What happens in Germany, revisited

By Francis X. Maier

Writing on the quincentennial of the Reformation and its parallels with emerging problems in the 21st-century German Church three years ago, Charles Chaput, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, noted that:

Being human, bishops often disagree. Internal differences are common in any episcopal conference, and they’re handled—no surprise—internally. But two things set the German situation apart: the global prominence of the [German intercommunion] controversy and the doctrinal substance of the debate. Who can receive the Eucharist, and when, and why, are not merely German questions. If, as Vatican II said, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Christians and the seal of our Catholic unity, then the answers to these questions have implications for the whole Church. They concern all of us.

Chaput went on to caution that “What happens in Germany will not stay in Germany. History has already taught us that lesson once.” Exactly as predicted, confusion within the German Church has since metastasized to other key issues of Catholic belief like marriage, sexuality, priesthood, and the nature of the Church. And given the exhaustive global procedures mandated by Rome for the 2023 “synod on synodality,” the likelihood of containing such problems in Germany seems vanishingly low.

Bishops in other countries have noticed. Many have expressed private concerns. Some are beginning to respond.

In an open letter “to my brothers in the [world] episcopate and most especially to the bishops of Germany,” Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila offers A Response to “Forum I” of the German Catholic Synodal Path. Delivered to Pope Francis prior to its release, the letter was made public today.  

At 8,500 words, Aquila’s letter is not, and was not intended to be, casual poolside reading. It has a more serious purpose: a methodical, thorough-going deconstruction of errors in the German synodal process. The text is an articulate and targeted theological critique. It’s grounded extensively in Scripture, Vatican II, and constant Church teaching. And while its tone is scrupulously respectful, the content is damning. As the letter notes, among the “deeper maladies” of the German Synodal Assembly’s Fundamental Text “and the theological posture of the Synodal Path to which the document gives expression” is a pattern of intentionally proposing “truly radical revisions of the structure of the Church and of her understanding of her mission.”  Aquila provides a few examples:

. . . [W]hile claiming to anchor itself in the Second Vatican Council, the Synodal Path exploits a selective and misleading interpretation of the council’s documents to prop up untenable views of the nature of the Church (Lumen Gentium), her relationship with the world (Gaudium et Spes), and her foundation on divine revelation (Dei Verbum), views that are impossible to square with a full reading of the council. The result is a vision of the Church that risks abandonment of the only One who has ‘the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).

. . . The approach adopted [by the Fundamental Text] seems calculated to undermine the definitive and permanent character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders . . . [and] displays an astonishing paucity of references to the Gospels, which are, according to Dei Verbum No. 18, ‘the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.‘”

. . . [T]he Fundamental Text assumes that the best or only way to reform the exercise of power [in the Church] is by diffusing it through a system of checks and balances. The assumptions behind such a system are worth bringing to light. Are the clergy and laity members of the one Body of Christ, seeking the same common good of eternal salvation, or are they separate interest groups who must pursue their own agendas in competition with one another? Is power always a question of self-seeking, or can it be purified by God’s grace in Christ? Rather than issuing a clarion call to holiness, as proposed by the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, No. 5) and reinforced by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, the document appeals to worldly models that are not shaped by Christ or guided by the Holy Spirit.

And finally, regarding the inevitable price of a genuinely Catholic Christian life:

“. . . [T]he Fundamental Text evinces virtually no appreciation of how the specific demands of the Gospel, as proclaimed by the Church in faith and charity, can and do prompt the acute opposition that the New Testament consistently posits between the spirit of the world and fidelity to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the text ignores the cost of discipleship as articulated by Christ in the Gospel [emphasis in original].”

In the end, as the Aquila letter notes, the German Synodal Assembly “reimagines the role of the Church’s Magisterium,” reducing it to one of “dialogue moderation.” Its Fundamental Text is thus marked throughout by “an explicit, radical doctrinal relativism.” As a result, “the Synodal Assembly leaves us wondering: has God spoken to his people, or has he not?”

A letter like Archbishop Aquila’s, with a bishop or bishops in one nation addressing a bishop or bishops in another, is hardly novel in Church history. The college of bishops is finally global, and today’s mass media and rapid communications mean that “what happens in Germany” inevitably, and promptly, ends up on the wind in Denver, Nairobi, Calcutta, and everywhere else on the planet with an internet connection. Luther had the printing press. Today he’d have the world wide web.

What the Aquila letter, with admirable filial discretion, does not address, is perhaps the most obvious and awkward question of all: To what degree have the current Holy Father’s good intentions, and the ambiguity embedded in his meaning of “synodality,” fed the turmoil his papacy now faces in Germany?  

That drama, for better or worse, will play out globally over the next two years in the run-up to the “synod on synodality.”  

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. This article was originally published on First Things. It is reprinted here with permission.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash