The German Catholic Church’s Threat to Unity

German bishops pray during a service to open the annual bishop’s conference in Fulda in 2007. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
Convened to address problems within the German Church, a new Church-affiliated body appears to be questioning essential Catholic doctrine.

“That all they may be one!” “Ut unum sint!”

Five hundred Years after Martin Luther, the unity of the Church is again at stake in Germany. In that country, the German Bishops Conference and other influential German Catholics have embarked on what they are calling a “Synodal Path” (Synodaler Weg) that is working together on the range of theological and disciplinary matters in the Church, including several controversial issues contrary to the Catholic faith, such as: changing church governance, the status of same-sex couples, sharing the Eucharist with Protestants (intercommunion), communion with Protestants, and ordination of female priests, among others.

But if early signs are any indication, the endpoint of this dialogue seems likely to be rupture. Last month, Church employees in 100 Catholic churches across Germany blessed same-sex unions as a protest against an attempt by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a key doctrinal arm of the Catholic Church, to clarify the Church’s views on the matter. More than 230 professors of Catholic Theology signed the petition against the CDF.  

The CDF’s statement said that the marriage between a man and a woman is sacrament and therefore it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable ones, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.” The protesters said that the CDF text was “marked by a paternalistic air of superiority and discriminates against homosexual people and their life plans.” Another part of their protest involved allowing twelve women, parish assistants, to preach in German churches or cathedrals, symbolizing the twelve “apostles.”

Naturally, the universal Church is following the developments of the Synodal Path, and its threat to Church unity, with concern. It is, alas, not entirely without precedent. This new attempt to reform the Church can be seen as a continuation of the progressive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), where frequently the Church’s magisterial authority and Canon Law were questioned or ignored, especially in German-speaking countries and their Catholic faculties and seminaries, under the pretense of “decentralization from Rome” and freedom of scientific research. In the post–Vatican II era, liturgical experimentations and abuses took also place, such as inter-concelebration (of some Catholic priests with Protestant ministers), lay-preaching, intercommunion, a near-disappearance of the sacrament of penance in many parishes, and, lately, blessings of same-sex unions.

Yet it remains true that the Catholic Church in Germany has contributed greatly to the universal Church and its theology. We can find also very devoted Catholics across Germany, especially in the south, to some extent in the west, and in the Catholic diaspora (where they strive to live their faith authentically with enthusiasm). I noticed that in Bavaria and Erfurt.

Here we can mention the situation in the East Germany, where the majority of Eastern Germans, as a result of the Soviet occupation, communist ideologies, and secularism, do not belong to any church or are not even baptized. Protestantism was once very strong in this region; now, it is a minority. Here we find a Catholic diaspora, where Catholics are active in a new evangelization.

The root cause of the gradual estrangement of a significant number of German Catholics from Rome and the rest of the universal Church, however, seems to be found in a strongly secularized culture (only around 10 percent of German Catholics go to church on Sundays), in modernist ideas once condemned by Popes Pius IX and Pius X, in Protestant influence, and in the “Zeitgeist.” In this culture, there are no stable principles even regarding divine revelation and faith. Instead of maintaining the balance and complementarity between faith and reason, a strong secularism, modernism, and pragmatism want to submit the faith completely under reason to be a subject to the scientific research, and its application to the needs of a modern man.

The Protestant influence was much stronger in the north than south. All these forces have shaped the mentality of many of German Catholics, as well as the Church’s understanding of a significant number of influential Christian faithful and pastors. The post–Vatican II popes intervened whenever the Zeitgeist threatened the faith, confirming and correcting brothers in the faith.

With the Synodal Path, however, the implementation of the progressive reforms in the Church in Germany reached a new level of estrangement from the Catholic faith. Pope Francis (see for example here) and the CDF have expressed already their concerns regarding the current “Church reform” proposed by the Synodal Path.

Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, warned that the Synodal Path reform project could lead to a “German national church.” Cardinal Woelki added that: “The worst outcome would be if the Synodal Path leads to a schism . . . with the universal church. That would be the worst thing if something like a German national church were to be created here.”

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To understand where this path may lead, and why it is a cause for concern, it is necessary to understand who is part of it, and what they hope to accomplish.

The Synodal Assembly is composed of 230 members, including the members of the German Bishops’ Conference, where bishops inclined to the progressive changes are a majority, and an equal number of laypeople, where there are a significant number of members of the Central Committee of Catholics (ZdK), a German group known for its ultra-liberal reputation.

The Synodal Path process is motivated in part by a desire to stop a great exodus of departing German Catholics and to address the priestly sexual-abuse crisis. Thus, it is focused on four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women in ministries and offices in the Church. The culmination of the process will be reached most probably with the final document of the Synodal Path this fall. The process itself is “binding,” meaning that its ultimate choices will actually take effect. And everything is up for debate, including controversial issues such as ordination of female priests, acceptance and blessings of same-sex unions, intercommunion, distribution of the Holy Communion to the divorced, leadership of the laypeople in the Church, etc.

In addition to that, one of the goals the synodal reform is to change completely the ecclesial structures of the Church in Germany and elsewhere. Large number of members of the Synodal Path are proposing to abolish the divine constitution of the Church. This refers to the visible, earthly means by which the invisible, divine character of the Catholic Church is preserved and governed. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ entrusted the governance of the Church to the apostles and their successors, the bishops. Among them, Jesus placed Peter and his successor popes to lead the Church along other bishops. (The Pope and College of Bishops are supreme authority in the Church.) They are appointed not for a term, but for their whole lives, except they are encouraged to retire at 75.

The bishops, in communion with the Pope, are entrusted with the teaching (Magisterium), sanctifying (Sacraments), and governing function in the Church. The priests are their closest coworkers in the mission of the Church and participate by extension in these three functions. The pope as successor of Peter and universal shepherd is entrusted to watch over the deposit of faith, confirm brothers in faith, and to be a visible instrument of unity of the Church. The Pope and College of Bishops have supreme, universal, full, and immediate ordinary power over the universal Church. This doesn’t mean that laypeople have no role in the Church; any diocese proves otherwise. But these structures outline a different mode of internal church governance.

Thus, the local Church (as in, say, in Germany) can not say what Cardinal Reinhard Marx said in 2015, when he declared that it is “not a branch from the Church in Rome.” The Local Church (in Germany) or particular church (diocese) does not have the authority to change the doctrines of faith and morals. Even the universal Church cannot change the divine law. It can, however, interpret and expound the Catholic doctrine.

According to the Synodal Path, however, the Catholic Church must adopt the structures and processes of secular liberal democracy operating through a network of synods and synod-like bodies. All leadership positions in the Church, including bishops and pastors, are to be elective and term-limited; their decisions can be overruled by majority vote. The pope’s role in nomination of bishops should be simply a confirmation of the results of the elections, which would take place on the local level. The German Catholic Church, in this vision, would become a quasi-democratic body.

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One of the reasons what happens in the German Catholic Church has global implications is that it has many resources. Starting in the 19th century, and then formalized in the Weimar Constitution (1919) and the Reichskonkordat (1933), the Catholic Church in Germany, once attacked by the hostile anti-Catholic government, has been recognized and allowed to collect church taxes as restitution and for keeping up her mission. This church tax is imposed by the state on members of some religious congregations to provide financial support for churches, such as the salaries of employees and clergy, and to pay the operating cost of the church. About 70 percent of church revenues come from the church tax (Kirchensteuer), also called worship tax (Kultussteuer) when referring to non-Christian religious denominations such as Jewish synagogues. This tax revenue comes from the salaries of registered believers: Depending on the state in which they reside, registered Catholics (and members of other religious groups recognized as “Corporations under public law”) pay 8–9 percent of what they pay in income tax for the church tax.

Thanks to the church taxes, the Catholic Church in Germany became the second-biggest employer (“Arbeitgeber”) after the state and one of the most important charitable institutions in Germany. The church-tax systems open the possibility to use other donations for helping the local churches in diaspora or in the third-world, persecuted Christians, and other charities around the globe. But the wealth of the German church has had other effects as well. It has created a huge number of church employees and an outsized church bureaucracy with a lot of influence and power in the Church. As we can see in the Synodal Path, a significant number of these employees are unfortunately not sharing the Catholic vision of the Church anymore; a notable example is the numerous members of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). The wealth of the German tax also serves to amplify the German Catholic Church’s actions and vision, hence the attention given to the Synodal Path, which could have global implications even as the German Catholic Church’s pews are steadily emptying.

Leave aside, for a moment, the proposed reform of the Catholic Church’s doctrine and structures. The rest of the universal Church, whether conservatives or progressives, whether Americans or Europeans, can at least agree on one of the goals of the Synodal Path in Germany: The Church must address the abuse crisis on local and universal level with truthfulness, humility, and better protection of minors. That is the only way that the Church may regain credibility as a moral authority and shine as a light to the nations (as was called for in Lumen Gentium, one of the essential documents of Vatican II). The main problem, however, is that, under the pretense of the abuse crisis, issues such as the divine constitution of the Church, Catholic doctrine, priestly celibacy, and female ordination are being debated on a local level, whereby the universal Church already responded in a binding or in a definitive way concerning these matters by the Magisterium, the authoritative source of Church teaching.

So this is one serious problem with the Synodal Path in practice. But I think it is also wrong in theory to believe, as its members seem to, that Catholics who have left the church would be attracted back through a new “Protestant Reformation.” Instead of being used to change Catholic doctrine and ecclesial structure, the active role of the laypeople in the Church should be used for a new evangelization and for a more authentic way of Christian life. But the change of the Church and hunger for power of ultra-liberal Catholics currently seems to prevail over the desire for evangelization.

