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“Wittenberg” in synodal slow motion

The gears of a vast, well-funded ecclesiastical bureaucracy are grinding away toward outcomes that seem baked into the process from its inception.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops' conference, gestures Sept. 13, 2019, during the extended Joint Conference of Bishops and Laity to prepare the "synodal way." (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

As Yale’s Carlos Eire masterfully demonstrated in Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, there was no one “Protestant Reformation” but rather several religious movements, often in disagreement with each other, that shattered western Christendom in the 16th century. Still, Martin Luther’s protest at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, has long been taken as the starting gun for “the Reformation,” and various Protestant denominations celebrate “Reformation Day” on the Sunday closest to October 31. So “Wittenberg” can serve as a synonym for other efforts to distance Christian communities from the authority of Rome and the papacy.

Which suggests that what’s afoot in German Catholicism today is “Wittenberg” in synodal slow motion.

In this instance, there is no nailing of contested propositions to church doors. Rather, the gears of a vast, well-funded ecclesiastical bureaucracy are grinding away toward outcomes that seem baked into the process from its inception: a German revision (meaning abandonment) of the discipline of clerical celibacy; some form of installed, or ordained, role for women in German Catholicism; a German substitute for the Catholic ethic of human love; a German “democratization” of Church governance – in short, the dreams of the Catholic Revolution That Never Was, realized at last from Cologne to Berlin and from Hamburg to Munich. This is the “synodal path” on which the Church in Germany has launched itself.

The anti-Roman and anti-papal subtext to all this has typically been disguised or flatly denied by Cardinal Reinhard Marx and other German Catholic bishops. But the Central Committee of German Catholics – the lay Politburo (to use a more accurate and related title) that is co-managing the “synodal path” with the German bishops’ conference – recently let the cat out of the bag. Gobsmacked that bucketloads of German money at the 2019 Amazonian synod did not produce the desired results, the Zentralkomitee responded to Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on Amazonia by deploring the absence of a papal endorsement of married priests and women deacons. And it did so in baldly Wittenbergian terms: “We very much regret that Pope Francis did not take a step forward in his [exhortation]. Rather, it strengthens the existing positions of the Roman Church both in terms of access to the priesthood and the participation of women in ministries…”

“…the existing positions of the Roman Church…” Well, well. That formula at least has the merit of candor, if not theological heft. But please note what is going on here. The “Roman Church,” it seems, is but one among any number of local Churches. Which implies that the Bishop of Rome, its head, is but one among the bishops who form the episcopal college. And that flatly contradicts both Scripture (see Matthew 16:13-19) and the authoritative tradition of the Church as expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

There has been considerable commentary suggesting that the German Church is in a de facto state of schism, a term I’ve used myself. But I’m now wondering whether that’s quite right, and whether the more appropriate description for what’s going on along this German synodal path is apostasy: an arrogant determination to break with settled Catholic doctrine in the name of a contemporary intelligence superior to what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation called “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.” That, it seems to me, is what’s implied by the formula used in the Central Committee’s smackdown of Pope Francis.

In light of this, those who believe that the Catholic Church does “paradigm shifts” might want to re-consider. For what’s happening along the German synodal path is a true paradigm shift: a shift toward the notion of the Catholic Church as a federation of local Churches, each of which legitimately espouses its own doctrine, moral teaching, and pastoral practice. That, however, is not Catholicism. It is Anglicanism. And anyone who knows anything about world Christian demographics knows that local-option Anglicanism hasn’t turned out very well.

It is astonishing that, confronted by unmistakable empirical evidence that liberal Protestantism has collapsed around the world, German Catholic leaders, ordained and lay, seem determined to create a nominally Catholic form of liberal Protestantism through a slow-motion “Wittenberg.” But perhaps this sad business is not all that surprising. Almost 20 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that “organized Catholicism in Germany is a task force for old ideas.” At the time, we both understood him to mean the tried-and-failed ideas of the 1970s. It now looks, however, as if those “old ideas” have a 16th-century pedigree.

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About George Weigel 458 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. George if we’ve seen anything over the last 75 years it’s the that the German Church leads and the global church ultimately follows. This program of maximum ambiguity and minimizing anything perceived as offensive came straight out of Vatican II and the German Synodal path and an Anglicanized Church is it’s logical conclusion. It’s time orthodox Catholics like yourself woke up and realized the real cause of the crisis in the Church is pervasive modernism, lax ecclesial discipline and treating the Catholic Church like a big tent political coalition in a misguided attempt to keep the quasi heretics within the walls of the Church.

    • You are wrong, Joseph Taylor, you are wrong! The German IS turning Anglicanism and if they want THEY SHOULD GO! But take NOTHING with you! Leave the Catholic Church buildings, vestments, prayers, EVERYTHING! Take your last paycheck and your street clothes because YOU ARE NO LONGER CATHOLIC! The German Catholic Church has been strong because of the church tax in German, certainly NOT because of the increased number of Germans attending services! Go if you like, go. But you are Anglican NOT Catholic!

  2. At Pentecost the Descent of the Holy Spirit sent by Christ; in Germania classy Suspended Chandeliers financed by the state-collected Church tax (with non-participants ex-communicated as apostates).

  3. Starting gun Wittenberg, The anti-Roman and anti-papal subtext to all this disguised by former Oberfuhrer Cardinal Marx, is instead more realistically the subtext to a Vatican more succinctly papal master plan [Byzantium comes in second to current Roman intrigue]. Whereas Europe back then had various religious movements arched to leap forward at gunshot today it’s a slow walk. Other contestants will take time to “slow-motion” forward Germany in comparison in relative leaps and bounds. Weigel’s analysis of Ratzinger’s old ideas is on the mark. The Luther bust enshrined at the Vatican [some especially converts thought the Abomination of Desolation but then we’ve had Pachamama, maybe future abominations to be announced by the Vat Press office] is among several tell tale indicators Amoris Laetitia the ideological catalyst written in plain easy to solve encryption. Rather than be taken as skeptical it’s always better to be honest, in this instance honestly cynical. The basis for which is the state of the Church from ground zero 2013 to Weigel’s imaginary gunshot.

