St. Athanasius, Pray for Us! Thoughts on the Synodal Path in Germany

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Monday was the Memorial of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt and Doctor of the Church. Athanasius (c. 296-373) is known as the defender of orthodoxy because of his resolute and unwavering defense of the Nicene Creed in the face of challenges by Arian heretics who denied the divinity of Christ. Every age of the Church has needed its Athanasius, and we are especially in need of an Athanasius in this age of the Church. Happily, there are those bishops who have stood up to defend the orthodox teaching of the Church against those who would undermine that teaching in an effort to align the Church more with the priorities of the world than with the priorities of Christ.

St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Sadly, some bishops, and even cardinals, have forgotten Paul’s admonition, an admonition especially appropriate to those who lead the various flocks of the Church around the world.

Since 2019, the Catholic Church in Germany has been engaged in what they have called “the Synodal path,” a series of conferences of bishops, heads of religious orders, and lay Catholics gathering to discuss and vote on various aspects of Church life, with the ostensible mission of improving Church life, especially in response to the sexual abuse crisis. There have been a handful of conferences already, and the Synodal Path is scheduled to end in 2023. Sadly, the Synodal Path has moved away from its original mission (if, indeed, it ever was its original mission) of reforming Church life according to the teachings of the Church and has presumed to adopt positions contrary to Catholic faith and moral doctrine. At its February 2022 conference, the “Synodal Assembly,” which consists of voting members, endorsed the following:

  1. That the Church should ordain women to the priesthood.
  2. That the laity should have more influence in the election of bishops.
  3. That homosexual partnerships/unions should receive the Church’s blessing in a public ceremony.
  4. That the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics should be changed to accept homosexual acts within same-sex unions/partnerships as morally acceptably and not sinful.
  5. That married priests should be allowed.
  6. That changes be made to labor laws in the German Church to prohibit the firing or refusal to hire persons based on marital status.

Happily, these proposals have been met with criticism from within and without the German Church. Pope Francis has himself raised concerns about the Synodal Path in Germany, expressing his dismay over groups that claim to want to improve Church life, but without the Eucharist, without the rest of the Church and, therefore, without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Father has urged the Church in Germany to adopt a more evangelical mission for its Synodal Path, rather than one that focuses on Church structure and adopting positions contrary to Church teaching. The Synodal Assembly rejected the Holy Father’s urgings.

In September 2019, before the Synodal Assembly had adopted its propositions, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, sent a letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, informing him that the Synodal Assembly was “not ecclesiastically valid,” so it had no authority to make binding decision on the Church in Germany, and that it was not for the Synodal Assembly to consider Church teachings and disciplines that “cannot be the object of deliberations or decisions of a particular Church.”

In my mind the whole thing has gotten quite out of hand, and one is forced to wonder, respectfully, what Pope Francis’ intentions are in allowing the process to continue. Just last month, Cardinal Marx publicly declared that homosexual unions that include sexual intimacy are of value and that he himself has blessed same-sex couples, an action the Vatican has said it is not possible for the Church to do. While not a participant in the German Church Synodal Path, earlier this year Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, also called for a change in the Church’s teaching to accept homosexual sexual relations and unions. Hollerich’s comments were in response to a campaign were 125 Church employees in Germany outed themselves as “queer.”

(On a side note, but an important one: one of the difficulties in discussing this issue is a lack of honesty in deliberating what the Church actually teaches. Both Cardinals Marx and Hollerich speak of homosexuality not being a sin, of God loving homosexuals, and of the need for homosexuals to be welcomed in the Church. These two leaders of the Church ought to be ashamed of themselves in using language that is so loose and misleading as to confuse the faithful. Personally, I wonder if it’s intentional, because I’ve faced the same loose and misleading language in discussions with others on this matter. The Church has long taught that a homosexual orientation is not a sin, but morally neutral, though it does represent a disordered nature. How could it not? God’s gift of sexuality is ordered toward the begetting of children, which is impossible in homosexual sexual acts. Of course, God loves homosexuals. God loves us all! God’s loving us does not determine the moral good or evil of an action, otherwise we could justify all sorts of loathsome, horrendous actions has morally good (including mine!) simply because God genuinely loves the one who commits such acts (including me!). Finally, the Church welcomes all, but she does not welcome actions that God has condemned in His revelation and that the Church has condemned from the first decades of her existence based on that revelation. The challenge to form our wills according to God’s will is for all of us.)

But this is a good news story. How so? Because the bishops of the world have not allowed the potential running off the rails of the Synodal Path in Germany to go unnoticed or unaddressed. In February 2020 the Ukrainian bishops sent a letter to the bishops of Germany encouraging them to remain faithful to the centuries-old teachings of the Church. In February of this year, the Polish bishops also sent a letter to the German bishops imploring them, as well, to not follow the inspirations of the world but to remain faithful to the Gospel. The bishops of Scandinavia have written their own letter to the bishops of Germany, reminding them that true reforms in the Church have always “set out from Catholic teaching founded on divine Revelation and authentic Tradition.” Finally, during Holy Week, English-speaking bishops from around the world sent a letter to the German bishops criticizing the Synodal Path’s direction of questioning settled matters of Catholic faith and morals. The English-speaking bishops’ letter was published with over seventy signatories. It now has over one hundred, representing North American, South America, Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia. I expect the list of signatories to continue to grow.

