CATHOLIC VALUES COLUMNIST
If Pope Francis is worried about an entire country’s bishops not acting in communion with Rome, something is definitely wrong. Yet that’s where Germany’s bishops find themselves today, toeing the line between giving each other advice and changing the Catholic Church for the worse.
Francis condemned Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and president of the German bishops’ council, after Marx unveiled his plan for a “binding synodal assembly” that could redefine Catholic teaching on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and female ordination to Holy Orders.
For any other group of bishops, this might seem unthinkable, but the German bishops are an episcopal body like no other. Their brazenness knows no bounds.
Just recently, German leaders advocated not just for the divorced and civilly remarried to be admitted to Holy Communion but for non-Catholic, Protestant spouses to receive the Eucharist. In fact, Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote that not only does this sacrilege exist in many German Catholic parishes but the country’s bishops readily approve of it.
When Pope Francis tried to put the kibosh on this plan, the German bishops responded by effectively saying they couldn’t care less what the Vatican had to say about it. Imagine being so “progressive” that Pope Francis has to reign you in, but then you just blow him off. And now the German bishops have a chance to do so on an even bigger stage.
For all the controversy the church in the United States has faced in the past few years, never have the bishops of our country come near to a full-on break from communion with Rome like this. Not even close. Sure, we have our McElroys and Cupiches and Gumbletons, but they are a significant minority. But imagine if they made up 80% of the USCCB. The American church would be in an even more horrific state.
Germany does have that 80% of bishops, and they’re not afraid of controversy. Marx has invited the Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK) to join in the assembly’s deliberations.
This group’s leaders advocate for an end to clerical celibacy, the immediate ordination of women to the diaconate and eventually to the priesthood and the blessing of same-sex unions in churches.
Cardinal Marx has gone on record calling Catholic sexual morality into question, suggesting that same-sex unions can be blessed by the Catholic Church and that the legalization of those unions is of no concern to the Church. And he’s the one spearheading this initiative.
What Marx is proposing to do is for their discussions to serve as binding for German Catholics, that is, giving new understandings to the doctrines of the Church but only for Germany. As George Weigel notes in an open letter to Cardinal Marx, separating from the rest of the universal church is what the Anglicans did to themselves. Now, the Anglican Church is more fractured than ever.
But of more concern is this: Marx is undermining the very magisterium he has been charged to protect. By his comments and his inclusion of groups such as the ZdK, it is clear that the goal of Marx and his allies is not to clarify the Church’s teachings on matters of Holy Orders and sexuality but to distort them to fit their so-called progressive agenda. The leaders of the ZdK have admitted as much.
This begs the question of why the German bishops feel such an excommunicable act is necessary. Marx says it’s an attempt to bring in the hundreds of thousands of German Catholics who leave the pews every year. He even said that “the faith can only grow and deepen if we are liberated from blocked thinking, in order to pursue free and open debates and the ability to take new positions and go down new paths.” In other words, Marx is saying that to bring more people in the Catholic Church, the Church must stop being Catholic.
Pope Francis and the Vatican have attempted to intervene, telling the bishops their plan is “not ecclesiologically valid” and seeks to change universal Church norms by creating a divergent theological reality. But when the bishops met last week to review their agenda, only small and insignificant changes were made, showing just how much respect the German prelates have for Pope Francis’ authority.
If this joke of an assembly bears the bad fruit the Vatican and many of us anticipate, the Church in Germany will be devastated. The time has come for the German Church to become small, as a young priest named Joseph Ratzinger said 50 years ago, and to return to its former fidelity; perhaps this shrinking should begin with the ranks of the German bishops. Without these misleading shepherds, the church might return to life in the Rhineland.