* * *

Why should Catholics around the world be concerned about the Synodal Path’s initiative? Because the Church’s unity is at stake today again over the doctrine and ecclesial communion, as it was 500 years ago. The situation is serious today as well, since many German bishops seem not to be very clear about what they think and are willing to go along with these ultra-progressive agendas. They are pushing the limits of what they can get away with. It is most likely that the final document of the Synodal Path, due out this fall, will contain erroneous doctrines and will ultimately refuse to submit to the pope and to the College of Bishops regarding faith and morals. Indeed, the documents of the Synodal Path forums already contain ideas contrary to the Church constitution and teaching.

If that happens, what comes next? I can see three possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, the final document containing the above-mentioned demands will be presented to the pope. The pope will be not able to accept demands contrary to the Catholic faith. Many Catholics will accept the Holy Father’s instruction. But some Catholics won’t. Most will probably leave the Catholic Church and end up in situations of apostasy and schism.

In the second scenario, the systematic implementation of doctrinal errors in German dioceses would create a situation of heresy or even apostasy (depending on the level of the rejection of the Catholic teaching). And those Catholics, including bishops, who would refuse to recant and submit to the authority of the pope — who is the visible sign of the unity of the Church — would automatically incur excommunication on the grounds of the heresy (apostasy) and the schism.

In this scenario, the Church’s supreme authority will have no other option than to declare the excommunication publicly. Since the scandal would already be public and would cause lot of damage, it would be necessary to clarify once again publicly what the teaching of the Catholic faith is in these matters.

The third or worst scenario would be if Rome would for some reason fail to address this situation on time; the heterodoxy would consequently rashly spread within the Church. In that case, the Catholic faith would be at stake, since she binds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together. As a result, one diocese, which would have an orthodox bishop, would remain Catholic in practice; and another would have a bishop inclined to heterodox ideas. The practical result is that it would actually no longer be a catholic — i.e., universal — faith. This scenario would enable heterodox ideas to spread within the universal Church.

Since various heretical movements and schisms have emerged in the Church throughout her history, it would be crucial for the sake of the unity of the Church and the prevention of spreading errors within the Church that the Holy See does not react too late. In this very sensitive matter, it is important that the Holy See is willing to enter into dialogue in order to prevent the split and establishment of the national German church, and that, at the same time, it maintains clarity in Catholic doctrine in order to confirm the faithful and pastors of the Church in the true catholic faith.

It also important that the Holy See react without delay. What, exactly, would that mean? Let us see what the Canon Law provides regarding the heresy and apostasy.

In the case of the Synodal Path reform in Germany, some of the core of the beliefs of the Catholic Church, such as the Church’s divine constitution and ecclesial communion, the Sacraments, and the ministerial Priesthood, are being questioned once again.

An apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic automatically incurs excommunication, when the delict (or violation) is committed. That is, the act itself is the violation. This means that the person put himself outside of the full communion with the Catholic Church and cannot be admitted to the Sacraments and Holy Communion, until he recants and is absolved (from the sin and the penalty incurred) in the sacrament of Penance.

This kind of penalty is called a medicinal penalty, because it serves as a medicine to the offender. The purpose of the medicinal penalty is that the offender recants in order to be readmitted into full communion with the Church. The ordained ministers can be punished by additional expiatory penalties such as suspension and even dismissal from the clerical state. The excommunicated person is forbidden from having any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any worship whatsoever; from celebrating the sacraments or receiving the sacraments; and from exercising any ecclesiastical offices or functions or acts of governance. If the excommunication is declared or imposed, the offender invalidly places acts of governance and is forbidden to benefit from the privileges attached to his office This would be the case also for an apostate, heretic, schismatic bishop, presbyter, or deacon.

In the case of several members of the Synodal Path and some Christian faithful, the refusal to submit to the Church’s supreme authority and Canon Law is evident over a longer period of time. Canon law defines the schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Canon Law reserves the homily to a priest or deacon in virtue of their ordination.

As we can see, the Church’s unity is at stake on the grounds of schism and heresy (apostasy). Any of these steps in some way threaten the unity of the universal Church. And so also has the Synodal Path threatened that unity by acting in a way to make at least one of these steps likely.

So what can Catholics do? The same thing we always do. The universal Church must be mobilized in prayer with Jesus Christ, Her Founder, who prayed at the Last Supper that all his disciples may be one! Only God can enlighten the hearts of the faithful to preserve us in the profession of the same catholic faith.

Fr. Goran Jovicic is a Roman Catholic priest from Diocese of Subotica, and assistant professor of dogmatics at St. Patrick's Seminary & University.  


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