The Synodal Path to a German National Church (1)

October 10, 2019
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of the German Bishops' Conference since 2014.

If for several months all eyes have been focused on the synod on the Amazon that began on October 6, it is because the Instrumentum laboris, the preparatory working document, has rocked the Catholic world in an unusual way. But it may be that the Amazon is somehow the tree that hides the forest, as the “synodal path” that is being prepared in Germany is something to be more concerned about.

To fully understand the challenges of the German synod, which will open on December 1st, it is necessary to set up the general framework. This is what Cardinal Walter Brandmüller did in an article on It will serve as a basic outline for this first article.

An Old Temptation

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and while the Vienna Congress was in full swing, the idea of forming a German national church was born within Germanic Catholicism. The project of Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenberg (1774-1860), however, remained without a future. If the influence of the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Josephism—which wants to subordinate the Church to the State—is recognized, it is certain that minds had first been affected by the Protestant Reformation.

Luther was able to rely on the German princes to fight against the Roman Church. This had created a special relationship with the state power, which was sanctioned by the principle that animated the peace of Augsburg (1555): “cujus regio, eius religio”—whose realm, his religion; in other words, the political sovereign determined the religion of a territory and its inhabitants. This principle would be firmly condemned by Pope Urban VIII, since it subjugates spiritual power to the temporal, religion to the state.

The German Catholic or Germano-Catholic Church

In the nineteenth century, a schismatic group was founded in 1844 by an excommunicated former priest, Johannes Ronge (1813-1887). Meeting with great success, he created the sect of the New Catholics who then took the name German Catholics. In less than a year, the sect counted 8,000 members. Groups were formed in Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, etc. Johann Ronge received the support of Johannes Czerski, another excommunicated priest who had failed both in celibacy and the priesthood. Between them they formed a German Catholic Church independent of the authority of the pope.

The affair fizzled and by 1860 most of the protagonists had joined Protestantism. But it manifested the formation of a national sentiment that wanted the reestablishment of a German nation, as well as a German national church.

The Kulturkampf Interlude 

Otto von Bismarck was going to stir up a new state of mind by persecuting the Church in the name of the Kulturkampf. Priests and even bishops were imprisoned, clergy were exiled, the faithful had to pay fines while newspapers and Catholic organizations were prohibited.

Faced with this aggression and this threat, German Catholics gathered around Rome and the pope. The work of the ultramontanes bore fruit: a renewal of popular piety, a new fidelity to the faith, to the bishops, and to Pius IX, who then occupied the chair of Peter. The idea of a national church faded in favor of belonging to the universal Church to which every Catholic remains attached.

The Modernist Crisis

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, theology in Germany was going to undergo a deadly evolution under the push of German idealism. This subjectivist and evolutionary philosophy led to the concept of religion as a creation of the conscience. Susceptible to evolution, it undermined the deposit of faith which contains the supernatural, fixed and immutable revelation.

This way of thinking was vigorously fought and condemned by Pope Saint Pius X, in particular by the encyclical Pascendi and the motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum which prescribed the anti-modernist oath. Every priest had to say it before taking up an appointment, especially in seminaries. Cardinal Brandmüller insists on an little known point: many German theology professors refused to obey the pope, and did not take the oath. They were calling—already!—for  full academic freedom in education and research, the loss of which would have exposed them to the contempt of the university world.

This unresolved crisis, which lay dormant because of the two world wars, reappeared in a new form in the immediate post-war period. That mentality was ready for a revolution. Already under Pius XII, resistance to pontifical teaching was a widespread among theologians and seminary teachers. The young Josef Ratzinger testified to the glacial reception that the encyclical Humani generis received at the seminary in Freising on the false opinions that threatened to ruin the foundations of Catholic doctrine, as well as the proclamation of the dogma on the Assumption in 1950.

As expressed by the title of Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s book, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, the Second Vatican Council was deeply influenced by German modernist theologians—without, however, forgetting or exonerating the French, the Belgians or the Dutch.

The Rejection of Humanae Vitae

After the Council, the perversion of moral theology rapidly worsened to the point that the encyclical Humanae vitae by Pope Paul VI on marriage and birth regulation provoked vehement protests at the Katholikentag, the Catholic congress held in September 1968, which made famous the ZdK, the Central Committee of German Catholics, which brings together militant laity in the various associations.

The hierarchy, which was not in favor of the encyclical, merely relativized the words of Pope Paul VI who rejected artificial contraception. Cardinal Julius Döpfner added the abuse of power to moral resignation. In fact, he kept in front of him the letters of Cardinal Alfred Bengsch, Archbishop of Berlin, speaking on behalf of the bishops of the GDR, and demanded that the Roman encyclical be approved and defended.

Instead, the bishops of the FRG drafted the Königstein Declaration, which left to spouses the task of deciding in conscience on using contraceptive methods. No pope was able to bend the German episcopate, who had freed itself from obedience to the Supreme Magisterium.

The Second Vatican Council, and Pope Paul VI in its wake, encouraged a general aggiornamento or “updating” of the Church, that is, an adaptation to modernity. This was done via reformers’ synods in the dioceses; there have been no less than a thousand since the Council!

The establishment of diocesan synods is certainly not new. They have provided notable service to the Church. But the post-conciliar synods have had the particularity of involving the laity in the debates and even giving them the right to vote.

The Würzburg Synod was a “joint synod of the dioceses of Germany.” Convened in 1969, it was held in eight sessions between 1971 and 1975, in a climate of rupture with the synodal tradition of the Church. It was a national and non-diocesan assembly, a bit like a national council, but to which the laity were invited, in equal numbers to the bishops and priests. Its statutes were approved by the Holy See...while it took place in an openly anti-Roman atmosphere. Tensions and difficulties multiplied, so that both the theologian Joseph Ratzinger and Mgr. Karl Forster, secretary of the German Episcopal Conference, left the synod in protest.

The Cologne Declaration

Another highlight that conveys the permanence of the temptation of national independence of the Church of Germany was the reaction triggered by the appointment to the Archbishopric of Cologne of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, one of the most conservative members of the German bishops. On January 6, 1989, 163 German-speaking theologians from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands requested a debate in the Church on episcopal appointments, the canonical mission of teaching, and the magisterial competence of the pope. There were many prominent theologians: Edward Schillebeeckx, Johann Baptist Metz, Hans Küng and Bernard Häring. They were joined by 130 French theologians, 23 Spanish, 63 Italian and 52 Belgian.

The signatories were concerned that John Paul II could appoint bishops without respecting the suggestions of local churches; they still deplored Rome’s refusal to allow theologians with whom there was a disagreement to teach; they found finally inadmissible the way in which the pope “extended and strengthened” his personal doctrinal competence. They especially took aim at the condemnation of artificial contraception.

Concurrently with this disciplinary and doctrinal deviation, most Catholic organizations have deviated and allied with all kinds of bad causes, such as the German Catholic Youth Federation which was infiltrated by Marxism—but this phenomenon does not concern only Germany. For its part the Central Committee of German Catholics has continued to take positions less and less clearly Catholic.

Among the lay initiatives is the “Appeal to the People of God,” launched in Austria in 1995 and passed on to Germany. This Appeal called for equality between clergy and laity, the participation of the faithful in the appointment of bishops, the opening of the diaconate and the priesthood to women, the abolition of priestly celibacy, the easing of discipline in all moral questions, especially on contraception and homosexuality. These demands came together on a worldwide scale in the “We are the Church” movement which pursues the same claims in fifteen countries, especially in Europe but also in Brazil and the United States.

The Synodal Path

This overview is necessary to understand the decision of the German episcopate to launch a synodal path that will begin on the first Sunday of Advent 2019. The spirit that animates it is inherited from a heavy tendency that, increased tenfold by the conciliar revolution, leads the Church in Germany towards a national particularism that destroys Catholic unity.