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The recovery of fraternal correction among bishops

The brave bishops who signed the recent “Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany” have identified key issues for the Church of the immediate future, and for the next papal conclave.

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising speaks during a service marking the 20th anniversary of the LGBTQ community at St. Paul's Church in Munich March 13, 2022. Cardinal Marx apologized for the Catholic Church's discrimination against homosexuals. (CNS photo/Lukas Barth, Reuters)

In the golden age of the Catholic episcopate — the days of great Church Fathers like Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo in the early and mid-first millennium — bishops were not infrequently in contact with each other, encouraging, consulting, and, when necessary, correcting. The practice of episcopal fraternal correction has withered over time, not least in the decades since the Second Vatican Council. And that’s strange. For Vatican II taught that the world’s bishops form a body or “college” that, with and under the Bishop of Rome, shares full authority within the Church. Somehow, though, the practice of episcopal “collegiality” came to resemble the unwritten etiquette within Evelyn Waugh’s fictitious London club, Bellamy’s, where one simply didn’t criticize another member, no matter how disturbing, even bizarre, his behavior.

Whatever else German Catholicism’s multi-year “Synodal Path” has accomplished thus far, it has changed that dynamic dramatically.

The bishops of Poland and Scandinavia recently sent letters of fraternal concern and correction to the German episcopate, questioning the German Synodal Path’s deconstruction of settled truths of Catholic faith and practice. Then, on Tuesday of Holy Week, a group of more than seventy English-speaking bishops from the United States, Canada, and Africa publicly released “A Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany.” Stressing that the seven issues they flagged were not their only concerns with the German Synodal Path’s work to date, the Anglophone bishops’ letter nonetheless identified the key points at which the German Church seemed to be careening toward what can only be called apostasy.

First, by “failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel,” the Synodal Path was undermining the credibility of Scripture, the teaching authority of the Church (including that of Pope Francis), and the Catholic understanding of the human person.

Second, the documents and discussions of the Synodal Path seem dominated by secular ideologies, including gender theory, rather than being framed by Scripture and Tradition – which, the Anglophone bishops reminded their German brethren, Vatican II declared “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” that is binding on the Church over time, irrespective of the prevailing public culture.

Third, the Synodal Path persistently reduces freedom to personal autonomy — the dumbed down freedom of “I did it my way” — and confuses conscience with personal preference. Yet as the Anglophone bishops put it, a truly Christian conscience “remains subject to the truth about human nature and the norms of righteous living revealed by God and taught by Christ’s Church.” There is no freedom without truth, they wrote, “and Jesus is the truth who sets us free.”

In the fourth place, the Synodal Path’s documents and discussions seem devoid of that joy of the Gospel that Pope Francis has stressed as “essential to Christian life.” How can there be serious Church renewal and reform, the English-speaking bishops asked, if the joy of the new life in Christ is absent? Is it possible for a soured, self-referential Church, obsessed with real and imagined failures, to evangelize?

Fifth, the Anglophone bishops noted that the Synodal Path has been an elitist exercise run by entrenched and determinedly woke Church bureaucrats. But how can the Church proclaim the new life in Christ if the vast German Catholic bureaucracy “displays more submission and obedience to the world and to ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”?

Sixth, the Anglophone bishops flagged the Synodal Path’s fixation on ecclesiastical “power,” as if flying a desk in a chancery office and telling others what to do has greater evangelical value than bringing others to Christ, or back to Christ, through a personal witness to the Gospel.

And finally, the “Fraternal Open Letter” warns that a Catholic “synodality” which reduces Catholicism to another liberal Protestant sect is a distraction from “the Church’s necessary conversation about fulfilling [its] mission of converting and sanctifying the world.” The Anglophone bishops know that Christian mission today requires deep Catholic reform. Reform does not mean deconstruction, however. The Church has a “form” given it by Christ, and all true Catholic reform is in reference to that form.

Whether the Fraternal Open Letter and the parallel letters from the Polish and Scandinavian episcopates slow what seems to be, in Germany, a Gadarene rush over the cliff of apostasy remains to be seen. But the brave bishops who signed that letter have identified key issues for the Church of the immediate future, and for the next papal conclave.

And that is a service to the Gospel and the cause of Christ.

[The full text of the Fraternal Open Letter is available here. Bishops wishing to join this initiative may register their signatures by e-mail to episcopimundi2022@gmail.com.]


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About George Weigel 393 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), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

16 Comments

  1. “The practice of episcopal fraternal correction has withered over time, not least in the decades since the Second Vatican Council. And that’s strange.”

    Not so strange, really. Maybe bishops think, “Rome will do it. I wash my hands of it.”

    I remember the disgraced Archbishop Law gathering allies in the mid-90s for a public beat-down of Archbishop Bernardin. Fat lot of good that did the pro-life movement. Where was the correction when bishops prioritized the institution over the victims and survivors through the 90s? Seems like they were all too ready to delegate the problem to hand-picked psychologists, confessors, and the good will of predators. Even Rome wasn’t engaged in corrective measures until very recently.

    I think people, including bishops, may take a little too much joy in the correction of others. It devolves into a matter of “me and my issues” when it goes public in the media.