The English-speaking bishops identify seven areas of concerns, though they say their concerns are not limited to these seven:

  1. Failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and, thus, undermining the credibility of the Church’s authority, including that of the pope and of Scripture.
  2. The documents of the Synodal Path seem more inspired by worldly ideologies than by Scripture and Tradition, including gender ideologies.
  3. The Synodal Path seems to reinterpret the idea of “freedom” from a Christian understanding of the knowledge, will, and ability to do what is right in alignment with what is true to one of “autonomy” and “self-assertion.”
  4. The joy of the Gospel seems absent from the Synodal Path’s documents.
  5. The process of the Synodal Path is largely the work of “experts” and “bureaucrats,” is hyper-critical and inward-looking, rather than evangelical, seemingly more submissive to the world than to Jesus Christ.
  6. A focus on “power” in the Church rather than the nature of Christian life; a focus on the Church as “institution” rather than a “community” united in Christ.
  7. The poor example of the German Church may lead bishops and lay faithful to distrust the idea of “synodality” and, therefore, may impede the genuine need for a conversation on how the Church can fulfill her mission of converting the world to Christ.

There is legitimate concern, in my mind, that Germany’s Synodal Path may de-rail Pope Francis’ goals for the “Synod on Synodality” planned for October 2023, when the bishops of the world will gather to discuss and, presumably, make decisions based on the contributions of faithful Catholics all over the world who have responded to Francis’ call for the Church to listen more to the voices of Catholics of all stripes. Doubtless there will be those who are suspicious of such a process, thinking it a ruse simply to adopt worldly morals and changes in Church teaching that satisfy the “progressives” and “liberals” in the Church. Doubtless, too, there will be those, like in Germany, who will attempt to hijack the synodal process to do just that – introduce changes in Church faith and morals that more reflect the priorities of the world than the revelation of Christ. Finally, there will doubtless be those uninterested in the whole thing, figuring it just another attempt by Church leaders to pretend to listen to the concerns of the people in the pew that will come to nothing.

Francis has said, that synodality is “not a plan or program to be implemented,” but “a style to be adopted.” It is, Francis insisted, about listening to the Holy Spirit, and not “a majority consensus like a parliament.” Those hopeful that the Synod on Synodality will be the instrument by which their longed for “reforms” (same-sex marriages, women priests, open Communion, abortion and contraception, etc) will be adopted, or at least will represent the crack in the door, will be sorely disappointed (yet again!). Those who fear the Synod on Synodality will be the victory of the left wing of the Church may be pleasantly surprised, or may simply be relieved that Francis isn’t planning to revoke Nicaea. Whew! Another near miss! 😉 Perhaps those who expect nothing will come of it all will be the ones least likely to be disappointed or pleasantly surprised. Who knows? I made a point of participating in one of my own parish’s listening sessions. I am hopeful. But I long ago learned to keep my hopes high and my expectations low.

What is hopeful, however, and what makes this a good news story is that bishops from around the world have recognized that the road the Synodal Path in Germany has taken is not consistent with the movement of the Spirit in the life of the Church and – even more hopeful – have said something about it. I take some glimmer of hope, too that, while Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, offered a response to the English-speaking bishops’ letter that was on the whole disappointing, he has promised that the reforms recommended by the Synodal Path in Germany that can only be approved and put in place by the universal Church will be submitted to the bishops’ Synod on Synodality in October 2023. Presumably, those reforms rejected by the Synod will not be implemented in Germany.

What then? Again, who knows? It’s not unreasonable to imagine that some of those who have participated in Germany’s Synodal Path will be disappointed when (sorry, not if) their reforms that contravene Church teaching are rejected. Will they accept this? Will they say, “Okay, we participated in the process, and this is part of the process. We had our say. Our voices were heard. But those who have authority in the Church to teach have said, ‘No.’ So, there it is.” Hmmm … Somehow, I’m not feeling it. There are those who only believe that they are heard only when those who listen embrace their view. If their view is rejected, by that very fact they will insist that they’ve not been heard. I recall a conversation I had many years ago with a classmate in nursing school. She made her point and I made mine, though it was obvious neither of us converted the other to our way of thinking. The next day, she rebuked me in class, telling me, “You didn’t listen to what I had to say.” I replied, “Yes, I did listen. I simply continued to disagree with you.”

Concern, then, that the Church in Germany, or a significant part of it, will choose the way of schism is a real concern. There will be those Catholics in the German Church who will continue in unity with the pope and the universal Church. Indeed, there have been those bishops and lay persons in Germany who have resigned and abandoned the Synodal Path out of concerns over orthodoxy. But my bet is that they will be in the minority. This is a tragedy. At the same time, the Church cannot abandon the teachings of faith and morals she has held for centuries and that are rooted in the Scriptures for the sake of accommodating ideologies less than two decades old and rooted in the ever-shifting winds of political, social or cultural movements. At one point, half the world’s bishops were Arians. The Church refused to accommodate them and, while it took a few centuries, sure, Arians are now relegated to a handful of Christian sects in the Middle East. Well, at least formal Arians. The day may come when, after impressing upon them the admonition of St. Paul from his Letter to the Romans cited above, the Church will have to say, frankly but lovingly, to the Catholics of Germany what Joshua said to the tribes of Israel at Shechem: “If it displeasing to you to serve the Lord, choose today whom you will serve, the gods your ancestors served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24:15).

Of course, we are all given that challenge every day to choose whom we will serve. Let’s pray that the Catholics of Germany, and each of us in our own place, will choose to serve the Lord.

St. Athanasius, pray for us!

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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