More than 70 bishops from around the world including Archbishop Samuel Aquila have released a “fraternal open letter” to Germany’s bishops warning that sweeping changes to Church teaching advocated by the ongoing process known as the “Synodal Path” may lead to schism.
The letter expresses “our growing concern about the nature of the entire German ‘Synodal Path,'” which the signatories say has led to confusion about Church teaching and appears focused more on man’s will than God’s.
“Failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel, the Synodal Path’s actions undermine the credibility of Church authority, including that of Pope Francis; Christian anthropology and sexual morality; and the reliability of Scripture,” the letter states.
“While they display a patina of religious ideas and vocabulary, the German Synodal Path documents seem largely inspired not by Scripture and Tradition — which, for the Second Vatican Council, are ‘a single sacred deposit of the Word of God’ — but by sociological analysis and contemporary political, including gender, ideologies,” the letter continues.
“They look at the Church and her mission through the lens of the world rather than through the lens of the truths revealed in Scripture and the Church’s authoritative Tradition.”
The letter was released Tuesday. Its initial signatories included 49 bishops from the United States. Another 19 are from Africa, 14 of whom are from Tanzania. The letter’s organizers provided an email address — email@example.com — that other bishops can use to add their names to the document.
Those lending their names to the document include such well-known prelates as Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver.
Aquila released his own 15-page commentary in May on the Synodal Path’s first text, saying it puts forward “untenable” proposals for changes to Church teaching. “The German bishops are sowing confusion for the entire Church and this should worry every bishop,” he said in a statement regarding the bishops’ letter.
Another prelate who signed the letter, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, released the following statement: “The German Synodal Way has strayed far from the path of authentic synodality and has placed itself in opposition to the truths of our Catholic faith as taught over the centuries from Scripture and Tradition. In fraternal correction and in union with bishops from around the world, I encourage the Bishops of Germany to return to the true deposit of faith as handed on to us by Jesus Christ.”
The president of Poland’s Catholic bishops’ conference and the Nordic bishops have expressed similar concerns. The latter group issued an open letter cautioning against what it called a “capitulation to the Zeitgeist” and an “impoverishment of the content of our faith.”
God’s revealed truth doesn’t change
The Synodal Way is a controversial multi-year process bringing together Germany’s bishops and laypeople to discuss the way power is exercised in the Church, sexual morality, the priesthood, and the role of women.
The Synodal Assembly consists of the bishops, 69 members of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and representatives of other parts of the German Church.
In February, the assembly voted in favor of draft texts calling for same-sex blessings and changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.
More recently, in an interview published on March 31, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx asserted that the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality is “not set in stone” and “one is also allowed to doubt what it says.”
The 859-word letter doesn’t cite any specific changes to Church teaching called for so far.
Instead, it broadly criticizes the Synodal Path’s approach and the content of its draft documents. “A telling flaw” about these texts, the letter argues, is that rather than expressing the “joy of the Gospel,” they bear the “obsessively critical, and inward-looking” marks of a bureaucratic process chiefly focused on something other than the salvation of souls.
“In its effect,” the letter observes, “the Synodal Path displays more submission and obedience to the world and ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Noting that authentic freedom is not the same as “autonomy,” and that one’s conscience does not determine truth, the letter argues that the the Synodal Path has veered from the reality that a “properly formed 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.”
The letter states, “Jesus is the truth, who sets us free (Jn 9).”
In the same vein, regarding questions about the governance of the institutional Church, the letter urges the German bishops to remember that “[t]he reform of structures is not at all the same thing as the conversion of hearts.”
While acknowledging that the “impulse” to reform and renew the Church “is admirable and should never be feared,” the letter notes that “Christian history is littered with well-intended efforts that lost their grounding in the Word of God, in a faithful encounter with Jesus Christ, in a true listening to the Holy Spirit, and in the submission of our wills to the will of the Father.”
“Because they failed to heed the words of Jesus, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15: 5), they were fruitless and damaged both the unity and the evangelical vitality of the Church,” the letter says.
“Germany’s Synodal Path risks leading to precisely such a dead end.”
Full text of the letter
A FRATERNAL OPEN LETTER TO OUR BROTHER BISHOPS IN GERMANY
April 11, 2022
In an age of rapid global communication, events in one nation inevitably impact ecclesial life elsewhere. Thus the “Synodal Path” process, as currently pursued by Catholics in Germany, has implications for the Church worldwide. This includes the local Churches which we pastor and the many faithful Catholics for whom we are responsible.
