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Analysis: Cardinal Marx’s next step on the German synodal path

By Ed Condon

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops' conference, and Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the conference, are pictured at the Catholic Academy in Berlin Sept. 8, 2015. (CNS photo/Markus Nowak, KNA)

Vatican City, Sep 18, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- This week, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, travels to Rome. There he will meet with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, to clear up some “misunderstandings” about the German bishops’ intended synodal process.

The stakes of the closed-door meeting are high.

The German bishops seem poised to press ahead with plans for a “synodal assembly,” despite criticism of the plan from Curial offices and the pope himself. The matter seems likely to escalate into an open conflict between the Apostolic See and one of the most influential bishops’ conferences in the global Church.

Marx first announced the “binding synodal path” earlier this year. In addition to creating a new Synodal Assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, the bishops intend – indeed have already begun – a review of universal Church teaching and discipline on a range of sensitive matters, including sexual morality, the role of women in offices and ministry, and clerical celibacy.

Critics say the German plan disregards, or defies, the universality of teaching and discipline that makes the Catholic Church catholic.

In June, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Germany Catholics offering a corrective to their bishops’ plans. He warned against a “new Palagianism” and the temptation to “adapt” the Church “to the spirit of the age.”

Most specifically, the pope warned the German bishops against striking out on their own. Communion with the whole Church, he said, and respect for the hierarchy, are vital to any authentic understanding of synodality.

“Every time an ecclesial community tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve,” he told the Germans.

Cardinal Walter Kasper summarized recently the pope’s effect on the German bishops: “In Germany, the Pope’s letter was much praised, but then put aside and [the process] continued as previously planned.”

On Sept. 4, Ouellet wrote to the German bishops, presenting an official assessment of the German plans from the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts, which concluded that the synod’s proposed structures were “not ecclesiologically valid” and that its proposed subject matter “cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter.”

Marx has insisted that the Vatican’s critique is based on an old draft of their plans, and that the current version renders them moot. But, as CNA reported, the most recent version effectively retained the provisions and themes opposed by Rome, and Vatican officials were already in possession of the new draft by the time Ouellet’s letter was sent – to the point that Ouellet’s letter even noted that he had seen the minutes of the August 19 executive session.

One official at the Congregation told CNA that there is a sense in Rome that Cardinal Marx wants to deflect criticism onto past documents in the hopes of keeping the synodal process moving faster than Rome can keep up.

“We see this happening: the Germans say we have already made the changes you want, and by the time there can be a response saying “no, the concerns remain,” the next step is already made,” an official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA.

“If we come to [the point where] the Holy Father [is] saying ‘stop, do not begin the synod,’ they will reply ‘we already began – now we must finish!’”

Any official account of this week’s meeting between Marx and Ouellet is highly unlikely – the Congregation for Bishops has a long track record of declining to comment on its work, even on the most internationally pressing issues. Whatever account Marx offers will likely be his own impression, and may not be shared by the congregation.

The first tangible indication of whether an understanding has actually been reached will likely come next week, when the German bishops are scheduled to vote on the draft statues for the Synodal Assembly.

If the bishops pass an unaltered text from the one adopted by their executive committee last month, it will indicate either that the Vatican has acquiesced to the German plans, or that Ouellet’s letter has been “put aside,” as was the pope’s in June.

If the German bishops proceed with their plans over Vatican objections, the pope could be expected to address the matter during the upcoming Amazon synod.

Thus far, the language of Rome to Germany has been couched in terms of “concern” and “guidance.” But should the Germans ignore a further, perhaps even explicit, instruction by Francis to halt the synodal plans, it will raise serious questions – first about the legitimacy of the entire enterprise, and then about the relationship of the Church in Germany to the Apostolic See.

Sources close to the German bishops’ conference have told CNA that Marx sees the German synodal plans as the means of reshaping the global Church. “The cardinal believes it is the German Church’s duty to lead on the path for others to follow on these matters,” one senior German Church official said.

“There is no question of wishing to break the communion with the universal Church, but to remake it for a more modern Church.”

Some officials in Rome have told CNA they suspect that Marx simply does not believe the pope is willing to act decisively to halt the German plans.

“They [the German bishops] do not ask permission to begin, or listen to the instructions given. They just continue, continue, and then – what?” one senior official at the Pontifical Commission or Legislative Texts told CNA.

“In the end, the idea of schism is unthinkable for everyone. But if no one thinks it can happen, you can do anything you like – the Holy Father says no, but a cardinal can say yes.”

The official at the Congregation for Bishops agreed, telling CNA that the German bishops’ continued action appeared calculated.

“Dialogue in communion means you listen to what the pope says,” he said. “If you don’t listen, there is no communion.”

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  1. I have some confusion and am hoping more knowledgable people here can help. Pope Francis increased the authority of the Synod of Bishops so that a final document will form part of the “ordinary magisterium of the Successor of Peter,” subject to papal approval (NCRegister). So how does this relate to the German synodal process? If the process decides to pursue heterodox ideas, then the Pope can say no to the final document?

    Also, If Pope Francis is having difficulty with Cardinal Marx as far as the German synod goes, why is he having Marx play a role in the Amazon Synod? Thank you for any good explanation.

  2. At this stage it’s more a guessing game nothing in the article reveals what direction Cardinal Marx will take the German Synod. Except Cardinal Walter Kasper’s line “The Pope’s letter was much praised, but then put aside” indicating the ongoing pattern of papal overtures of orthodox warning and in instances final reverse outcome. Jeanne above poses the right question regarding authoritative sanction already given. Can the Pontiff intervene? Yes he remains the final authority on all issues of discipline. Insofar as orthodoxy he must as insisted by Cardinal Burke, Bishop Schneider and others remain within Apostolic Tradition. Doctrine [or apparent doctrine] proffered by suggestion is not binding especially when the Pontiff refuses to confirm or deny as with the Dubia, Fr Weinandy’s letter, Bishop Schneider’s appeal on divinely ordained plurality of religion. We must look at the proverbial Big Picture for assessment. Look at where we are and how we got here – giving account to the inventor of Synodality for radical change Milan Archbishop Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ then Archbishop Bergoglio SJ’s mentor indicating Cardinal Kasper’s comment on the Pope’s letter says exactly what will occur. Reinhard Marxist Germany however is not a fixed hegemony there are dissidents. Realistically hope lies not with the Pontiff rather with a growing dissatisfaction.

  3. “Make a mess” (said the pope). That’s all. Also: there are 2 major outside funding sources for the Vatican: the diversified and largely volunteer contributions of American bishops and lay organizations, and the institutionalized, one-channel pipe from German bishops, who are so wealthy because of their national church tax collected by the State. The second one is somewhat more reliable, but also influential for that same reason. I am a true believer (I hope) but not blind to those material considerations. In the end Christ will prevail. Until then, we may have a rough ride. To be clear, I see this pope as more power-hungry than ideology-driven. That’s the only reason why he more easily defers to the Germans than to the Americans, no matter what theological and pastoral debates there are. Heck, it’s obvious that even the “Amazonian” synod is being held for German purposes.

  4. Like any parent who has dealt with rebellion in own children, who themselves too have rebelled against The Father many a times , yet , tending to often magnify the weaknesses in the Father figures , thus even falling for the enemy ploy to get oneself to subtly reject God’s graces that come through them , Holy Father on down – would that too be an aspect of the pelagianism in our midst !
    This news about the effects of such rebellion manifesting to this extent – that too may be His mercy , to get many hearts to move in compassion to pray with the Holy Father , for the cleansing of the internal oceans, polluted by generations of spirits of pride , new age spirits and related evils .

    ‘ The spark to prepare the world for My Second coming would come from Poland ‘ –
    a Poland and its people who suffered through much , from the evils of the neighbors too, and the saints that have been raised up , to be called to come to the aid of the very same neighbors …and in the process of praying for all these larger
    issues , with these saints – St.John Paul 11 , St.Maximilian, St.Faustina ,
    Bl.Mother , the healing to take place in the wounds closer to homes and families too in every divide , by bringing it to The Father and His mercy – let us hope such would be the outcome of this as well , that its blessing to come together to support the Holy Father , would bring clarity and oneness in The Spirit , in all the other seeming divides as well .

    God bless !

  5. Where is the Holy Spirit in all this?

    Where Luther appealed for a Council, with Cardinal Marx the Church ALREADY HAS the Second Vatican Council! Where Luther promulgated a catechism of his own, the Second Vatican Council ALREADY HAS the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

    Is the full response to Germania to REFRAME the engineered confrontation more broadly than between a very local and “binding” Tennis-Court Oath/synod and the papacy/universal Church? Is this the appointed moment to respond to the broader and NON-confrontational dubia…now that, unlike Luther (except when he endorsed the bigamy of Philip of Hesse and Henry VIII!), even natural law and basic sexual morality is supposedly on the table?

    “They (the German bishops) do not ask permission to begin, or listen to the instructions given. They just continue, continue, and then – what?” Vatican silences and synods transplanted and usurped?

    With the DUBIA: What about divorce and civil remarriage (Amoris Laetitia, 300-305); the existence of absolute moral norms (304 versus Veritatis Splendor, 79); habitual grave sin and one’s objective condition (301); situation ethics (AL, 302 versus VS, 81); the fit between “conscience” and intrinsically evil acts (AL, 303 versus VS, 56)?

    Germania—an unsuspecting setting for a DUBIA MOMENT? Does the Holy Spirit sometimes play chess rather than checkers?

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