The German Church on the Edge of the Abyss

September 18, 2019

The German episcopacy seems to want to throw themselves—against the advice of the Pope, timidly expressed—into the open breach of synodality in defiance of the discipline of the universal Church. The most conservative bishops opposed to the project are in the minority, and some see the possibility of an open schism across the Rhine.

On September 10, 2019, during the flight that brought him back from his journey around the Indian Ocean, Pope Francis was questioned about the opposition he is meeting from conservative American Catholic circles. He replied that he was “not afraid of schisms.”

But the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) seems to be moving, by a synodal process yet encouraged by the pope, to what could prove to be the first stage in the formation of a church independent of the universal Church, in its discipline as well as its practice.

Indeed, on August 19, the German episcopate rejected the joint proposal of Cardinal Rainer Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of Regensburg. The two conservative prelates had proposed an alternative way to the synodal process supported by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and President of the DBK.

They had put forward a “complete and thorough spiritual renewal compatible with the universal Church and her faith,” in order to exclude from the discussion the heterodox problems: access to  sacramental communion for the “divorced-remarried,” reception of homosexuality, ordination of married men, etc. But according to information collected by Catholic News Agency, the Conservative project was rejected by an overwhelming majority: 21 votes to 3.

Cardinal Woelki then warned against a “Church that adapts its faith to the world, which is not the mark of the Holy Spirit” and against the temptation for the DBK to behave “like a parliament”—without any link to or control by the papacy, and to the detriment of the power of the bishop in his diocese.

The Fruits of Vatican II Collegiality

Already, during one of his interventions at the Second Vatican Council on 17 October 1963, Archbishop Lefebvre caught a glimpse of the dangers that collegiality would pose to the government of the Church. Through it, he explained, “national or international Colleges would gradually take the place in the Church of the personal government of a single Pastor. Several fathers have mentioned the danger of a lessening of the power of the Sovereign Pontiff and we are fully in agreement with them. But we foresee another danger, even more serious, if possible: the threat of the gradual disappearance of the essential character of the bishops, namely that they are ‘true pastors, each one of whom feeds and governs his own flock, entrusted to him in accordance with a power proper to him alone, directly and fully contained in his order.’ The national assemblies with their commissions would soon—and unconsciously—be feeding and governing all the flocks, so that the priests as well as the laity would find themselves placed between those two pastors: the bishop, whose authority would be theoretical, and the assembly with its commissions, which would, in fact, hold the exercise of that authority” (I Accuse the Council, pp. 10-11).

The fruits of collegiality seem to have fully ripened across the Rhine. Annibal ad portas ... Hannibal is at the gates!