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The Amazon and Germany: A tale of two synods

By JD Flynn

Amazon River in Brazil (Nareeta Martin/; Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany (Renate Bomm/Wikipedia)

Vatican City, Sep 16, 2019 / 04:48 pm (CNA).- For the next two months, most of the ink spilled by Catholic journalists will be dedicated to the Amazon, and especially the three-week Rome meeting of bishops in October that will discuss the region. But while the Amazon synod of bishops holds popular attention, some astute Church-watchers will be more attentive to the emerging controversy surrounding a different synod, to be held in Germany.

The pan-Amazonian synod has become the latest battleground in the long series of internecine conflicts that have plagued the Church in recent years. Conservative figures have decried the synod’s preparatory documents as pantheistic heterodoxy, while progressive Churchmen have cast the meeting as the occasion of some kind of new beginning for the Church, after which, at least one bishop has said, “nothing will be the same.”

At issue, at least theoretically, are two loaded topics in the Church’s life: the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood, and the quagmire surrounding questions of “inculturation,” which ask how the Gospel can be expressed in diverse cultural settings.

The topic of ordaining married men is on the table because the remoteness of some Amazon villages, which almost never see a priest, has led to the suggestion that ordained “viri probati,” older, married men, could make it possible for more Catholics to have access to the sacramental life.

But there is concern among some that considering the possibility of married priests in the Amazon region, where priests are few, will lead to widespread adoption of the practice, and the loss of the custom of clerical celibacy. There is also concern that a broadly applied dispensation from the obligation of priestly celibacy will stir-up the simmering debate over ordaining women to the diaconate, and even the officially settled argument over ordaining women as priests.

While most proponents of the possibility say their sights are fixed only on the problems of Amazonia, critics are skeptical. Among advocacy groups, intellectuals, and even a few bishops, heated rhetoric has begun to fly.

As the synod grows closer, the rhetoric will grow only more intense, from all corners of the Church.

Rome will host an entire cottage industry of pundits in the weeks preceding the synod, and “experts,” from both the left and the right, will hold symposia and conferences, trying to make the case that the synod matters, that their opponents are wrong and that, whatever their viewpoint, it is the only legitimately Catholic perspective on the matters at hand.

The pan-Amazonian synod, in short, is likely to follow the playbook that has characterized the two most recent synods in Rome, beginning with the 2015 Synod on the Family. After that meeting, which is best remembered for a fracas over divorce and communion, a 2018 synod on youth and young people was similarly polemical.

The conflicts surrounding synods are unfortunate, for at least two reasons. In the first place, they distract from the sincere and earnest conversation that might take place among bishops about critical issues.

Synods are supposed to be conversations, and the topics discussed are usually ones about which many people in Church leadership or pastoral ministry have something to contribute, or something to learn. The Amazon region, in which Pentecostalism is overtaking Catholicism, in which child labor and human trafficking are serious issues, and deforestation threatens whole communities, is in need of the Church’s leadership and pastoral presence. A conversation, rather than a debate, over the issues in the Amazon would be of real benefit to the Church there. But conflict over hot-button issues, and a sense that the synod is a gladiatorial contest between warring sides, is likely to blunt that conversation.

Conflict over synods of bishops is unfortunate mostly because there is very little to be gained from it. Synod assemblies are low-stakes affairs: synods have no power, they can not make policies or declare doctrine or do anything, except publish documents to be reviewed by the pope as he formulates his thoughts on the topic under discussion. Synods are consultative conversations. They do not bind the pope, or instruct him. They just offer the advice of a usually diverse-thinking assembly of leaders.

Synods have grown contentious because Pope Francis used his 2016 post-synodal document Amoris laetitia to signal an openness to the possibility that divorced and remarried people could, under certain circumstances, receive the Eucharist while remaining in a sexual relationship. That suggestion has been extremely divisive, and because it is associated with the family synod of 2015, at least some bishops have begun to treat synods as though they are convened to legislate for the Church.

They are not convened for that purpose.

And the pope could have introduced his ideas about divorce, remarriage, and the Eucharist in any way he chose. He happened to do it in a post-synodal document, but not because the synod in some way freed him to do so, or mandated that he do so. It is sometimes suggested that the synod gave him some political cover, but since the idea did not have full-throated support from the synod’s participants, the hypothesis seems flimsy.

In short, nothing about the synod compelled, authorized, or permitted the pope to teach as he did. But because of Amoris laetitia, and the controversial synod of 2015, pundits seem now to characterize each synod not as an exchange of ideas, but as a battle for the pope’s endorsement.

