The so-called synodal assembly being concocted by Catholics in Germany has emerged with a covert agenda so cynical that even its sharpest critics have missed it. This meeting is shaping up to be a debacle not just for some of its proposed content but also for making a hash of serious notions of synodality. Into this mess Pope Francis has already stepped once with a personal warning and exhortation to caution. Now we are told that his Curia, especially the Congregation for Bishops, have conveyed additional canonical concerns to the German bishops.
There are three things to be sorted out here. For some, likely most, the gravest concerns come from proposed topics for possible change. Let us first consider those before trying, yet again, to clarify the methodological-ecclesiological issues at work, and then conclude by noting the real episcopal agenda.
Ed Condon’s recent article in the Register states that the issues up for debate are “clerical celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.” CNA is reporting that this proposed “synodal assembly” (a revealing appellation about which more in a moment) “aims to address and clarify key issues such as: ‘authority and separation of powers,’ ‘sexual morality,’ ‘the priestly mode of life,’ ‘women at the service of ecclesiastical offices’.”
In both lists, the first and third items—celibacy and clerical power—should occasion far less anxiety than the second and perhaps the fourth. No Catholic anywhere has grounds for insisting that celibacy be universally enforced. It is a discipline largely peculiar to the Latin Church alone (which the East would regard as much better suited to a monastic context), and the last time an attempt was made to enforce universal compliance in diocesan priests, it ended in disaster, with tens of thousands of Catholics in North America driven out of the Church and into the Orthodox Church of America. Would German Catholics open a major split with Rome on this issue? Would Rome try to bring down the hammer on Germany with another document like Cum Data Fuerit in 1929 that drove so many Catholics from the Church? I remain very skeptical on both scores.
As an Eastern Catholic I must forever caution my Latin friends against romanticizing celibacy or, worse, claiming—as some heterodox figures started doing in the late 1990s—that celibacy is an “ontological condition” of ordination, which is rubbish. Are there good reasons for celibacy? Absolutely. Is it a condition for ordination? Absolutely not.
Does a married presbyterate bring serious challenges the Latin Church has generally avoided? Absolutely. Should celibacy therefore be maintained always and everywhere? There is no good reason to insist on such a blanket policy. If the Germans want to proceed with ordaining married men, and their neighbors in France do not, that’s fine. Most of Ukraine’s Catholic priests are married; most of their brethren in the Latin Church in Poland next door are not. Even within a particular Eastern Catholic Church, including mine, we manage perfectly well with both celibate and married priests living and working side-by-side. The Latin Church could certainly handle such diversity.
Would it suddenly make the sex abuse crisis go away? Don’t be absurd! Would it suddenly fill up depleted seminaries and staff parishes with a plethora of priests? Don’t hold your breath! Merely permitting marriage, as I have been saying for well over a decade (e.g., here), is no panacea. More recently, the primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church has agreed with this, recognizing you can have married priests and still have a shortage of clergy.
Additionally, it must be seriously recognized well in advance of any change that a married presbyterate brings real challenges in parish and diocesan life that the Latin Church has largely escaped, challenges that must be faced honestly by German Catholics, who give no evidence of having even begun to do so. They are, therefore, wrongly rushing into a potential change without listening to the cool wisdom of the pope, whom Chad Pecknold has quoted as telling Germany, that “a healthy aggiornamento requires a ‘long fermentation’” and only those who “lack maturity” would rush into major changes.
German Catholics should also wait and consider the wisdom of those of us who have experience going back generations in living a married presbyterate. I document such experience in detail in my forthcoming book Married Catholic Priests, drawing on the experiences of married Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and now Roman Catholic priests in the Anglican ordinariates in North America, Europe, and Australia. Their hard-won wisdom reveals that priestly families live often difficult and deeply sacrificial lives totally unknown to any Germanic Catholics who may be dreamily imagining that abolishing celibacy will suddenly fill up every empty rectory with a brood of Von Trapps cheerfully and selflessly warbling away at every Mass, baptism, wedding, and funeral their father celebrates.
The second issue for German discussion concerns the reduction or separation of powers. Here we should verify whether this discussion will in fact bring about a greatly overdue series of deep reforms breaking up monopolies of power in the Church (as I have argued in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power). Unlike some Catholics who feel we need only changes of personnel—a few new priests, bishops, and perhaps a new pope to get the Church back on track again as a “perfect society”—the rest of us recognize that we’ve had personnel appointed by men now declared saints (e.g., John Paul II) who have turned out to be demons in episcopal drag, guilty of the most heinous abuses while also covering up the abuses of others. They were able to do this because the current system is a monarchical and monopolistic, concentrating power in the hands of bishops and popes in ways totally unjustified by history, theology, ecumenical experience, basic psychology, and common sense. If the Germans find useful ways of dismantling these monopolies and forcing more local accountability upon clergy (and I very seriously doubt they will for reasons noted below) then their assembly might not totally be in vain.