  4. Ironic, to hear from the article, about the seemingly reactionary ways chosen , as a remedy for the carnal excesses of the past , to advocate what might lead to more of same .
    The words of the Holy Father on this Feast day of Annunciation that also refers to the view of the Pope Emer .Benedict on how The Father holds each of us in the original perfection in His memory – hope that would serve as the antidote , by cherishing the goodness and truth of those words , how our Lord comes to help us all in same ..
    With cancellation of the Holy Mass in many places , many making use of the occasion to participate in such ,even as an occasion for more of that Oneness as desired by The Father .
    It has been the German mystic Bl.Emmerich who through her visions describe Adam and Eve , as having been clothed in light , before The Fall , not just naked , how they would have brought forth holy children , more in the power of The Spirit and Word even in a noncarnal manner , as in The Immaculate Conception ..

    The relevance of that date Oct.31st / 1517 , in contrast to Oct 13th , 1917 and The Miracle of the Sun , warning by Bl.Mother , of the errors of Russia – a people fed up with the problems of The Church there , who then decide to do away with it all , all together , instead of the humility and wisdom , to make efforts for more oneness with the God anointed Father figure as the remedy for the loss of faith and its effects .

    Came across this saint – Joseph Benedict Labre , only recently
    Pope Emer. might have had this saint in his mind too, when he chose the name Benedict , seeing the need for the intercession of the saint , for a world that is rich in materialism , yet poor and wandering away , like the prodigal ..

    May the words and blessings of the Holy Father help to awaken the true treasure that our Father holds for us all have the strength in The Spirit , to thus serve Him in The Church .

  5. Mr. Weigel says: “It is astonishing that, confronted by unmistakable empirical evidence that liberal Protestantism has collapsed around the world, German Catholic leaders, ordained and lay, seem determined to create a nominally Catholic form of liberal Protestantism…” It is not astonishing, it is inevitable, because all bureaucracies ( lay, ecclesiastical, or secular) have their own agendas, and these agendas are IMPERVIOUS to evidence. Facts simply do not matter; only the agenda. It is the will to power. Truth be damned.

  6. What I would like to know is what is the Pope’s authority for removing the errant bishops from their cathedrals. Are there not a sufficient number of young, well-studied, talented priests in Germany. If I am correct and there are 27 dioceses In Germany (and not all of them are run by apostates), then I would think it possible to come up with a suitable number of effective replacements. Even if this were to cause people (of the progressive type) to leave the Church then at least we would have a new vibrant Church to start again with. The present German Church wants a shake-up, so let’s shake them up!

  7. I wonder what will be the outcome of the process summarised by Mr Weigel? Will there be a formal declaration of some sort by the German bishops by which we will definitely know that they have in some way broken with the Church?

  8. Thank you, Mr Weigel for your on the mark article. This is the first article I have read on the German church that was not afraid to say exactly how it is! God bless you, Sir. In this trying time, the Catholic Church is blessed to have people like yourself!

  9. In the cartoon movie “Frozen”, the Princess has the problem that everything that she touches turns to ice, everything she touches becomes frozen. Replace the Princess’ face with the face of Cardinal Reinhard Marx or that of any of his close followers and you have the exact same DEADLY problem. FROZEN!! Why such a lustful, rabid, fanatical insistence on the Frozen Failure of Protestantism, Pachamama Primitivism, Suicidal “Inclusion”, false compassion and self-centered sin in general?

    Because FROZENNESS in the heart, mind, soul or spirit is a clear sign of CHOSEN FATHERLESSNESS, and a demented way to fill that huge void with blind, sinful POWER to destroy all that The Heavenly Father has created, especially the Catholic Church!! In many inside the prison populations (and a lot many other “non-criminals” in the outside) you can see that FROZENNESS, that DEATH of the LUST for POWER in their eyes, words and attitude. I can see it in Cardinal Reinhard Marx, several other prelates, politicians, activists, leaders, etc. When you are frozen in your death-lust for power, facts don’t matter. The consistent, proven failure of your ideas is just a greater, more powerful motivation to grab more power and impose your Worship of Failure as “inclusive heaven”, as it is easier to exert power over those that are failed, by choice, indoctrination or force, in their whole lives and especially in their relationship with Father God.

    It’s that Death-Lust for the Frozen Power of Failure that makes it unstoppable that Protestants Denominations continue to grow at an average rate of 10 new ones every single week. It’s what lustfully animates Cardinal Marx and the “Synodal Path”, the path to FROZENNESS. What is frozen can be divided, fragmented and broken easily. Have you seen things dipped and frozen in liquid nitrogen and then dropped onto the floor? They break to smithereens!

    We must speak up against this FROZENNESS of DEATH in all Laity and Clergy and, especially, in Pope Francis, who looks FROZEN to stop the “German Church”, but moves so quickly when it comes to POWER. Ask for the Holy Fire of the Holy Spirit to melt and destroy the death-lust of FREEZING POWER in our own hearts, the Church and the whole world! That’s one the most important reasons why JESUS said: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already KINDLED!”, (Luke 12:49) so in that Fire we can be Children of Light and Life (Ephesians 5:8) and not live in the frozen darkness of spiritual FATHERLESSNESS!!

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