While the stakes of the pan-Amazonian synod are far lower than they’re usually perceived, the stakes of a showdown over a synod in German are much higher than has likely been realized by many Catholics.

The German bishop are planning a two-year “synodal pathway” in the country. The idea is to bring bishops together with lay people, especially those associated with the Central Committee of German Catholics, to pass “binding resolutions,” on controversial topics, including sexual morality and clerical leadership.

The planned synod in Germany is not intended to be a conversation. It is intended to redefine the course of Christianity in Germany, even while giving new consideration to long-established points of Christian doctrine.

The Vatican has warned the German bishops not to continue with their plans, noting that a synod of the type planned by the Germans would disrupt the Church’s life, and could cause a catastrophe by denying the Church’s doctrinal teaching.

But the German bishops, under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, have insisted that the synod will proceed, and that the Vatican simply doesn’t understand what’s at stake.

Marx will meet with Vatican officials this week. The cardinal hopes to persuade the Vatican to allow him to proceed with his plans. He is not in a position to back down, because he has assured the Central Committee of German Catholics, which includes advocates of same-sex marriage, that they will have a deliberative voice in the future of the German Church. Relenting, for Marx, would likely mean losing his support among secular German figures, and, by admitting that the Vatican was right, falling out of favor among the Churchmen who support him.

Cardinal Marx, by some estimates, seems to be playing a kind of ecclesiastical game of chicken with the Vatican, and batting that the pope’s Curia will back down before he does.

But if the Vatican does not relent, and the Germans push forward, a great deal is at stake: some experts have suggested that if the Germans proceed with their synodal path in defiance of instructions from Pope Francis and the Vatican, they run the risk of being declared in schism.

At the moment, Marx seems unintimidated by efforts from two different Vatican offices to rein in Germany’s planned synodal process. He might be persuaded, if at all, only by a direct and personal intervention from Pope Francis.

Marx is said to be persuasive with Pope Francis, but sources tell CNA that the pope is growing impatient with the cardinal’s approach to the German synod. If Francis has to intervene, and Marx does not accept the pope’s direction, the result would be a serious crisis for the Church in Germany.

The situation is still developing.

The pan-Amazonian synod will provide plenty of fodder for debate this autumn. But a serious ecclesiological crisis is unfolding in Germany, and how it will be resolved remains to be seen.

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  1. We read that “The planned synod in Germany is not intended to be a conversation. It is intended to redefine the course of Christianity in Germany, even while giving new consideration to long-established points of Christian doctrine.”

    Cardinal Marx says the synod is not a synod but more of a synodal path and, therefore, that applicable canon law does not apply. Perhaps he has discovered and is exercising the orthodoxy of the “new Church”—-the consistent orthodoxy of Loophole Ambiguity.

    But, are clearer heads still free to see that the CORE TENSION within the Church today:

    Is not between so-called “liberals” and “conservatives,” but between steadfast Catholics and those who are not;

    Is not more broadly a “gladiatorial contest between warring sides” within the Church, but between consistent ambiguity enabled by the papacy as in his too-silent collegiality with his loyal critics, e.g., the respectful/dismissed dubia;

    Is not between any inevitable “arc of history” and “bigoted” reactionaries, but between the mainstreaming of infidelities and a knowable arc-of-relations rooted in both reason and the received “deposit of faith”; and

    Is not even between this integral deposit of faith and any ephemeral “new-paradigm,” but more exactly between the Incarnation—-the only really new paradigm—-and always more fashionable versions of neo-Hegelianism.

  2. Thanks…but I do not think all ‘corners of the Church’ are rhetoric corners or expressions, nor that ‘all’ of them are going to increase or ‘intensify’ their rhetoric, as they have not been doing rhetoric at all….blessings!

  3. Thank you for sharing this seemingly more balanced perspective on the affairs .
    ‘ Spring time of Divine Mercy ‘ – a term in the Diary that had escaped previous attention and how apt too , even if it is the Fall season soon ..
    Seems the upcoming Canonizations and the related Synods could be seen more in that light as well , esp . seeing the garden of the saintly souls the Holy Spirit has prepared , from all eternity , for this particular times , even as He has shown His power in the dance of sun on Oct 13th .
    St.John Neuman , well familiar to the readers , yet , in the these times when The Church is under attack, helping many to see her glory as the saints behold ..

    Bl.Mariam Thressia , from India , cared deeply about the health of families and orphans and the poor , dealt with issues of addiction in families – thus another glorious aid for our times , the miraculous cure of one born with club feet , to help indicate to families to walk in the path of holiness, in these tough times .