    These days, the bishops seem careful about the delicate situation of how others in the Church see them. Who knows how much goes on behind the scenes?

  2. Certainly a good thing that the bishops did. But sending a letter to bishops of another country doesn’t seem to me to be all that difficult. I would reserve Weigel’s phrase “brave bishops” for, say, American bishops who would fraternally correct other American bishops, and Cardinals, if that would ever happen.

  3. If Bishops refuse fraternal correction where they see a problem they are derelict in their duty and do no favor to the faithful. That applies to lesser clergy like Msgr’s and regular curates.And it applies whether the issue is large or small. For example, our church had a HUGE crowd on Easter Sunday. Well more than a regular Sunday Mass. It would have been smart for the priests to note that fact and give those attending a warm welcome and encourage them to RETURN next Sunday. We all know that there are those who attend church only on Christmas and Easter. But that is no reason not to prod them gently to rethink that position. Why not ask them WHY they come on Easter? And why they fail to come the rest of the time? In a welcome and not scolding way? Why do we never hear our priests speak about unmarried couples living together? About why people never go to confession but always go to communion? Sin is real and must be talked about. And I do not speak about woke social justice issues here, which have been talked to death. If standards are not spoken of and maintained, there are no standards. That applies whether you are a priest or a Pope. This Pope has had a marked reluctance to take a stand on anything church related, although he has plenty to say about political issues such as illegal immigration ( which he appears to favor).And he seemed to almost give an ok to gay sexuality (” who am I to judge”), although sodomy has been roundly condemned in the bible forever.The Pope has said NOTHING in the face of pending schism by the Germans.That is indeed dereliction. The church and its leaders forget they are not enforcing secular values, but religious ones, which are quite different. “No mean tweets” doesnt apply here. Telling the truth of religious faith, opposing sinful behavior, is not “mean”, and if some take it that way, they will need to get over it. If they cannot accept church teachings in these areas, such folks should go to churches where they feel “accepted” to continue in their sin. But in no way should the church change it’s belief system to accommodate their behaviors. The reason for the silence can only be that some Bishops and clergy agree with the secular values and have betrayed their religious ones, a very disturbing thought.

    • Wow! Right on, if bordering harsh. Gently , gentlyLJ. I fully appreciate what you have to say, just tone it down without losing any of the Truth! Like your suggestions to bishops and priests. Many are trying their best and need support of the the laity. This is our moment as pointed out in V ll.

  4. “The reason for the silence can only be …”

    Or the reason is that Catholic clergy have focused more at Mass on building up the positives they see in people and encouraging them. One advantage they have over you and me is that they hear the sins in the sacrament of Penance. You and I and other lay people don’t.

    Many people have complaints in life. We don’t see other people agreeing with our complaints or giving them the due we think they deserve. So maybe something else is going on.

    • It goes without saying that priests should be building up the positives. That does not mean they should ignore the very evident negatives. The oft cited reality, since you mention confession, that “everyone goes to communion but no one goes to confession” is one such issue never spoken of from the pulpit. In a correctly formed Catholic, such should not be happening. If a priest hears in confession that a man is now living with his 4th serial girlfriend, his role would not be to encourage that ( even if it “encouraged the penitent”) but rather explain why that would be wrong.Even at the cost of “offending” the penitent. But then again if this sin was spoken of generally from the pulpit that one to one chat would not be as necessary. In this current climate I would wager that NO ONE confesses extra marital sex. All “do your own thing”, you know?That the Pope gave a big cheerful hello to pro-abortion Biden and Pelosi said a great deal about his perspective—none of it good. Ditto his effort to suppress the Latin Mass, from which a higher percentage of vocations now emerge than NO Mass parishes. All while Germany starts to roll into schism. Truth cannot be changed to suit secular whims. It is time for those clergy who can still recognize the truth to speak out. St. Paul never seemed to have an issue with correcting his congregations, at a time when the church was struggling to establish itself and was being actively persecuted.

      • I think many Catholics have lost faith in confessors. Topping that off, there are no immediate consequences for the sins they commit. Maybe their lives get tangled up, and they have to deal with the ramifications to a degree.

        Another problem: most Catholics are operating on a child-level of catechesis for penance. It didn’t get better with an insistence on confession before Communion for second-graders. What’s lacking is age-appropriate formation in the sacrament.

        I think many people find the experience of 12-Step programs as superior: they have to admit fault, confess to a single person, and strive to make amends.

        And lastly, they see clergy living questionable lives without consequences for their own behavior. None of this is really right or good. But nobody in the clergy really wants to focus on the problems of the sacrament. A second grade education won’t get you far in accounting or the medical profession. Doesn’t work in Penance either.

  5. LJ above – I think it’s too easy to blame everything on our priests and bishops. The laity has responsibility too. I think it was Mr. Maier (I forget his first name, sorry) in his in-depth interviews with many American bishops was told by one bishop, “We are leaders without followers”, or maybe it was “generals without soldiers”. Challenging the regnant culture is an uphill battle these days (understatement) and we all have a role.