In that light, events in Germany compel us to express our growing concern about the nature of the entire German “Synodal Path” process and the content of its various documents. Our comments here are deliberately brief. They warrant, and we strongly encourage, more elaboration (as, for example, Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s An Open Letter to the Catholic Bishops of the World) from individual bishops. Nonetheless, the urgency of our joint remarks is rooted in Romans 12, and especially Paul’s caution: Do not be conformed to this world. And their seriousness flows from the confusion that the Synodal Path has already caused and continues to cause, and the potential for schism in the life of the Church that will inevitably result.
The need for reform and renewal is as old as the Church herself. At its root, this impulse is admirable and should never be feared. Many of those involved in the Synodal Path process are doubtless people of outstanding character. Yet Christian history is littered with well-intended efforts that lost their grounding in the Word of God, in a faithful encounter with Jesus Christ, in a true listening to the Holy Spirit, and in the submission of our wills to the will of the Father. These failed efforts ignored the unity, experience, and accumulated wisdom of the Gospel and the Church. Because they failed to heed the words of Jesus, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5), they were fruitless and damaged both the unity and the evangelical vitality of the Church. Germany’s Synodal Path risks leading to precisely such a dead end.
As your brother bishops, our concerns include but are not limited to the following:
- Failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel, the Synodal Path’s actions undermine the credibility of Church authority, including that of Pope Francis; Christian anthropology and sexual morality; and the reliability of Scripture.
- While they display a patina of religious ideas and vocabulary, the German Synodal Path documents seem largely inspired not by Scripture and Tradition — which, for the Second Vatican Council, are “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” — but by sociological analysis and contemporary political, including gender, ideologies. They look at the Church and her mission through the lens of the world rather than through the lens of the truths revealed in Scripture and the Church’s authoritative Tradition.
- Synodal Path content also seems to reinterpret, and thus diminish, the meaning of Christian freedom. For the Christian, freedom is the knowledge, the willingness, and the unhampered ability to do what is right. Freedom is not “autonomy.” Authentic freedom, as the Church teaches, is tethered to truth and ordered to goodness and, ultimately, beatitude. Conscience does not create truth, nor is conscience a matter of personal preference or self-assertion. A properly formed 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. Jesus is the truth, who sets us free (Jn 8).
- The joy of the Gospel — essential to Christian life, as Pope Francis so often stresses — seems utterly absent from Synodal Path discussions and texts, a telling flaw for an effort that seeks personal and ecclesial renewal.
- The Synodal Path process, at nearly every step, is the work of experts and committees: bureaucracy-heavy, obsessively critical, and inward-looking. It thus itself reflects a widespread form of Church sclerosis and, ironically, becomes anti-evangelical in tone. In its effect, the Synodal Path displays more submission and obedience to the world and ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
- The Synodal Path’s focus on “power” in the Church suggests a spirit fundamentally at odds with the real nature of Christian life. Ultimately the Church is not merely an “institution” but an organic community; not egalitarian but familial, complementary, and hierarchical — a people sealed together by love of Jesus Christ and love for each other in his name. The reform of structures is not at all the same thing as the conversion of hearts. The encounter with Jesus, as seen in the Gospel and in the lives of the saints throughout history, changes hearts and minds, brings healing, turns one away from a life of sin and unhappiness, and demonstrates the power of the Gospel.
- The last and most distressingly immediate problem with Germany’s Synodal Path is terribly ironic. By its destructive example, it may lead some bishops, and will lead many otherwise faithful laypeople, to distrust the very idea of “synodality,” thus further impeding the Church’s necessary conversation about fulfilling the mission of converting and sanctifying the world.
In a time of confusion, the last thing our community of faith needs is more of the same. As you discern the Lord’s will for the Church in Germany, be assured of our prayers for you.