As for the other issues—sexual morality above all—here we enter into a different realm to be regarded with a skeptical if not hostile eye. Julia Knop, a theologian helping to put this assembly’s agenda together, has been quoted as claiming that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is a cause of sexual abuse: “There can be no doubt that not homosexuality as such, but its ecclesiastical tabooing and pathologization is a risk factor for sexual abuse by narcissistic or even sexually immature clerics.” This is fatuous nonsense. (What about the nuns and other women in the Church sexually abused by men?) Even if Catholics anywhere could change doctrine—which no synod is appointed to do—it would not help reduce abuse one iota.
As for discussion of the role of women in the Church, here again we must proceed with careful discernment. We know that priestly ordination is completely out of the question. But that in no way precludes women from being, say, fully elected members of a diocesan synod and of a parish council where they could and should vote for a bishop or priest and vote on his annual budget in a binding way, as I have proposed.
Let’s now very briefly consider whether this assembly deserves to be called a synod or whether its waffling appellation “synodal assembly” is the more appropriate moniker. Last December here on CWR I tried to clarify what real synods area and are not. Since this remains both unclear and often contentious, and since the Germans have in fact vexatiously muddied the waters further still, I have again more recently here and here attempted to state what synods do and do not do. I will not bore you by repeating any of that here.
By the criteria I previously presented (including in the book), I would say that initial reports of draft statutes from Germany give cautious room for hope if one criterion for a real synod is that it is not a voting chamber deciding on doctrine. Thus, for example, we are told that resolutions coming out of this assembly “do not affect the power of the episcopal conference and of individual diocesan bishops, in the context of their own areas of competence, to issue normative acts and to exercise their proper magisterium.” At the same time, however, Rome has recently argued that if the “synodal assembly” wants to make “binding” decisions in non-doctrinal areas for the Church in Germany, then this body should more properly be called a “plenary council.”
Neither assemblies or plenary councils are anything other than ad hoc affairs, called once for a set of issues and then perhaps never called again. Once more, then, we can say that the proposed meetings in German are not synods, which, going back to at least the fourth century, have a permanent or “standing” character responsible for meeting at least annually, or usually biannually (during Lent and harvest-time) for the election, and sometimes disciplining, of bishops, for debating diocesan policy and procedures, for voting or rejecting the bishop’s budget, and for demanding from him an annual accounting of his stewardship of the diocese. The plans I have seen for this German “assembly” include none of these things, and thus it cannot merit the title of synod.
Worse, I cannot but regard the entire operation as being calculated chicanery by bishops who have decided that the way to take the heat off themselves over their own incompetence in the abuse crisis, and over the staggering decline in the German Church, is to toss a bone to the dog impertinently yapping the loudest. The very fact that questions of “sexual morality” are up for debate strikes the Freudian in me as indisputably an act of episcopal deflection—a clear-cut case of a “defense mechanism” on the part of bishops with a lot to hide. In a piece published today, Catholic News Service captures this causal-deflective dynamic very well:
The German bishops began discussing plans for the gathering in September 2018 after they published a study that revealed an estimated 3,700 cases of sexual abuse had been reported in the German church from 1946 to 2014.
Bishops trying to defend their powers and perks have chosen to indulge the perceived (and, we must say, puerile) demands of some of their people (some of them rather dodgy) for voting on trendy alterations to age-old sexual teaching to bring it into conformity with bourgeois notions of sexual diversity and propriety. This is clearly a “passive-aggressive” tactic, as CWR’s editor has recently called it—a pandering under parliamentary form. The pope has recently and rightly warned against any notion that “having an attitude of ‘synodality’ means investigating opinions — what does this one and that one think — and then having a meeting to make an agreement. No! The synod is not a parliament!”
Serious self-respecting Catholics in Germany must resist this undignified and tawdry pandering and must rebuke their bishops for being such condescending cowards that they would rather capitulate to the Zeitgeist than undertaking any serious structural reforms to dismantle their own monopolies on power. Catholics must not be fobbed off so cheaply, and bishops must not be allowed to escape so lightly. Catholics in Germany and around the world must challenge bishops to stop playing games, and instead—if they wish to do something serious to purify the Church—to relinquish, in a kenotic way, their own power and glory so that real reform can happen as real synods are established in every diocese to hold everybody accountable. Are there any Germans with the guts to propose that?
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