    • Of course the laity bear responsibility. But without leadership to tell them the direction to go, the direction to RESIST, etc, they will not effectively operate on their own.Far too many Catholic laity are ignorant of the beliefs of their own religion , as witness the recent survey that 75% of Catholics did not believe in the Real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is up to the clergy to provide both ongoing education and leadership. If some laity dont like what they hear, so be it. Continue on with the truth with those who are willing to listen and believe.Many such types have left the church already. Yes, it may mean a smaller church but it’s likely to be a more faithful one. Of the 4 family weddings I attended in my Catholic family this past year, only one took place in a catholic church. Largely due to brides wanting a show stopper wedding in a garden setting or reception hall as opposed to a sacramental wedding. In no case did the Catholic parents of these couples even raise a question about it. Its likely they never heard in church why a church wedding is important as a sacrament. Too many clergy now think that the less said the better. Don’t make any waves. But that is the pathway to irrelevancy and extinction.

      • The structure of the diocese is that if a priest speaks up, his bishop can cut him down, even to denying him his pension! That’s a lot of power, too much! Also really tough is that a lay person on a parish council can knock himself out for years, dedicating enormous amount of time etc, and the a new pastor arrives and all the work and building up of the community gets swept away! In an instant. Very disheartening.

  6. “Gadarene rush over the cliff of apostasy”, George Weigel’s poignant prose. Analogies are useful, here to the Synodal Way German bishops. There seems an insight to the mystery [ever since college] seemingly never resolved of the suicidal, possessed swine.
    Aquinas thought Christ permitted the demons to enter the swine to demonstrate man is more valuable than a herd of swine. Nevertheless, the swine, animals that can swim hurtled themselves off the cliff and seemed intent on death. Likely compelled by the demons named Legion. Where did the demons go from there? Back to hell or to patrol the earth?
    What, then, regards the German Synodal Way that is not simply bordering on heresy; they are manifestly heretical [what’s makes their apostasy acutely reprehensible is the 2019 letter sent by Pope Francis to the German Synod. Are demons at work? Yes, I should think so. Not possession however. More the obsessive type focused on evil opposed to the Gospels and Apostolic tradition. Certainly Weigel’s Gadarene suicidal rush is figurative. The catastrophic evil is real.
    Fear and pity for the German people, those among the innocent. Those misled. Subject to shepherds blind within to the profundity of their darkness. My sincere prayers.

    • Additionally, as much as Pope Francis frequently writes/speaks with Apostolic veracity and force [as in his letter to the Germans] there’s the other level of his communication to the Church that is off kilter from that very tradition.
      Amoris Laetitia is a watershed that has transformed much of Catholicism and likely prepared the theological ground for Amazonia and the German hierarchal disappointment, then decision to go their own Synodal Way.
      Taking the letter into account, in context of the introduction of Amazonia pagan worship up to the main altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica – that had to have influenced the more progressively inclined Germans as well as other national bishops conferences. We must ask ourselves, was the letter sufficient? It wasn’t. Or was it issued for sake of ‘keeping up appearances’? That answer we struggle with and suffer as we witness widespread deterioration of the faith labelled a new paradigm of merciful freedom.

  7. LJ above – Thanks for your response. Hope you’ve read today’s interview with Bishop Cozzens. Yes, we need strong leadership and I think there are hopeful signs. I’m with you on the wedding front. My comment to my mother (now deceased – whew, now we can forget about all that hocus pocus!) was, “God was not invited”. Francis Maier.

  8. Another outstanding article in this CWR edition! I would request that CWR post the exemplary letter Father Bochanski, Executive Director of Courage-Encourage (Apostolate for those experiencing same sex attraction and their families and friends) to the German Bishops which upheld Truth in such a loving way.

  9. “The brave bishops who signed the recent Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany have identified key issues for the Church of the immediate future, and for the next papal conclave” (George Weigel 4.22).
    Should we admit that the arrow really points to executive management exercised [as is frequently] from Casa Santa Marta. Rather than be tiresome I’ll be forthright and repeat the issue of appointments Cardinals Hollerich, Czerny, pending Archbishop Scicluna all LGBT advocates to key positions where their doctrinal moral predilections can be advanced. Germany’s Synodalerweg is putatively a side issue, a foil for political manipulation and deflection from Operation Amazonia [as I facetiously labelled it]. Sadly the original brave 70 now 74 have taken the ploy [shouldn’t the Pontiff have addressed this matter effectively and convincingly?] the pontiff protected from liability by his letter of admonishment to the Germans. While the perceived strategy to address the LGBT issue favorably during the Synod goes forward. It will be argued with opposition that’s guaranteed, and perhaps not voted or forward. That is still a win for the advocates of normalizing a practice that is antithetical to Christianity and revelation. Simply discussing it during a worldwide forum with arguments in support and no resolution will give the impression disordered behavior is acceptable.
    Our Church is languid on taking forceful issue because there’s fear and confusion, the debilitating effect of uncertainty. Self induced most deciding in favor of safety by acquiescence. A popular response is the next papal election. That is really another rationale not to act and fulfill their office as defenders of the faith. We require a Saint Athanasius to move the hierarchy to act. At the least to assure the faithful we’re dealing with an intolerable evil.

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