Cardinal Francis Arinze (Onitsha, Nigeria)
Cardinal Raymond Burke (archbishop emeritus of St. Louis, Missouri, USA)
Cardinal Wilfred Napier (archbishop emeritus of Durban, South Africa)
Cardinal George Pell (archbishop emeritus of Sydney, Australia)
Archbishop Samuel Aquila (Denver, Colorado, USA)
Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)
Archbishop Paul Coakley (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA)
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (San Francisco, California, USA)
Archbishop Damian Dallu (Songea, Tanzania)
Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Kurtz (Louisville, Kentucky, USA)
Archbishop J. Michael Miller (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
Archbishop Joseph Naumann (Kansas City, Kansas, USA)
Archbishop Andrew Nkea (Bamenda, Cameroon)
Archbishop Renatus Nkwande (Mwanza, Tanzania)
Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga (Mbeya, Tanzania)
Archbishop Gabriel Palmer-Buckle (Cape Coast, Ghana)
Archbishop Emeritus Terrence Prendergast (Ottawa-Cornwall, Ontario, Canada)
Archbishop Jude Thaddaeus Ruwaichi (Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania)
Archbishop Alexander Sample (Portland, Oregon, USA)
Bishop Joseph Afrifah-Agyekum (Koforidua, Ghana)
Bishop Michael Barber (Oakland, California, USA)
Bishop Emeritus Herbert Bevard (St. Thomas, American Virgin Islands)
Bishop Earl Boyea (Lansing, Michigan, USA)
Bishop Neal Buckon (Auxiliary, Military Services, USA)
Bishop William Callahan (La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA)
Bishop Emeritus Massimo Camisasca (Reggio Emilia-Guastalla, Italy)
Bishop Liam Cary (Baker, Oregon, USA)
Bishop Peter Christensen (Boise, Idaho, USA)
Bishop Joseph Coffey (Auxiliary, Military Services, USA)
Bishop James Conley (Lincoln, Nebraska, USA)
Bishop Thomas Daly (Spokane, Washington, USA)
Bishop John Doerfler (Marquette, Michigan, USA)
Bishop Timothy Freyer (Auxiliary, Orange, California, USA)
Bishop Donald Hying (Madison, Wisconsin, USA)
Bishop Emeritus Daniel Jenky (Peoria, Illinois, USA)
Bishop Stephen Jensen (Prince George, British Columbia, Canada)
Bishop William Joensen (Des Moines, Iowa, USA)
Bishop James Johnston (Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, USA)
Bishop David Kagan (Bismarck, North Dakota, USA)
Bishop Flavian Kassala (Geita, Tanzania)
Bishop Carl Kemme (Wichita, Kansas, USA)
Bishop Rogatus Kimaryo (Same, Tanzania)
Bishop Anthony Lagwen (Mbulu, Tanzania)
Bishop David Malloy (Rockford, Illinois, USA)
Bishop Gregory Mansour (Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, New York, USA)
Bishop Simon Masondole (Bunda, Tanzania)
Bishop Robert McManus (Worcester, Massachusetts, USA)
Bishop Bernadin Mfumbusa (Kondoa, Tanzania)
Bishop Filbert Mhasi (Tunduru-Masasi, Tanzania)
Bishop Lazarus Msimbe (Morogoro, Tanzania)
Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg (Reno, Nevada, USA)
Bishop William Muhm (Auxiliary, Military Services, USA)
Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen (Auxiliary, Orange, California, USA)
Bishop Walker Nickless (Sioux City, Iowa, USA)
Bishop Eusebius Nzigilwa (Mpanda, Tanzania)
Bishop Thomas Olmsted (Phoenix, Arizona, USA)
Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Springfield, Illinois, USA)
Bishop Kevin Rhoades (Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, USA)
Bishop David Ricken (Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA)
Bishop Almachius Rweyongeza (Kayanga, Tanzania)
Bishop James Scheuerman (Auxiliary, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)
Bishop Augustine Shao (Zanzibar, Tanzania)
Bishop Joseph Siegel (Evansville, Indiana, USA)
Bishop Frank Spencer (Auxiliary, Military Services, USA)
Bishop Joseph Strickland (Tyler, Texas, USA)
Bishop Paul Terrio (St. Paul in Alberta, Canada)
Bishop Thomas Tobin (Providence, Rhode Island, USA)
Bishop Kevin Vann (Orange, California, USA)
Bishop Robert Vasa (Santa Rosa, California, USA)
Bishop David Walkowiak (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA)
Bishop James Wall (Gallup, New Mexico, USA)
Bishop William Waltersheid (Auxiliary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA)
Bishop Michael Warfel (Great Falls-Billings, Montana, USA)
Bishop Chad Zielinski (Fairbanks, Alaska, USA)