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Are German Catholics pushing for divisive reformation?

The Vatican will not make things easy for German bishops to achieve what they want for the country's 22.6 million Catholics

Ben Joseph

Updated: April 13, 2021 07:19 AM GMT

Clouds gather over the Church of Our Lady in Neumarkt in Dresden, eastern Germany, on April 12. More than 200,000 left the German Church between 2018 and 2019. (Photo: AFP)

While the Vatican is trying to circumscribe open dissent, the wealthy German Church is not conceding an inch to Rome.

The collision course has gained traction in Germany following the country's bishops' decision to move forward with the Synodal Path in 2019, a fallout from allegations of rampant clerical abuse and episcopal cover-ups in the country of 45.75 million Christians.

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At the end of their general assembly in 2019, the German bishops' conference called for the Synodal Path to address a 2018 report, which shed light on sexual abuse and counted 3,677 minors as victims between 1946 and 2014 in 27 dioceses.

The proposals of the two-year Synodal Path, if implemented, could contradict Church teachings on homosexuality, ecumenism and women's ordination and will lead to a schism with Rome, according to theologians.

Since the fate of most of these burning issues has been sealed by the Vatican, any new decisions by the German bishops will prove confrontational with the Holy See.

Time and again, the Vatican, including Pope Francis in June 2019, warned the German Church against its synodal approach, which would result in multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.

However, warnings by the Vatican have fallen on the deaf ears of German bishops and the powerful Catholic lay organizations.

The Vatican has shown that it will not make things easy for the German bishops to achieve what they want among the 22.6 million Catholics in the country.

On March 15, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a responsum which categorically stated the Church's views on same-sex unions and banned priests from bestowing blessing on those partnerships.

The ruling, approved for publication by Pope Francis and signed by CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria, was seen as an attempt to check Germany's reform program.

The unity of the Church is at stake

A slew of outspoken church leaders across Germany and Europe came out in the open challenging the CDF directive. That included Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a member of Pope Francis' council of cardinals and the CDF.

The unity of the Church is at stake, Father Goran Jovicic, a Hungarian-Croatian theologian, told an influential Catholic publication on April 5.

As more adherents are added to the folder of the schismatic movement in Germany, the theologians have traced fast transmission of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.

In the current case, social media has taken up the role of the printing press to facilitate the rapid spread of the theological dissent.

In fact, Pope Francis himself brought this crisis in Germany to the center stage with his efforts to promote synodality, with increased autonomy for national bishops' conferences.

The German prelates have used it as a cover to go public and push for further reforms, however dissenting they may be.

The Vatican leeway to the synodality and emergence of secular ideologies, challenging the Church's apostolic tradition as a predominantly oppressive system which allots undue privileges to an all-male hierarchy, are pushing to reform the German Church, but it may put an end to many Catholic traditions.

Besides, Germans, who are leaving the Church in large numbers, have shown a shift in concept in the very reality of sin at the personal level.

More than 200,000 left the German Church between 2018 and 2019 and a recent survey showed almost 30 percent of Catholics are now mulling deserting the Church. The synod is, in fact, aimed at filling the empty pews.

With its national Kirchensteuer, the church tax system that funds local dioceses, the Church in Germany is the richest in the world. In 2017, it secured €6 billion (US$7.2 billion) through this system. The funds are used for supporting Catholic charities in the developing world.

What should cause alarm to the Vatican and the universal Church is that Synod and Synodal Path are not the same, as stated by the preparatory document by Germany's church leaders.

The Synodal Path is not a canonical format but sui generis. So, the topics discussed are regulated and do not require the nod from the Holy See. It can come out with its version of Catholic teachings and can chalk up its own course of action.

The path is moving at a snail's pace and some of the vital issues have been put on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, online assemblies are held like the one held in the first week of February.

The influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics, which has aired its views on a range of church teachings including women's ordination and sexual morality, is taking part in the assembly only on condition that it makes binding policies for the German Church.

The Vatican has already pressed its high-ranking officials to tame the troublesome German Church

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and former president of the German bishops' conference and a close ally of Pope Francis, has categorically stated that decisions of the Synodal Path are binding.

After the conclusion, the path will submit its decision to the pope, requesting changes to the Catechism.

The Vatican has already pressed its high-ranking officials to tame the troublesome German Church.

During an interview with Spain's Church-owned COPE radio network on April 5, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, stressed the importance of unity and decried divisions within the Church between the conservative and progressive wings.

Three days earlier, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, urged Catholics to desist from ways that are dividing the Church.

The possibility of a German mutiny — five centuries after the Reformation — cannot be fully ruled out against Pope Francis' church of the poor by a wealthy German Church.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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