The bishops of Germany have rejected a document that called for a liberalization of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. The document was drawn up by the Synodal Way, an ongoing conference of bishops and laity in Germany who are debating Church teaching and governance and proposing new teachings and forms of governance for the Church that compromise Church teaching in order to accommodate contemporary culture and values. The document, “Living in Successful Relationships,” received the required two-thirds majority vote from all voters, but a two-thirds majority vote of the nation’s bishops was also required. Of the 57 German bishops, 33 voted in favor of the document, failing to reach a two-thirds majority.
The document claims that it is “urgently necessary to overcome some of the restrictions in questions of sexuality, for reasons of sexual science as well as theology.” It calls for changes in Church teaching on homosexuality and said that “it will not be possible to reorient pastoral care without re-defining the emphasis of the Church’s sexual teaching to a significant degree.”
Pope Francis has warned the German bishops and laity that a rejection of Church teaching and demands for new forms of governance in the Church would jeopardize the unity of the universal Church. As well, the Vatican has been adamant in insisting that the Synodal Way does not have the authority to change Church teaching or adopt new forms of governance for the Church. A statement from the Vatican read: “In order to protect the freedom of the people of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry, it would appear necessary to clarify that the ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the power to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.” It hasn’t been only the Vatican that has criticized Germany’s Synodal Way. Bishops from around the world have spoken out that the Church in Germany is threatening the unity of the Church by promoting heretical teachings.
Frustrated with the outcome of the vote, Bishop George Batzing, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, said that the rejection of the document created a “crisis-like atmosphere,” and demonstrated that “synodality has not gone far enough” among Catholics in Germany (or, perhaps, merely among the bishops). He also said that he plans to bring the document to the Synod of Bishops in Rome in spite of its having been rejected. The lay co-chair of the Synodal Way, Irme Stetter-Karp, was also frustrated with the vote and implied that there were some bishops who privately favor the changes proposed by the document but were unwilling to publicly support it.
Progressive Catholics in Germany have been led on by some of their bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Bishop Batzing in particular, to think that the universal Church would embrace their liberal teachings. The Synodal Way created for these Catholics the false expectation that they were empowered to change Church teaching and governance in a way that they could impose on the Church in Germany, likely in hopes that the rest of the world would follow, or that the Catholic Church might adopt a system of independent national churches that perhaps embrace different teachings and practices but are united around a declared association with Rome, not unlike how the worldwide Anglican community works. Perhaps they saw in what the mainstream media has insisted on identifying as a “liberal” pope the promise that their radical agenda would be received favorably in Rome. They were convinced that this was their moment. They were duped. It may be that Pope Francis, and the Holy See under his reign, has been more eager to open doors of welcome to those who previously felt unwelcome, but this does not mean capitulating to the morality of Western culture. God’s truth does not change. Francis is not a heretic. He knows he is merely the servant of God’s revelation, not its master. Neither is he stupid. He also knows he serves not only the Church in Germany, or in Europe, or in the wider West (which seems to regard itself as the only ones whose voice matters), but the Church in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Why risk alienating the massive and growing number of Catholics in the Third World by acquiescing to the demands of the relatively few Catholics left in Germany? He knows, too, that he serves a Church that will outlive him until the Lord returns.
Sadly, I see only two possible end-game scenarios for this disaster:
1) The Holy See and the rest of the universal Church will make it finally clear enough to the Church in Germany that their hopes for changing Church teaching and governance are without foundation. In response, many Catholics in Germany, including not a few bishops, will simply leave the Catholic Church for either Protestant communities that are more favorable toward their ideas, or for nothing at all.
2) A group of German bishops will lead a revolt of Catholics into outright schism from Rome. How many will follow is anybody’s guess. While it’s true that a majority of the lay participants in the Synodal Way voted for the document, as did a majority of the bishops, that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority of Catholics in Germany will follow into schism. It’s one thing to vote in favor of making a statement. It’s entirely something else to remove yourself from what you have claimed to believe is the instrument of God’s revelation and grace.
Oh, there is a third possibility. Germany could experience an intervention from our Lord, a Guadelupe type intervention that inspires Catholics in Germany to return to the fullness of the faith, in much that same way the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadelupe inspired the conversion of hundreds of thousands in Mexico and beyond. I wouldn’t rule out that possibility. God is God. We are not.
We can only hope and pray that schism will not come. But in some sense, it already has, hasn’t it? If a majority of Catholics in Germany and even a majority of Catholic bishops call for changes in Catholic teachings and governance that have been embraced by the Church for centuries and that have reflected, according to Catholic faith, the revelation of God, then how can it be claimed that any true unity exists between Catholics in Germany and their confreres around the globe? While a physical schism has not occurred, I fear an emotional, doctrinal, and moral schism already has. Of course, this isn’t just the case in Germany. It’s true for Catholics in virtually every nation. Of course, this is not true for only our generation. It has been true for Catholics of every century, of every era. There have always been those willing to compromise in order to accommodate the culture, or the king, or themselves. There have always been those who preferred their own doctrines to those revealed by God. It is an ever-present reality for the Church, an ever-present struggle to call all to faithfulness and unity.
Regardless of such, it remains the responsibility of the Holy Father and every bishop to proclaim what God has revealed to us and to call the Catholic people to faithfulness to and unity around that revelation. When they have failed to do so in the past, disaster followed. If they fail to do so now, disaster will follow. Let us pray that God will spare us this sadness and by His grace restore to faithfulness and unity the Catholics of Germany and all those around the world tempted to stray.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.