The Catholic Church’s German crisis

The 21st-century Church owes a lot to 20th-century German Catholicism: for its generosity to Catholics in the Third World; for the witness of martyrs like Alfred Delp, Bernhard Lichtenberg, and Edith Stein; for its contributions to Biblical studies, systematic and moral theology, liturgical renewal, and Catholic social doctrine, through which German Catholicism played a leading role in Vatican II’s efforts to renew Catholic witness for the third millennium. At the Council, more than the Rhine flowed into the Tiber; let’s not forget the Seine, the Meuse, the Potomac, and the Vistula. But the Rhine’s flow was strong.

Which simply intensifies the shock on reading the German bishops’ report to the Vatican in preparation for this coming October’s synod. One of my correspondents deemed it a de facto declaration of schism. I read it as an unintentional cri du coeur: a confession of catechetical disaster and pastoral failure on a nationwide scale, to which the German episcopate has no response save to urge others down the path that has led Catholicism in Germany into profound incoherence.

When one tries to discuss this catastrophe with senior German churchmen, one rarely finds, these days, a sobered openness, born of the recognition that something has gone terribly wrong and that another approach to evangelization and catechesis must be found—an “All-In Catholicism” rooted in the joy of the Gospel preached and lived in its full integrity. Rather, what you often find is a stubborn doubling-down. “You don’t understand our situation” is the antiphon, typically spoken with some vehemence.

Yet is it really the case that we obtuse non-Germans don’t understand? The statistics on German Catholic practice—more accurately, the lack thereof—are not pontifical secrets. Those statistics are embodied by what visitors observe in German cities on Sunday: largely empty churches. Now comes this report for the synod, which suggests that, on matters of marriage, the family, the morality of human love, and the things that make for genuine happiness, German Catholic thinking is virtually indistinguishable from that of non-believers.

And still the German episcopate suggests that more dumbing down of Catholic doctrine and practice is the answer, now on a global scale. It’s quite remarkable. And it will certainly be remarked upon, and not favorably, in Rome in October.

In October 2001, I had an engaging, two-hour conversation with Cardinal Karl Lehmann, now one of the grand old men of the German hierarchy. We discussed the crisis of belief throughout Europe (and Europe’s related demographic meltdown) at length. Then the cardinal offered me a copy of his newest book, “Now Is the Time to Think of God.” I must say I found the title … striking. I knew he intended it as a challenge to the regnant secularism of the time, but you had to wonder: What else had this distinguished scholar, and his colleagues at the higher altitudes of German theology, been speaking about, these many years?

To make a very long story short, they had often been speaking-about-speaking-about-God: that is, they’d been chasing their tails in trying to respond to the crisis of belief in late modernity. And in doing so, they’d gotten stuck inside what Polish philosopher Wojciech Chudy, an intellectual great-grandson of John Paul II, called the post-Kantian “trap of reflection:” thinking-about-thinking-about-thinking, rather than thinking about reality—in this case, the Gospel and its truths. Less elegantly, I’d describe Chudy’s “trap of reflection” as the quicksand pit of a subjectivism become self-absorption, from which it’s hard to extract oneself and answer the Master’s call, “Come, follow me.”

The German Catholic crisis is not primarily institutional; the Catholic Church is Germany’s second-largest employer and its institutions are robust. The crisis is one of faith. German Catholicism is in crisis because German Catholics have not embraced the Lord Jesus and his Gospel with passion, conviction and joy, and are seeking their happiness elsewhere. That’s sad; that‘s tragic; that’s dispiriting.

But it’s also nothing to be commended as a model for others, except as a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.

 

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.