“Wittenberg” in synodal slow motion

George Weigel

As Yale’s Carlos Eire masterfully demonstrated in Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, there was no one “Protestant Reformation” but rather several religious movements, often in disagreement with each other, that shattered western Christendom in the 16th century. Still, Martin Luther’s protest at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, has long been taken as the starting gun for “the Reformation,” and various Protestant denominations celebrate “Reformation Day” on the Sunday closest to October 31. So “Wittenberg” can serve as a synonym for other efforts to distance Christian communities from the authority of Rome and the papacy.

Which suggests that what’s afoot in German Catholicism today is “Wittenberg” in synodal slow motion.

In this instance, there is no nailing of contested propositions to church doors. Rather, the gears of a vast, well-funded ecclesiastical bureaucracy are grinding away toward outcomes that seem baked into the process from its inception: a German revision (meaning abandonment) of the discipline of clerical celibacy; some form of installed, or ordained, role for women in German Catholicism; a German substitute for the Catholic ethic of human love; a German “democratization” of Church governance – in short, the dreams of the Catholic Revolution That Never Was, realized at last from Cologne to Berlin and from Hamburg to Munich. This is the “synodal path” on which the Church in Germany has launched itself.

The anti-Roman and anti-papal subtext to all this has typically been disguised or flatly denied by Cardinal Reinhard Marx and other German Catholic bishops. But the Central Committee of German Catholics – the lay Politburo (to use a more accurate and related title) that is co-managing the “synodal path” with the German bishops’ conference – recently let the cat out of the bag. Gobsmacked that bucketloads of German money at the 2019 Amazonian synod did not produce the desired results, the Zentralkomitee responded to Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on Amazonia by deploring the absence of a papal endorsement of married priests and women deacons. And it did so in baldly Wittenbergian terms: “We very much regret that Pope Francis did not take a step forward in his [exhortation]. Rather, it strengthens the existing positions of the Roman Church both in terms of access to the priesthood and the participation of women in ministries…”

“…the existing positions of the Roman Church…” Well, well. That formula at least has the merit of candor, if not theological heft. But please note what is going on here. The “Roman Church,” it seems, is but one among any number of local Churches. Which implies that the Bishop of Rome, its head, is but one among the bishops who form the episcopal college. And that flatly contradicts both Scripture (see Matthew 16:13-19) and the authoritative tradition of the Church as expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

There has been considerable commentary suggesting that the German Church is in a de facto state of schism, a term I’ve used myself. But I’m now wondering whether that’s quite right, and whether the more appropriate description for what’s going on along this German synodal path is apostasy: an arrogant determination to break with settled Catholic doctrine in the name of a contemporary intelligence superior to what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation called “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.” That, it seems to me, is what’s implied by the formula used in the Central Committee’s smackdown of Pope Francis.

In light of this, those who believe that the Catholic Church does “paradigm shifts” might want to re-consider. For what’s happening along the German synodal path is a true paradigm shift: a shift toward the notion of the Catholic Church as a federation of local Churches, each of which legitimately espouses its own doctrine, moral teaching, and pastoral practice. That, however, is not Catholicism. It is Anglicanism. And anyone who knows anything about world Christian demographics knows that local-option Anglicanism hasn’t turned out very well.

It is astonishing that, confronted by unmistakable empirical evidence that liberal Protestantism has collapsed around the world, German Catholic leaders, ordained and lay, seem determined to create a nominally Catholic form of liberal Protestantism through a slow-motion “Wittenberg.” But perhaps this sad business is not all that surprising. Almost 20 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that “organized Catholicism in Germany is a task force for old ideas.” At the time, we both understood him to mean the tried-and-failed ideas of the 1970s. It now looks, however, as if those “old ideas” have a 16th-century pedigree.

