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Analysis: Pope Francis and the Germans

By Ed Condon for CNA

Pope Francis and Cardinal Reinhard Marx (CNA)

Vatican City, Jan 31, 2020 / 02:15 pm (CNA).- The year 2020 is one month old and already stacked high with expectation for Pope Francis.

The long-awaited McCarrick report is due “early” this year; so too is an expected apostolic exhortation following the Synod on the Amazon. Also on the horizon is a long-trailed but still to be delivered new constitution reforming the Roman curia.

But bubbling under the surface is one question which could ultimately define the whole of Francis’s papacy: what will he do about the Germans?

The German bishops’ conference has been on a collision course with Rome ever since they announced a two-year “binding synodal process” to address – and reform – universal Church teaching and discipline on issues ranging from clerical celibacy to women’s ordination to same-sex unions.

As they publicly staked out their intentions last year, in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (who hold opposite views to the Church on all of these issues), every effort was made to make them change course.

Pope Francis himself wrote a letter to the whole Church in Germany, warning against a false synodality, one rooted in making the Church conform to modern secular morals and thought, which he called “a new Pelagianism” which seeks “to tidy up and tune the life of the Church, adapting it to the present logic.”

The result, Francis said, would be a “well organized and even ‘modernized’ ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty.”

When Francis’s pastoral concerns went unheeded, different curial heads gave explicit warnings, first in private, then in public: the German plans were a challenge to the universality of Catholic teaching and discipline and not valid.

Undeterred, the German bishops began the first session of their synodal process in Frankfurt yesterday.

It is unclear what Pope Francis will do in response, but what is clear is that the German agenda touches every major issue on the papal desk this year.

The issue of clerical celibacy has been a contested topic in Rome, before and after the Amazon synod. Cardinals Marc Ouellet and Beniamino Stella made public interventions defending the discipline in October. More recently, Cardinal Sarah published a book with contributions from Benedict XVI mounting a resolute defense of the practice.

While official papal spokesmen have underscored Francis’s personal commitment to celibacy, the settled wisdom is that a narrow carve-out for the Amazon might meet with papal approval. But the pope’s freedom to treat the Amazonian question discretely may prove limited.

An end to mandatory celibacy is widely touted as one of the expected outputs of the German synodal process, and the bishops there have been explicit that they would seize on any exception made for the Amazon.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice-chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said in a 2018 interview that if the ordination of married men is authorized for the Amazon, the Germans will insist on the same authorization.

“This is obvious,” Bode said at the time, insisting that the “pastoral emergency” in his diocese of Osnabrück and in other German dioceses is “different but also very severe.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who is also president of Adveniat, the Church in Germany’s aid organization for Latin America, has called the Amazonian synod “a point of no return” for the Church and that “nothing will be the same as it was.”

At the heart of the dispute over clerical celibacy, and the other changes being mooted in the German synodal process, is a mounting power struggle between Rome and the Church in Germany.

While Pope Francis and his curia have been clear that the Vatican alone can treat issues of universal Church teaching and discipline, the Germans have been equally clear that they see a very different future for the Church.

On Jan. 27, the secretary of the German bishops’ conference gave a pointed interview insisting that it is “unacceptable” that Rome continue to have full discretion over universal teaching and discipline. Instead, Fr. Father Hans Langendörfer, SJ, called for other regions to follow the German’s example and effectively force through a new federal model on the Church.

While some are expecting matters to eventually come to a head with the pope having to either explicitly give them their way or force them back into line, others are pointing to another item high on the pope’s agenda as the likely dénouement of the dispute.

The pope’s council of cardinal advisors is still reviewing feedback on last year’s draft of Evangelium praedicate, the new apostolic constitution on the structure and functioning of the Roman curia. Buried within the draft text, in the section laying out the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a provision which bears directly on the German proposal for a federal Church.

The draft text refers to the “primary responsibility” of individual bishops and national bishops’ conferences for the Church in different countries and regions. In what would be a significant innovation, the draft constitution specifically refers to the “genuine doctrinal authority” of national bishops’ conferences, and says the CDF “will apply the principle of subsidiarity” on any measures related to “protecting the faith.”

Multiple sources familiar with the drafting process have told CNA that this provision, previously dubbed a “blueprint for federalism,” was heavily informed by the wishes of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, head of the German bishops’ conference, and a key member of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors. The same sources, across several curial departments, told CNA that it was the focus of sustained criticism in feedback offered by bishops around the world last summer.

Officials in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops have told CNA that, if the provision remains in the final text of the constitution, it would essentially validate the German synodal process, whatever the curia’s stated objections to it.

“This is the reason for their confidence, and for the boldness,” one senior official told CNA this week. “It is a waiting game – they say to us ‘wait and see [our] results before you judge the process,’ but by then they can say they have this authority and demand subsidiarity.”

“Never mind which dicastery comes first in the line [in Roman precedence], these two sentences can remake the whole Church.”

Pope Francis has made open and sometimes contentious discussion a hallmark of his papacy and he is widely seen as preferring to hear all sides of an issue before making up his mind. But with their “binding synodal path” now formally underway, the pope may increasingly perceive the German bishops as trying to box him into giving them their way. While he may not relish an open confrontation, they may have left him no other option.

Whether he turns his attention to the furthest corner of the Amazon, or to reforming his own curia in Rome, Francis may find that all roads lead through Berlin in 2020.

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  1. Amazonia Rome Munich. A merge of logistically distanced though related events toward a central target is apparently in play. Father Hans Langendörfer SJ secretary for the German Synodal process may be naive in assuming German influence on Rome. Would that the Pontiff’s letter were in earnest. It may well be the opposite. The new Curia Evangelium Praedicate stating “genuine doctrinal authority of national bishops’ conferences the CDF applying the principle of subsidiarity on any measures related to the faith” suggests that. Rome created the conditions for the German Bishops Conference to be in a position to lead the way following seven years of laissez faire German policy. And Rome’s advocacy of the paradigmatic Amazonia event. According to Archbishop Carlo Vigano the Pontiff is expected to jettison celibacy in the final document. Cardinal Marx and the German Conference must be warned in strong canonical language by Pope Francis. Otherwise Germany likely becomes the catalyst for the universal Church fulfilling the ‘dream’ of the late Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ to hurdle 200 years of ‘antiquation’. Rather than Christ’s message intended to transform Mankind it is now Mankind that has reversed that premise. American Catholicism whether or not Rome takes decisive action needs be astutely aware and stand fast as Germany hurtles away from the Faith.

  2. We read “all roads lead to Berlin.” Not so. As St. Paul clearly perceived, instead, all roads lead both TO and FROM Rome. What better way to evangelize the Gentiles than to be sent even in chains to the radiating crossroads of the Roman Empire?

    Cardinal Marx of Germania is a relic. With his “synodal path” the Church disinters the ghosts of history: Lutheranism in Germania (reduction of Holy Orders), Gallicanism in France (council and now synodal dominance), Josephism as in Austria (the dominance of the state), Kulturkamph again in Germany (inevitably more persecution of an unclear/accompanying Church), Febronianism (secular dominance as in the synodal path, already, where radicalized lay members outnumber the clergy), and of course, Amazonianism (where natural religion and Pachamama who—despite her baptism in the Tiber—simply displaces revealed religion). Not to mention, already, the betrayal of the Church in China (announced from on high by Bishop Sorondo as “the best implementer of Catholic Social Teaching”!).

    Given Pope Francis’s now-abused “field hospital” model of the Church, even moral gangrene has claimed a certain squatter-rights legitimacy of lingering presence. The litmus test, again, is the infiltration of an enabling and active homosexual subculture (cover stories: pedophilia, clericalism) within the Church at all levels.

    And, all of this is “interconnected”. . .So, from Germania, will history look back to the vocal St. Paul, the Evangelizer of the Gentiles, as being obscured by a too-silent and tragically manipulated Enabler of the Genitalia (Latin!)?

