19 feb 20
Francis and the Schism of Germany. History of a Nightmare
That on the Amazon is the second synod in a row in which Francis has disappointed the expectations of those awaiting the innovations that he himself, the pope, had foretold.
In the 2018 synod on young people, the issue on which the expectations and controversies had focused was homosexuality. The base document of the discussion, in its paragraph 197, explicitly admitted a possible paradigm shift in judging “homosexual couples.”
And instead nothing. When the synod gathered, Francis imposed and obtained silence on the subject. No mention was made of it in the assembly discussions, nor in the final document, much less in the post-synodal pontifical exhortation “Christus vivit.” And so that on young people – emptied of its only spicy ingredient – became the most useless and boring synod in history.
The following year, with the synod on the Amazon and especially with what followed, the disappointment of the innovators was even stronger.
Because this time at the synod the discussion did take place on the most awaited and disputed change, which was the ordination of married men. In the final document the proposal passed with more than two thirds of the votes. And still in early January many were sure that Francis would adopt and authorize it, in the post-synodal exhortation expected at any moment.
But then came, in strenuous defense of the celibate priesthood, the bombshell book by pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah, received by the innovators as a disastrous omen.
And in fact shortly afterward the post-synodal exhortation “Querida Amazonia” fell like a sudden chill, with the total silence of Francis on the subject. To keep a feeble little light aflame, the innovators can only cling to the few introductory lines in which the pope invites “to read in full” the final document of the synod as well, from which “may God grant that the entire Church be enriched and challenged,” and recommends that “the pastors” of the Amazon “strive to apply it.”
But apart from this last crumbly foothold left by Francis at the disposal of the innovators, what has driven the pope to repeatedly apply the brakes in matters on which he had previously shown himself willing to innovate?
The answer is to be found in Germany.
Last December 1, a “synodal journey” began in Germany that explicitly aims, over the course of two years, to set aside the norm of celibacy, to confer sacred orders on women, to bless homosexual unions, and to democratize the government of the Church.
With regard to married priests and women’s ministries, the German synod had focused on the synod of the Amazon as a trailblazer. If openings had come from there, however minimal, on both issues, the way would have been paved to replicate and expand them also in the heart of Europe.
Pope Francis knew it. And he had done much last year to call the Catholic Church of Germany back to order. But without success. The double silence he has kept on married priests and women deacons in the Amazon has been seen in Germany and elsewhere as a further step taken by the pope to halt the course of the German Church toward an ever more accentuated autonomy.
The first reactions in Germany to this double silence from the pope were of disappointment, but also of defiant confirmation of the will to go forward. Cardinal Reinhard Marx (in the photo), archbishop of Munich and president of the German episcopal conference, has once again commended the openness of the Amazonian synod to married priests and the ordination of women, saying that the pope did not make “concrete decisions” on the issue – that is, he has not forbidden but has only kept silent – and that therefore “this discussion continues.”
Among the German bishops, Marx is the leader of the innovators. But it must be kept in mind that not only do the 69 members of the episcopal conference take part in the synod, but so do, with equal voting rights, just as many representatives of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK), plus various representatives of religious orders, deaneries, theological faculties, movements, for a total of 230 members.
And there is an overwhelming majority in favor of the changes. Among the very few dissenting lay voices was the theologian Marianne Schlosser, awarded the Ratzinger Prize in 2018, who resigned from the synod last December 21. While among the bishops the opponents can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The most prominent is Cardinal Rainer Maria Voelki, archbishop of Cologne, who has repeatedly denounced the danger of a schism.
Of course, there are three more German cardinals among the opponents. However, for reasons of age or role, they do not participate in the synod. They are cardinals Gerhard Müller, Walter Brandmüller, and Paul Josef Cordes. The first two are especially tireless in denouncing the schismatic drifts of the synod underway. A few days ago, in a comment in “Die Tagespost” translated in its entirety into English on “LifeSite News,” Brandmüller accused it of wanting to create a new regional Protestant Church, in the footsteps of Luther.
But none of these three cardinals has ever been particularly appreciated and listened to by Francis. Putting the pope on alert was instead another German cardinal, residing in Rome, this one indeed highly esteemed and with a reputation as a reformer, Cardinal Walter Kasper, 87, protagonist between 2014 and 2016 of the operation with which – through a consistory of cardinals and two deftly handled synods – Francis gave the nulla osta to communion for the divorced and remarried.
Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s attempt to tame the German synod has taken place in several stages, the first of which were carefully reconstructed by Lucas Wiegelmann in an article published at the end of 2019 in Germany in “Herder Korrespondenz” and in Italy in “Il Regno.”
