The universal Church is about to witness, in the homeland of Martin Luther, some (but not all) German bishops taking a dangerous path toward open schism with the pope. In outright rebellion to the text by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 15, 2021, which denied that the Church has the authority to bless “same-sex unions,” various German bishops plan to do just that on May 10.
Their website “Love wins, blessing service for lovers” calls for participants to upload their pictures to express agreement with a short statement, which begins, “We do not refuse a blessing ceremony. We do this in our responsibility as pastors” and ends, “We do not accept that an exclusive and outdated sexual morality is carried out on the backs of people and undermines our work in pastoral care.”
The chairman of the German bishop conference, Bishop Georg Batzing, has condemned this “call” and labeled it “not suitable as an instrument for church political manifestations or protest actions.” He believes sexual morality must be discussed in the context of the Synodal Way, a process the German Catholic Church launched in December 2019, in response to the sexual abuse crisis.
Four topics are currently being examined: power and Separations of Powers in the Church; sexuality and partnership; the priesthood; and women in ministries and offices in the Church. Unfortunately, many of the documents thus far produced have not strengthened the evangelical and apostolic mission of the Church, but rather merely reflect the message of a divided (and divisive), confused, and secular society.
The genesis of this problem may very well be monetary. Church taxes – paid voluntarily, and collected from Catholic parishioners’ total income tax, 8-9 percent depending on the region of Germany – amounted to almost $7 billion in 2020. The salaries for bishops and priests, upwards of 180,000 euros (more than $215,000 dollars) a year for a bishop, and 96,000 euros (around $115,000) for a priest, are paid from the Church tax.
In the past year, however, it’s estimated that 300,000 Catholics left the Church in Germany. Keeping the flock from leaving is not only an evangelical mission but a financial necessity.
Many faithful Catholics in Germany believe this accommodation to secular demands is a ploy to attract more parishioners. Michael Hesemann, a German Catholic and author of the recently published Jesus of Nazareth: Archaeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ believes those who actually attend Mass do not agree with the Synodal way or the schismatic threats.
Like American Catholics, most German Catholics attend weekly and daily Mass out of genuine belief in the salvific message of Jesus Christ. People freely choose Roman Catholicism specifically for a disciplined liturgical structure and the clear succinct teachings of the Magisterium. As George Weigel has said, “Catholic lite equals Catholic zero.”
The German bishops should look to their Protestant counterparts, who have capitulated to liberal teachings. Attendance in Protestant German churches is probably less than 3 percent of the population; the German Bishop’s Conference estimates Catholic attendance still remains around 9 percent. Numbers vary, but in the small village where my husband and I attend Mass, we see multi-generations filling pews and empty parking lots at Protestant Churches.
The majority of practicing Catholics in Germany are actually foreigners from America, Nigeria, Croatia, and even France. Still, there is irony in the fact that Luther’s homeland is now more Catholic than Protestant in terms of practice.
Martin Luther warned centuries ago, “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.” The grounds for a de facto schism in Germany have already been in place. From the very beginning, bishops supporting and participating in the Synodal Way were making pronouncements about not having to conform to Church doctrine or Rome.
In 2019, German Catholics gathered to discuss such issues as remarriage after divorce, and same-sex unions. The talks were described as tense, and there was palpable shock at those who supported the Magisterium. Yet the majority of those in the pews protest an agenda that includes women’s ordination, rewriting the Catechism, lifting of celibacy for priests, and blessing unholy or irregular unions.
Instead of acting as true Catholic shepherds, German prelates apparently believe they can lead the faithful without embracing the truth of Scripture or the Magisterium. After all, what did St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, or Cardinal Ratzinger really know about people today?
Schism is a great evil. As Pope Leo XIII wrote: “There is nothing more grievous than the sacrilege, there can be no just necessity for destroying the unity of the church.” Schism is the refusal to submit to proper papal authority or failure to remain in communion with the universal Church. Anyone guilty of an external act of schism is ipso facto excommunicated.
A further problem will arise in the actions the Vatican will have to take in the face of schismatic acts by bishops who openly controvert Church teaching. Bishop Franz Josef Overbeck, the Ordinary of Essen, has said that his priests will face no canonical discipline for blessing gay and lesbian unions. To date, no couples have signed up to participate in his diocese. But there seems little likelihood of walking back from the brink of what’s been threatened.
The actions of bishops, who eschew the hard work of genuine moral and spiritual conversion in an exchange for overly simplistic cultural platitudes, will have consequences reaching far beyond their dioceses.
Every Sunday, Catholics throughout the universal Church gather in front of the altar to profess their belief “in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Body of Christ, like any organic body, cannot be divided or fractured and remain healthy. Every parish and diocese in the world needs others in order to effectively proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. Excommunicating swaths of the German Church will affect the universal Church not only monetarily, but spiritually. A wound to one part of the body is a wound to the entire body.
*Image: The Schism by Jehan Georges Vibert, c. 1874 [Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT]