’t swayed by the opposition of Pope Francis and of senior Vatican officials either. The Holy Father has certainly tried publicly to correct Cardinal Marx and the German bishops.
In June, he issued a letter to the Church in Germany in which he warned German Catholics to respect the universal communion of the Church. “Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone,” Francis wrote, “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.”
The Pope took specific issue with the Germans’ understanding of synodality, as well, warning against a “bottom up” conception that lacks a complementary “synodality from top to bottom that allows, in a specific and singular way, for the collegial dimension of the episcopal ministry.”
And in September, after the German’s intentions became clearer, other Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ouellet, declared that the proposals for the upcoming synodal process are contrary to the Pope’s letter and “not ecclesiologically valid.”
But in his Sept. 12 letter to Cardinal Ouellet, Cardinal Marx peremptorily dismissed the Vatican’s concerns. “… I cannot see why questions about which the magisterium has made determinations should be withdrawn from any debate, as your writings suggest,” he wrote. “Countless believers in Germany consider [these issues] to be in need of discussion.”
It remains to be seen what the final document created by the German Church’s synodal process will look like. Given the apparent determination of Cardinal Marx and many of the German bishops to defy both the Pope and the Church’s magisterium, however, the “synodal way” being put forth by these “Catholic Marxists” seems a short road to chaos and division in the Church.
And it’s ironic in the extreme that accusations of schismatic intentions have been directed recently against U.S. Church leaders, as Father Raymond de Souza notes. The threat of schism lies in Germany, not along American shores.
Pray for the Church in Germany, and pray that we might avoid all schism and division in the Church.
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