    • Giving “doctrinal authority” to Bishops Conferences is a huge problem as these are only coordination entities and have nor can they have doctrinal or governance authority. If that were the case, what would each bishop as successor of the Apostles be? He would be submitted to the bureaucracy of these entities and have no authority, which is part of the essence of the Church and its divine origin. Yes, Francis has released this problem on the whole Church and the Germans, who aren’t stupid and are capable of reading have taken it up.
      If they hadn’t had Francis’ call for doctrinal authority for Bishops Conference, a way of destroying the Catholic Church and converting it into another Protestant sect, and they had come up with this idea themselves, then the following procedure could have been followed: Convoke them to Rome and tell them what they can do with their synodal path and what they cannot do, and of course, the canonical consequences theye could expect if they proceed. The canonical consequences would clearly be excommunication. How many of these bishop who live in fancy palaces, move around in luxury cars etc, would be willing to renounce all that and be excommunicated? They whole plan would have fizzled quickly. Something like that would have happened if we had a Pope like St. Pius X.

  3. “what will he do about the Germans?”

    It would be nice if what he did was strip them of all office and send them off to a life of penitence and prayer – and silence.

    • Not only that. Beginning with Marx, excommunicate them. Probably one would be enough and the others would fall in line. Where else would they get such a lifestyle? Isn’t that what Rome has always done with heretics? At least that, and perhaps being burnt at the stake. Luther wasn’t burnt at the stake due to the support he had from the princes, so that to a great extent the wrongly named “reformation” was a political grand larceny to expropriate the goods of the Church. That was the case also in Germany and not only with Henry VIII. It didn’t happen because Pope Leo X (Medici, who is supposed to have said:”God gave us the Papacy, let us enjoy it) was too busy hunting and enjoying theatrical shows.

  4. ‘Matters coming to a head’? The ‘pope forcing them’ (the naughty Germans)? When do we stop talking in fluffy language about this pope and these greedy, entitled and corrupt friends of his? We are talking about the members of the St Gallen mafia, who put the pope where he is and he is their man. He operates by saying one thing and doing another (or by refusing to say anything and trusting in a compliant media doing their job). He has every intention of all these changes coming into place and is putting the mechanism in place for them to do so. And in the meantime the Germans, who are very wealthy because of a tax the refusal of which means that citizens will be denied the sacraments,(isn’t that Simony?) have no congregations in their churches. So, naturally they have no priests. This is the result of the years following their modernising of the faith, so it becomes accessible to all – no congregations and no vocations. So what do they do? Why, of course, they do MORE modernising, making it MORE accessible. That smacks of stupidity of such a degree that it is quite intriguing, or, dare I say it, a diabolical scheme to destroy the Church.

  5. Dismissal from the clerical state would be in order if the Church had a faithful Pontiff willing to exercise his authority.

  6. A picture speaks louder sometimes than a million words. Look again at the picture above the article. Cardinal Reinhald Marx looks like a smiling and “imposing predator” while Pope Francis next to him looks like a beaten up, confused, submissive “puppy”. Why do I say such things?

    After many years working with inmates and being familiar with criminal profilers, I can recognize a “friendly” predator smile when I see it, and no, not everyone with crooked intentions has that particular, creepy “friendliness” look. But Marx does!! Is Marx playing upon old, victim, far-in-the-past wounds of Francis to play him like a fiddle or are both already in mutual accord, totally faking a ‘telenovela’ (Mexican soap opera) battle of wills, or both? I leave that up to you and your prayers.

    • Phil your comment reminded me of Greek drama masks. Perhaps Kabuki [a bit of pointed humor helps in woeful times].

      • Dear Father Morello, your comment is appreciated. I am close friend of good humor and pointed humor does help, in the way and manner that Jesus himself used it. I can see though that in the picture above, the Kabuki mask dropped for a brief moment and we see both men as who they really are. It’s a Visual Freudian Slip, as masks can’t be held up 100% of the time.

  7. Faithful Bishops should pronounce excommunication of unfaithful bishops etc.

    Then the frauds can come out with their gender-fluid idolatry cult, just as long as General Secretary Xi and comrade Evo Morales give permission.

  8. ‘ Genuine doctrinal authority ‘ – that word genuine ,to mean to correspond to The Truth Himself , how anything that subverts the truth of the power of The Spirit that our Lord came to bestow upon us , if disdained , that in itself would hamper the validity of the authority involved –
    May be The Spirit trying to gently move more persons and places into a more effective ministry of deliverance , allowing meanwhile , for the wounds to be made manifest , as grieving i The Spirit , as seen on the face of the Holy Father and even Cardl Marx , that smile, may be from having some foresight that there could be such an outcome .
    Mary, Under of knots , undo every knot in all involved , that keeps persons in any confusion, rebellion and under related spirits ,to instead be all that The Father desires for us to be , in The Spirit .

    • Mary, “Undoer of Knots.” We might as well get this long-term knot on the table…

      Looking through an historical lens, Islamic scholars speak thusly of the Protestant rupture of Christendom (as now synodally ascendant even within the Church itself, pursuant to Amazonia/Germania): “The Western Church has since worked on definitely new lines, and its offshoots among the Protestant Churches have, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by the broad principles of Islam” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text Translation and Commentary).

      These principles of Islam include absence of a hierarchy (Lutheran replacement of Holy Orders and the Apostolic Succession), absolute democracy (in theory within Islam, and partly now the membership composition of the German “synodal path”), and of course elimination of the Eucharistic Presence even if still retained as a symbol (Calvin). The theocracies of Geneva and Massachusetts Bay fit right in.

      Then, or course, in Germany, and in Austria (?), there’s the charge of “apostasy” (!) and imposition of automatic excommunication (off with their heads!) for failure to pay the annual church tax (the annual Muslim zakat?) through the national income tax. What could be more Islamic than that?

      (One major misfit in this parallel is Pachamama who in Mecca in 329 A.D., rather than being tossed in the Tiber, would have been beheaded or buried in a sand dune!)

      The overall Islamic view of Christianity is that it reverted from monotheism to polytheism with the final recognition of the mystery of the Triune Oneness of a self-disclosing/self-donating God, precisely at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. Today, assertion of the (Islamic) monolithic mentality applies to the human person—-in the denial of binary human sexuality in favor of the third option (a post-modern, pagan triad?). (Pronouncements against the more fluid “gender theory” in civil society seem almost to offer cover for this seemingly less extreme debauchery.)

      So, for the Undoer of Knots—

      In our corrosive Secularist morass, intrusive Islam is free to metastasize (“consciously or unconsciously”) as a universal, trans-cultural and levelizing mindset, and is quite comfortable absorbing post-Catholic and post-Protestant religious “pluralism.”

      And, ought not to be thought of only as spoken in Arabic and decked out in a turban. A German accent and a red hat might do just fine.

      • Convergence (the New Paradigm?) also includes these three biggies:

        (1) possibly optional demotion of celibacy (and of asceticism?),
        (2) Sola Scriptura as a template (Islam’s inclusive/pluralist “Peoples of the Book” vs distinctive Apostolic Tradition), and
        (3) the Church as a federation of national conferences of bishops (the “synodal path” with authority even in matters of faith and morals?) as compared to Islam’s self-image as a sectarian or “congregational theocracy”—patched together mostly as a mystically felt “umma” based on the simple act of will to be a member of Islam).

        SUMMARY: now that “time is greater than space”, what’s possibly happening in praxis to the Creed’s “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” Church as an evangelical/ institutional and “hierarchical communion” (so recently set forth with clarity by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, Chapter 3 plus its Preliminary Explanatory/Prefatory Note)?

      • Typo: “629 A.D.” (which is seven years after the Flight from Mecca to Medina, and three years before Muhammad’s death).

  9. Odd (at best) that Cardinal Marx and his allies, presiding over a dying national church, would appear to have a disproportionate voice. It is analogous to a CEO, having taken a company into bankruptcy, is taken seriously.

  10. If the German bishops must go their own way, let them go into another congregation or let them make a new one. For those still faithful Germans, they have a home in the Catholic Church. The German bishops might have a stronger argument if the measures they advocate were attracting hordes of new Christians in Europe, but alas, their views align with a modern Protestantism that’s moribund and increasingly irrelevant.

  11. If Rome formally permits serious doctrinal variation from country to country, this will be far more destructive than the Reformation. After all, the Reformers still sought and believed in universal truth. Calvin didn’t claim that his doctrines were valid only in Geneva. If the Vatican, by contrast, proclaims that wrong can become right by crossing a border, the very idea of truth (and its law of non-contradiction) has been eliminated. ALL Catholic teachings become false, even those teachings with which no one currently disagrees, for all have been proclaimed alterable.

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