Participants in the German Synodal Way, a synod of clerics and lay Catholics discussing and debating the future of the Church, have voted to establish a permanent “Synodal Council” that would oversee the Church in Germany. 93% of participants voted in favor of establishing the permanent council and only five bishops rejected the proposal. The vote took place on September 10, only a few days after the bishops voted down a proposed document entitled “Living in Successful Relationships” that called for a radical liberalization of Catholic sexual ethics. Leading bishops in the Synodal Way have vowed to bring the document to Rome for a Synod of Bishops in spite of its having been rejected.
At this point, a “synodal committee” will be established to hash out the details of the “Synodal Council.” The synodal committee would be made up of bishops, members of the ZdK (the Central Committee in Germany that regards itself as the representative of lay Catholics in Germany) and others. But as of now, the vision of the “Synodal Council,” the proposal states, is to serve “as a consultative and decision-making body on essential developments in the Church and society.” It would “make fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, questions of the future and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at the diocesan level.”
The proposal to create a permanent “Synodal Council” for the Church in Germany is controversial and has been criticized. German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and former bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, insisted that there could never be anything like a permanent “Synodal Council” in the Church. Cardinal Kaspar is a well-respected theologian and close friend of Pope Francis. Those who know of him would never describe him as a paragon of conservative Catholicism. Even still, he insists that, “Synods cannot be institutionally made permanent. The tradition of the Church does not know a synodal church government. A synodal council, as is now envisaged, has no basis in the entire history of the constitution. It would not be a renewal, but an un-heard of innovation.” Cardinal Kaspar compared the idea to the system of governance in the old Soviet Union. “Soviet is an old Russian word that means exactly what we call a Rat, a council in German,” Kaspar said. “Such a Supreme Soviet in the Church would obviously not be a good idea. Such a council system is not a Christian idea, but an idea coming from quite a different spirit or un-spirit.”
Jan-Heiner Tuck, professor of theology at the University of Vienna, warned that a permanent council in Germany would transfer authority “from sacramentally ordained persons to bodies, a conversion of power that shows a clear closeness to synodal practices in the Protestant Church in Germany.” I suspect this is precisely what the participants in the Synodal Way are aiming for.
The idea of a permanent council that would oversee the Church in Germany smacks of conciliarism, a heresy that infected the Church from the 14th to the 16th century. The heresy was sparked by the scandal of the Great Schism, when first two and then three men claimed to be the legitimate successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome and, thus, pope. Each papal claimant enjoyed considerable support from his camp of cardinals and bishops (and even saints!), causing a crisis of authority and jeopardizing the integrity of the Church. What is called the Great (or Western, or Papal) Schism lasted from 1378 to 1417. Finally, an ecumenical council was held at Constance (ironically in present-day Germany) from 1414 to 1418. Constance arranged for the abdication or deposition of all papal claimants and elected Pope Martin V. Constance also adopted an injunction that councils were superior to popes, an injunction it never succeeded in enforcing. After Constance, many cardinals and bishops attempted to assert the authority of councils over that of the pope, but the heresy collapsed almost as quickly as it rose, and the Fifth Lateran Council condemned conciliarism as a heresy in the early 16th century. The final nail in the coffin of conciliarism was the promulgation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Nevertheless, conciliarism has experienced a resurgence since the Second Vatican Council among those who misinterpret Vatican II in their desire to democratize the Church, including on matters of faith and morals. So, matters of faith and morals that have been settled doctrine of the Church for centuries, including some from the first decades of the Church or even from the Scriptures themselves, are now regarded as open for debate and possible change. This is what the Synodal Way in Germany is hoping to achieve. The proposal for a permanent council, a “Synodal Council” that will oversee the Church in Germany, is the latest and most blatant attempt to resurrect the corpse of conciliarism.
I don’t see how this can end in any other way than formal schism. The bishops and lay participants of the Synodal Way have ignored or outright rejected warnings from Pope Francis and the bishops from around the world that they are compromising the unity of the Church and adopting proposals that the universal Church simply cannot embrace. The universal Church is not going to accept what the Synodal Way in Germany demands. At the same time, too many German bishops and laypersons are too committed to their proposals and to a vision of the Church that has moved far away from that of the historic Church and the dogmas and doctrines she has consistently proclaimed. At some point, and who knows how long it will take, the Holy Father will make unmistakably clear that the Church in Germany has gone its own way and call her back to repentance and unity. That call will be rejected by many Catholics in Germany, including by not a few bishops. That will begin the process of formal schism. Then there will commence fights in the courts over property rights, finances, etc. It will be a horrible mess. The most devastating consequence, of course, will be the souls lost or placed at risk by those who think they know better than Peter, the Rock on which Christ built His Church. Will it be Francis or the next pope who has to deal with this, finally? We can only wait and see. But the ball is now in Francis’ court. How will he respond to this proposal for a permanent council? The movement in Germany is in overdrive. There may be little time, and less desire, to step on the brakes before the Church in Germany drives over the cliff.
Lord, have mercy.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.