The Synodal Path to a German National Church (2)

October 18, 2019
Cardinal Bernardus Johannes Alfrink (1900-1987), in the center.

On October 6, 2019 the Synod on the Amazon opened, whose preparatory document Instrumentum laboris caused a lot of turmoil in the Catholic world. 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.

The first article gave a historical overview of the Church in Germany and brought up, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the holding of the Würzburg Congress, from 1971 to 1975, the “Joint Synod of the Dioceses of Germany.” However, this synod was inspired by a model: the “council” organized in the Netherlands between 1966 and 1970. It is advisable to study the lessons of that event to understand the synodal path the German bishops have decided to launch on December 1, 2019.

A “Council” in Holland

Even before the end of the Second Vatican Council, at the instigation of Cardinal Alfrink,—one of the principal actors of the progressive majority and Archbishop of Utrecht,—the Dutch bishops launched a vast consultation with all the Catholics of the country. They named this initiative the “Pastoral Council of the Ecclesiastical Province of Holland.”

One of the organizers of this event, the Franciscan Walter Goddijn, who wanted to be the tip of the spear of the conciliar aggiornamento in the Netherlands, told how the use of the word council was not a coincidence: “The Roman authorities were somewhat worried that we were using the word council. The experts in canon lawobjected to the possibility of speaking of a “provincial” council, which has a canonical sense. So we wanted to maintain the word council by defining it as pastoral.”

Two days after its opening, Cardinal Alfrink explained what it was: “The Pastoral Council of the Dutch Ecclesiastical Province, which began on November 27, 1966, is, indeed, something new. By analogy with the Second Vatican Council, it wants to be less legal than pastoral. The bishops have appealed to the whole ecclesial community for a collective deliberation on what the Church of today needs in the Dutch situation.”

The purpose of the gathering was for the bishops to “deliver valuable information about the life of the faithful, in order to better adapt the exercise of their pastoral care.” And, for the faithful, “to make the whole community and each individual personally aware of his Christian responsibility for the good of the Church in today’s world.”

This Pastoral Council was headed by a Central Committee composed initially of 11 members (two bishops, a priest, a sister, four lay people of whom one was to be a woman, and three brothers) which was then reduced to six (Cardinal Alfrink, three priests, and three lay people). A Council of seven members (three priests and four lay people—two men and two women) was associated with it. These two groups provided the organization and preparation of the “conciliar” sessions.

The supreme body of the Council was the Plenary Assembly, whose composition, after much trial and error, counted the eight bishops of Holland forming the presidium, five members of the Central Committee forming the council office, and three priests per diocese elected by the clergy, seven lay people per diocese elected by the pastoral councils, ten men and women religious chosen from the different orders or congregations, not to mention the representatives of the other religious professions (with consultative but non-deliberative votes) and fifteen members who may from time to time be appointed by the episcopate on presentation of the Central Committee.

The total number of participants entitled to vote was 109, all having the same value: bishop, priest, religious, and laymen were equal.

In such an assembly where numbers make the law, the question of authority was the first to be dealt with. It was explained in a report sent by Cardinal Alfrink to Pope Paul VI: “As expected, the Pastoral Council devoted its first Plenary Assembly to the question of authority. This meeting emphasized the desire for an authority that knows how to dialogue and carry out communal thinking—which relies not so much on the predominance offunction as on personal qualities,—which calls upon the co-responsibility and freedom of each and everyone by inspiring them, appealing to personal commitments instead of stifling them with clerical formalisms.” This is the method, very democratic, that will be followed.

In Holland, as well as in Rome, the question arose concerning the value to be attributed to the documents adopted by the Plenary Assembly. Cardinal Alfrink explained this during the opening address of the third session. To those objecting to him “that there is no question of deciding together,” he replies: “I dare not say that this statement bears witness to an exact idea of ​​things. Is it not, on the contrary, our intention to succeed communally, in reflecting and speaking together, to draw conclusions, to make decisions? In these circumstances, the concrete manner in which a decision will ultimately take its strictly legal form is, in my opinion, secondary.”

The Siutation Has Not Changed

Before each session, committees of experts, created ad hoc, presented reports containing practical recommendations. The bishops authorized their publication, which does not imply that they subscribed to their content. Proposals were then discussed freely in different committees. The result was synthesized in a general report, which was presented to the vote of the participants at the Plenary Assemblies.

After two years of preparation, the Dutch Pastoral Council continued at the rate of two sessions per year between 1968 and 1970. The first four were held in the presence of the nuncio, Bishop Felici, who did not appear at the fifth session (January 4-7, 1970).

Two results are worthy of note because they are not unrelated to Francis’s papacy, the Synod for the Amazon, and the German synodal path.

Pope Paul VI’s teaching on marriage and the regulation of births received a mixed reception and, in practice, emptied of its meaning and strength. On June 11, 1969, Cardinal Alfrink explained how the pope was bypassed: “In the world press, it has sometimes been pointed out that our Council rejected the pontifical document. The reality is quite different. In Holland, as elsewhere in the Church, there are those who accept the encyclical without reservation and those who have some difficulty in accepting all parts of the document without reserve. The Council therefore asked that we continue the dialogue, either among Dutch Catholics, or among our community and other parties in the Church and the Pope on various aspects of the encyclical. In this context, the Council affirmed that the reasons invoked in the encyclical are not convincing to bring a general and absolute condemnation of artificial means of birth control...The Council asked that the value of sincere personal conscience be recognized.”

Thus, a “council” composed mainly of laymen judges that the magisterium can be held in check because it advanced “unconvincing” arguments. Authority only applies if the subjects are willing to obey, the pontifical authority is no exception. The individual conscience takes precedence over any other authority, which amounts to undermining one of the natural foundations of life in society. It is the Sillonist error, condemned in 1910 by Pope St. Pius X.

