Last week, 70 bishops from around the world wrote to Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the German Bishops Conference, to express growing concerns about the direction of the German “Synodal Path.” (More bishops have since added their names to the letter.) This was the latest in a string of such interventions urging the Germans to pump the brakes. Bishop Bätzing’s response, published three days after the initial letter, is unlikely to quell any of those concerns.
Indeed, Bishops Bätzing didn’t seem particularly concerned with engaging criticism so much as waving it off. He actually expressed “astonishment” at his brother bishops’ concerns about the Synodal Path, which is a little strange given that similar and related concerns were expressed publicly by the Nordic bishops just last month. . .and by Polish bishops (on more than one occasion). . .and even by Pope Francis himself.
The Synodal Path, according to Bätzing, “is oriented precisely not towards short-lived sociological theories or secular ideologies, but towards the central sources of knowledge of the faith: Scripture and tradition, the Magisterium and theology, as well as the faith sense of the faithful and the signs of the times interpreted in the light of the Gospel.”
“This basic orientation,” Bishop Bätzing continues, “determines the considerations of the Synodal Path in careful theological reflection. Therefore, it is not correct to say that there is a danger of schism emanating from the Catholic Church in Germany.”
Of course, the stated concern of the recent episcopal interventions is not that the Synodal Path has failed to “reflect” on “Scripture and tradition, the Magisterium and theology” but that the German view of these “central sources” is divergent from – indeed, incompatible with – the rest of the Church. Blithe confidence in divergent views only increases the danger of schism rather than the opposite.
It’s important to realize the degree to which the abuse crisis has shaped the German Synodal Path. Bishop Bätzing makes a clear connection between the abuse crises that have rocked his country in recent years and the need for significant reforms. “The Synodal Path,” Bätzing writes, “is our attempt in Germany to confront the systemic causes of abuse and its cover-up, which has caused untold suffering to so many people in the Church and through the Church.” That is an understandable position, and one clearly shared by many others in Germany.
And some of the reforms being considered or proposed by the Synodal Path make sense, in this light. For example, proposals for reforming the way bishops are nominated, how seminarians are formed, and how cases of accused priests are handled. These are obvious, if complicated, issues that many local and national churches are grappling with and will continue to grapple with for years. The Church in the United States has had the Dallas Charter for two full decades and we’re still struggling with many of these questions.
As complicated as some of the questions can be, putting in place standards of accountability or reforming episcopal nominations or seminary formation are, in some ways, the easy part. Changing a clerical culture that instinctively protects its own is much more difficult. The abuse of power is not the sort of problem that can be eliminated simply by shifting power from one group (clergy) to another (laity), as if the laity is somehow immune from the temptation to abuse authority. Of course, conceiving of the Church primarily in terms of “power” is a serious mistake in its own right.
In his 2019 letter to the German Church, Pope Francis warned against a kind of Pelagianism that hopes to “save” the Church through structural and organizational reforms:
Following this path, the Church’s life could eliminate tensions, be “in order and in tune,” but it would only mean that the Church over time would fall asleep and the heart of our people would be tamed and would shrink, until the vital and evangelical force that the Spirit wants to give falls silent. This would be the great sin of worldliness and of the anti-evangelical worldly spirit. There would be a good, well-organized and even “modernized” Church, but with no soul or Gospel newness. We would live a vapid Christianity with no evangelical flavor.
Pope Francis has made similar statements to the American bishops in the past. Organizational reforms are important, but conversion – and evangelization – are much more essential.
For all the talk about the need for unflinching reform in the wake of the abuse crisis, the most controversial proposals coming out of the German Synodal Path have little obvious connection to the abuse crisis. In fact, many of the Synodal Path’s recommendations from its latest session are precisely the same set of issues Catholic progressives have been pushing for decades: end priestly celibacy, ordain women, abandon the Church’s teaching on the nature of human sexuality and human acts (i.e., drop the Church’s “outdated” prohibitions against contraception and sodomy).
A Church that has lost faith in its own teachings cannot be a credible herald of the Gospel. Nor is this a problem that can be resolved by choosing more socially acceptable teachings. The faith in Germany will not be revived by a Church that sees her own teachings as obstacles to be overcome rather than Good News to be proclaimed.
And this, too, is a point that Pope Francis has made to the bishops of Germany: “[T]he Church begins by evangelizing herself. A community of believers, a community of lived and shared hope, a community of fraternal love, she needs to listen constantly to what she must believe, the reasons for her hope, the new commandment of love.”
A synodal Church is a listening Church. We’ve heard this over and over and over again. One can only hope that the German church will learn to “listen constantly to what she must believe,” especially as the number of the world’s bishops urging caution continues to grow.
*Image: Bishop Georg Bätzing at the German bishops’ spring meeting, February 2021. [Sascha Steinbach/EPA]
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