    Bl Vannini – orphaned early , thus possibly also a Patroness for the unborn orphaned as well , there at the side of the Lord happily , along with Bl.Mariam Thressia and others , to see Him touching the ‘coffins’ that are the bodies of the parents , to bring back the families to life again , in The Spirit , as in the case of the child of the widow of Naim ..
    All three of the above also blessed with holy relationships with other Father
    figures ..
    Bl.Sister Dulce , from a Congregation related to the Immaculate Conception – about the generational blessings The Father wants to pour in ..
    Bl.Marguerite – Order related to St.Francis ..
    Generational issues , related to sins against the weak and the poor and other ethnicities and such – no culture free of same, including the Amazonians , with reports of rampant abuse of children as well .
    The Sacramental graces , may be in His mercy ,as glory upon glory ,even in an exponential manner , poured in , into all our lives through His priests and Bishops who ofcourse are also to be very much blessed in same – would it be that our Holy Father has a far better grasp of this area — yet , just as our Lord too was misunderstood , by the Jews around Him , in their own ‘gnostic ‘ ideas about Him and The Father , we too often see more of the mud and the rain, like on that Oct 13th in Fatima ..
    May the powerful intervention of the Holy Spirit through all the above saints and all the connections in and through them at national and Church and cultural levels help to wash off the dirt and mud through fearful hearts , to instead help us to behold the goodness and holiness of The Father , in the spring time of His mercy to whom we belong .

  4. “The Vatican has warned the German bishops not to continue with their plans, noting that a synod of the type planned by the Germans would disrupt the Church’s life, and could cause a catastrophe by denying the Church’s doctrinal teaching.”

    The patriarchate of Rome… Not “the Church.”

  5. If I were a betting man, I would bet that the Vatican will follow the same course it followed when the Germans wanted communion for Protestants under certain conditions. If I recall correctly, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said no, but the bottom line was: yes, but do not make it official. In other words, go ahead, but watered it down.

  6. If I were a betting man, I would bet that the Vatican will follow the same course it followed when the Germans wanted communion for Protestants under certain conditions. If I recall correctly, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said no, but the bottom line was: yes, but do not make it official. In other words, go ahead, but water it down.

  7. JD Flynn’s title is catchy but seemed odd implying comparison of staid parliamentarian London under mildly crazy George III and Paris hotbed of radical revolutionary egalitarianism under Robespierre. Apparently not quite. “London during French Revolution. During the beginning of the 1790s a political storm was set in London, as the revolution started with marginalized groups going against the government. For example, the middle class supported the ideas of reformation and revolution, because it was beneficial for them, as they didn’t have any political influence over the country’s government, due to the government prohibiting the middle class in influencing changes to the country. Through the middle class supporting these ideas, they were able to gain power, as they teamed up with other powerful parties. However, ‘with benefit comes loss,’ and each party witnessed this, as they were arrested for going against the government, and the laws placed by them. The leading groups that wanted reforms in Britain, the SCI [Society for Constitutional Information] and the LCS [London Corresponding Society], were inspired by the French Revolution” (Mahir Chowdhury, Jeffrey Doo, Ari Montes, Andrew Lin). The study by apparent non Anglo Saxon Brits paints a surprising similarity. If we superimpose London Paris during the French Revolution would we be correct in comparing Paris to Amazonia and London to Germany? Amazonia seemed the testing ground for radical change Germany in wait and see mode. However Cardinal Marx’s sudden German go for broke announcement regardless of what transpires in either Amazon or Vatican reverses the analogy. I thought Cardinal Marx a new Luther now an impatient Robespierre. Intriguing analogies aside, for the moment if Cardinal Marx’s revolution succeeds spreads throughout the Church will faithful Catholics be victim of a reign of terror? The German type membership tax and effeminate buffoons mimicking ballerinas during Mass the current German rage is a start but I think it will go much worse.

  8. It was Pope Francis who cheerled for synodality in the first place; he’s getting his wish, courtesy of Cardinal Marx.

    I’ve actually read speculation by a well known independent, orthodox Catholic pundit that the Vatican is resisting Germany only apparently, but not actually, in an attempt to appease the more orthodox faithful, and not lose them entirely, knowing the deep skepticism with which they already view the Francis pontificate. While that kind of talk may sound outlandishly conspiratorial, that it has some resonance about it speaks unflatteringly about Francis’ unfortunate machinations while occupying the Chair of Peter.

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