The world episcopate and the German apostasy

As the names Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom suggest, the middle centuries of the first millennium, the era of the Church Fathers, were the golden age of the Catholic episcopate. The Catholic Church recognizes 35 men and women as exemplary teachers; 14 of them – 40 percent of the entire roster of the “Doctors of the Church” – were bishops who lived in that epoch. Their’s were not tranquil times. But even as these brave shepherds battled heresies within the Church and overbearing rulers who tried to subordinate the Church to their power, they created a spiritual patrimony from which we still benefit today, as the Church regularly ponders their sermons, letters, and biblical commentaries in the Liturgy of the Hours.    

One characteristic of this golden age of bishops was the practice of fraternal challenge and correction within the episcopate. Local bishops in the mid-first millennium believed they belonged to, and shared responsibility for, a worldwide communion. Convinced that what happens in one part of the body has effects on the whole, bishops like Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, and Augustine did not hesitate to correct brother bishops they thought were mistaken in their doctrine or disciplinary practice – and sometimes did so in forceful language.

This concept of the bishops’ mutual responsibility for the world Church was retrieved by the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on episcopal collegiality. The Fathers’ practice of fraternal challenge and correction remains to be recovered, however. That recovery is now essential as the Church in Germany falls deeper into apostasy – a denial of the truths of Catholic faith that threatens schism. 

The mechanism for this is the so-called “German Synodal Way,” a multi-year process that aims to substantially alter the Deposit of Faith on matters of doctrine, Church order, and the moral life, thereby betraying Pope St. John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. According to its recently released “Fundamental Text,” the German Synodal Way will correct the Lord Jesus on the constitution of the Church and its episcopal governance (“Time has passed over these models,” the German text declares), even as the Synodal Way rectifies and improves the Church’s teaching on “gender justice….the evaluation of queer sexual orientations, and….dealing with failure and new beginnings (e.g., marriage after divorce).”

How is this possible? It’s possible, according to the Fundamental Text, because “there is no one truth of the religious, moral, and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority.” Thus, “in the Church…legitimate views and ways of life can compete with each other even in core convictions…theologically justified claims to truth, correctness, comprehensibility, and honesty… [can] be contradictory to each other….” 

This is not just a word salad confected by ideologically giddy academics and power-driven Church bureaucrats. It is apostasy, and apostasy in service to the post-modern creed that there may be “your truth” and “my truth” but nothing properly describable as the truth. And lest you think that this approach will lead to a new tolerance of diversity, the Fundamental Text warns those who profess the Nicene Creed, rather than the post-modern creed, that they will be compelled to “support” and “promote” what they reject as departures from Christian faith. The instinct for totalitarian coercion dies hard in some cultures, it seems. 

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, claims that the German “Synodal Way” is being watched enthusiastically elsewhere in the world Church. If so, that’s only happening among the shrinking cadres of Catholic Lite, who have not learned from the German example that Catholic Lite leads to the Catholic Zero exemplified by this Fundamental Text. It is imperative, therefore, that brother bishops disabuse Bishop Bätzing of the illusion that he, the great majority of the German episcopate, and the bloated German Church bureaucracy are the courageous pioneers of a brave new Catholicism.

The first responsibility here lies with the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who should do what Pope St. Clement I did with the rowdy Corinthians in the immediate post-apostolic period and what Pope St. Gregory the Great did with brother bishops during the age of the Fathers: call the German bishops back to the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). This responsibility is not the pope’s alone, however. Other bishops throughout the world Church should let Bishop Bätzing know of their grave concern about the corrosive character of the Synodal Way’s Fundamental Text. 

That is what men of the caliber of Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom – who would have gagged at the Fundamental Text’s celebration of “ambiguity” – would do.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.