The first stage dates back to last spring. The combative proclamations from across the Alps and the worried reports of the nuncio in Germany, Nikola Eterovic, led some high-level curia chiefs to apply pressure to the pope in order to convince him of the seriousness of the stakes and the need of bringing remedy.
Moving in this direction were cardinals Marc Ouellet, perfect of the congregation for bishops, Luis Ladaria, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Beniamino Stella, prefect of the congregation for the clergy, and Pietro Parolin, secretary of state.
Ladaria was entrusted with the task of meeting with the pope and suggesting that he a cautionary letter to the German bishops’ conference. Francis accepted the proposal, but instead of just the bishops he decided to write an open letter to the whole “people of God that is in Germany.”
That brings us to the second stage. To write this letter, in June the pope asked Cardinal Kasper for help. The meeting between the two – as Kasper later reported in an interview with “Herder Korrespondenz” – is broad in scope, on the overall situation of the Church in Germany. Bergoglio drafted the letter in his native language, Spanish, and entrusted it to Cardinal Ladaria to have it translated into German. On June 29 the letter was made public. It insisted a great deal on the primary need to “evangelize,” rather than pursuing “functional” modernizations that have little or nothing to do with the mission proper to the Church.
But the effect was not what the one hoped for, as Kasper himself acknowledged with concern: “In Germany the letter was highly appreciated, but then it was set aside and things went on as as planned. But without renewal of faith any structural reform, no matter how well-intentioned, goes nowhere.”
The pope did not give up and – third stage – resumed fire through Cardinal Ouellet. Having read with concern the draft of the statutes of the synod, prepared in Germany over the summer, the prefect of the congregation for bishops, with the transparent mandate of Francis, addressed to cardinal Marx, as president of the German episcopal conference, a very severe letter, dated September 4 but delivered on the 13th.
To make the reproach less escapable, Ouellet’s letter was accompanied by a juridical “Judgment” of the pontifical council for legislative texts, in which among other things it is specified that the issues under discussion in the synod concern not only Germany but the universal Church, and therefore “cannot be the subject of deliberations and decisions of a particular Church, without contravening what the Holy Father has expressed.”
In response, Marx and ZDK President Thomas Sternberg limited themselves to thanking the pope publicly for his June 29 letter. On September 20 Marx was received in audience, in Rome, by both Francis and Cardinal Ouellet, and stated that “a constructive dialogue took place in both talks.” In reality, the status of the synod was adjusted a bit. Everyone will have an equal vote, but the final decision will be up to the bishops only. And as for the “resolutions whose issues are the normative competence of the universal Church, these will be transmitted to the Apostolic See.”
In Rome, however, they continued to be wary. Before and during the Amazonian synod in October, two of the four top curia leaders who first alerted the pope, cardinals Ouellet and Stella, publicly spoke out on keeping intact the norm of celibacy, making it clear that Francis was on their side.
And he was. In the post-synodal exhortation “Querida Amazonia” the pope is completely silent on this explosive issue. It is the fourth and so far last broadside of his barrage against the feared drifts of the German synod.
But it will not be the last, given the far from reassuring trend – for Rome – of the first session of the synod, held in Frankfurt from January 30 to February 1.
That Francis’s concern is still serious, is also proven by the friendly handwritten card he composed on February 12 for Müller, the cardinal with whom he has had repeated conflicts – to the point of firing him in 2017 as prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith – and who has never spared criticism of this pontificate, but who is also one of the most implacable censors of the German synod.
“Dear brother,” the pope wrote to Müller, “many thanks for the book ‘The pope, mission and duty’ and for the document on the exhortation ‘Querida Amazonia,’ which I liked.”
The “document” that so “pleased” Francis is a commentary published in the “National Catholic Register” on February 12 in which the cardinal strongly appreciates the reconfirmation of the norm of celibacy made by the pope, the exact opposite of the expectations of the German innovators.
As for the storm that broke out around the book of pope emeritus Benedict XVI and cardinal Sarah, as an apologia for celibacy, it should be noted that the furious aggression against the two authors was indeed carried out by men and publications from the Bergoglian area, but has seen only one official commentary ascribable to Pope Francis, and this was the note bylined by Andrea Tornielli in “L’Osservatore Romano” of January 14, all aimed at highlighting a perfect harmony, in the matter of celibacy, between the pope emeritus and the reigning pope.
Here too with the Germanic schism in the background. Not spoken, but ever looming.
- 19 febbraio 2020