Featured image: Wikicommons

COMING UP: Churchmanship

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George Weigel

“Churchmanship” is not a term in vogue today, and given the alleged inclusivity-deficit of such words it’s unlikely to make a comeback. Which is a shame. Because “churchmanship” connotes an etiquette, a once-taken-for-granted code of manners, that embodies an important truth of Catholic faith. When the etiquette crumbles, the truth can get lost amidst the debris.

What is “churchmanship?” It’s somewhat protean in its expressions and not easily defined, but I think I know it when I see it:

“Churchmanship” = the friendship between the ultra-conservative Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton and Monsignor George Higgins, the Platonic form of the mid-20th century liberal Catholic priest.

“Churchmanship” = the quality displayed by Fr. Yves Congar, OP, Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ, and Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, when they obediently accepted restrictions on their publishing in the 1950s, before becoming influential theological advisers at the Second Vatican Council.

“Churchmanship” = Cardinal Karol Wojtyła deferring in public to the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, thereby frustrating the divide-and-conquer schemes of Poland’s communist regime, which tried to splinter the Church by driving a wedge between two Catholic leaders of different ecclesial sensibilities.

“Churchmanship” = Cardinal Bernardin Gantin resigning as Dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002 and thus forfeiting the opportunity to celebrate the funeral Mass and preach the funeral homily of John Paul II (whom Gantin revered), so that a younger man could give the College the leadership it deserved.

“Churchmanship” = the deference shown by vowed religious who submit their manuscripts to their order’s censors before publication.

“Churchmanship” = the candid but respectful, as distinguished from dismissive and hyperbolic, critique formerly offered popes and bishops by editors and writers in publications that call themselves “Catholic.”

“Churchmanship” = lay Catholics quietly offering constructive suggestions on preaching to their pastor, rather than sniping to fellow-parishioners behind the pastor’s back.

And so forth.

Churchmanship may be easier to recognize than define, but breaches of the etiquette of churchmanship are not that difficult to identify; and they were displayed last September 30 by advocates of Father James Martin, SJ, and his approach to LGBTQ ministry. Within minutes of Father Martin’s half-hour private audience with Pope Francis, his enthusiasts unleashed a barrage of social media and internet commentary, using the fact that the audience happened and the photos taken at it to suggest that the Pope had tacitly or even explicitly applauded the thinking and pastoral approach of his guest.

That this publicity campaign took place shortly after Father Martin had been challenged by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who thanked the Jesuit for his ministry but criticized his failure to present the fullness of Catholic teaching about same-sex attraction and “transgenderism,” was not accidental, one imagines.

Father Martin has always insisted that he wants to be regarded as a churchman and I take him at his word. So I should like to suggest that he demonstrate real churchmanship by redesigning his Facebook home page, the cover photo of which shows Father Martin and Pope Francis smiling at each other across a table in the library of the Apostolic Palace at their September 2019 audience.

That picture has been on display for months now, and at the risk of being judged judgmental, I must confess that posting it struck me from the git-go as…well, as unchurchmanlike. An individual’s private audience with the Bishop of Rome is just that, private, and confidentiality is assumed to allow maximum candor in conversation. A churchman understands that, and would not countenance PR games that, irrespective of intention, have the effect of deploying the Pope as a high-value piece on the chessboard of ecclesiastical controversy. Similarly, a thoroughgoing churchman will always be reticent about publicly using pictures of himself and his papal host, for he would know that such displays inevitably suggest that he and the Pope are at one in their views – a suggestion that limits the Pope’s freedom, which a churchman will want to safeguard.

The etiquette of churchmanship may seem old-fashioned in an age in which traditional norms of decorum and confidentiality have disappeared throughout society, and conscience-light public officials criticize their superiors “off the record in order to speak frankly about confidential conversations” (a cringe-inducing formula regularly appearing in our newspapers). However old-fashioned, though, “churchmanship” connotes a crucial truth: the Church is Christ’s, not ours.  Which means that the Church (and the pope) should never be instrumentalized.