In defense of the Dutch Pastoral Council, we must recognize that it was only following the example given by the episcopates, especially—in chronological order—those of Belgium, Germany, Holland, England, Austria, Canada, and France, who had led the way.

More serious in its magnitude and the reactions it provoked, the questioning of priestly celibacy was one of the main themes of the Pastoral Council. The general account which was to serve as the basis of the discussions attacked the tradition as well as the divine constitution of the Church. When he became aware of it, Paul VI sent the bishops of the Netherlands a signed letter on December 24, 1969. Professor Romano Amerio comments: “The letter is typical of the character of Paul’s pontificate: the eye sees the damage and the error, but neither by medicine nor by cautery nor by knife is the hand put to the evil to combat and cure it. The Pope ‘cannot disguise the fact that certain projects and reports accepted by the bishops as a basis for discussion and certain doctrinal statements in them leave him perplexed and seem to him to merit serious reservations.’”

“[The Pope] then expresses ‘well founded reservations about the criteria for the representation of Dutch Catholics at the plenary assembly.’ He is ‘profoundly struck’ by the fact that Vatican II is ‘very rarely cited’ and that the thinking and proposals of the Dutch gathering ‘do not seem to harmonize at all with conciliar and papalacts. In particular, the mission of the Church is represented as purely earthly, the priestly ministry as being an office conferred by the community, priesthood is dissociated from celibacy and attributed to women, and not a word is said of the pope except to minimize his responsibilities and the powers bestowed upon him by Christ.’”(Romano Amerio, Iota Unum, Sarto House, 1996, p. 142).

The Second Vatican Council was already overrun by the forces it itself had liberated and encouraged. Prohibited, Paul VI could offer no other solution than that of exhorting the bishops to strengthen their authority, with the goal of overcoming the difficulties. But the bishops had stripped themselves of this authority. In reality, through the authority of the bishops, which was sidelined and emptied of all substance, it was his own papal authority, that was attacked.

Bold Proposals 

Among the proposals made in the general report, two recommendations were particularly bold.

Under the title “New forms of ministry. New people engaged in ministry,” the fourth proposal engaged the discussion, then took a vote on women and the ministry. Quote: “It is important to continue as soon as possible the integration of women into all ecclesial roles where their appointment causes no problems or only few problems. Future evolution must be guided by this norm that women can exercise all ecclesial functions, including the Eucharistic presidency...An inquiry must be made to find out whether the community will accept a woman as a priestly minister and to be more precise about the reasons which still exist in a certain resistance to this evolution.” The results of the vote speak for themselves: 72 votes for (including 1 bishop), 8 votes against (including 4 bishops), 24 abstentions (including 3 bishops).

The other particularly daring proposal came from the fifth recommendation on “the problems concerning the clergy’s state of life.” After a reminder of the value of celibacy, the separation of ministry and celibacy wasproposed as follows:

“To future priests, celibacy will no longer be posited as a condition for the exercise of the ministry.” This proposal received 90 votes in favor, 6 against, 2 blank ballots, and 8 abstentions (the eight bishops);

“To priests who are planning to marry or who are already married, there is the possibility of continuing the exercise of their ministry or of reintegrating them.” This proposal received 86 for, 3 against, 8 blank ballots, and the bishops abstained;

“Married persons are offered the opportunity to be admitted to the exercise of the ministry.” This proposal received 94 for, 1 against, 2 blank ballots, and the bishops abstained;

“The obligation of celibacy as a condition for the exercise of the ministry must be removed.” This one received 93 for, 2 against, 3 blank ballots, and again the bishops abstained;

The last ballot required the bishops to implement all these points within a reasonable time. This received 79 for, 6 against, 4 blank ballots, and one more time the bishops abstained.

After this lamentable spectacle in which the successors of the Apostles had demonstrated by their abstentions their inability to defend the sanctity of the priesthood, the Dutch bishops issued a communiqué on January 21, 1970. They first declared: “The bishops bear the responsibility on behalf of the Church entrusted to them, but at the same time they bear responsibility for the universal Church. This is the true content of collegiality such as it was brought to light by the Second Vatican Council.”

They continued: “The bishops estimate that, for their community, it would be good for priests living in freely chosen celibacy, to accept married priests in the Latin Church, in the sense that married men could be ordained priests, and that, in special cases, priests who are married might be reinstated in the ministry under certain conditions.” Thus, the bishops had not only transmitted the information to Rome, they had taken responsibility for it.

Paul VI felt the effects. On February 1st, he gave a speech in Saint Peter's Square in which he rendered a vibrant tribute to the “sacred celibacy of the priest,” “the capital law of our Latin Church.” The next day, in a letter to Cardinal Villot, he returned to what was for him the essential subject. In his wake, joyful episcopal reactions were heard in various countries to defend priestly celibacy. Proof that, when the bishops are willing to assume the responsibilities of their office and exercise their apostolic authority, anything is possible.

The Consequences of the Pastoral Council

During the Fifth Session of 1970, the Plenary Assembly unanimously voted for the creation of a Pastoral Working Group to continue the work of the Pastoral Council. This was the origin of the creation of a National Pastoral Council.

The existence of this “permanent council” provoked objections from Rome, such that the Episcopal Conference of the Netherlands finally suppressed this Council on August 13, 1972. However, it was replaced by a “national consultation” of 81 members, composed of 8 representatives per diocese and 25 people appointed by the bishops. This organization met three times. It disappeared after the synod of Dutch bishops was held in Rome in 1980.

The history of this first “national council” to have taken place immediately after the Second Vatican Council is rich in lessons. The “strategic errors” committed by the Dutch bishops were remembered by the German bishops who avoided repeating them. They would get less, but more durable, results.