Schism Looms: Pope Francis and the Willfully Rebellious Church in Germany

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s German gamble failed. He led with an open hand and got a clenched fist in return.

Pope Francis meets the German Bishops' Conference, 2019.
Pope Francis meets the German Bishops' Conference, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibañez / CNA/EWTN)

In March 2013, Pope Francis spoke of how much he would like a “poor Church for the poor.” At his eighth anniversary, it is the richest of all local churches that threatens to devour his entire pontificate. 

The Holy Father began his ninth year with yet another attempt to rein in the rebellious Church in Germany. A document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the Church has no power to bless same-sex unions.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the chief interpreter of the Holy Father’s pastoral priorities in the U.S. episcopate, said that there was “nothing new” in the CDF statement. Yet it created a firestorm in Germany, with hundreds of theologians and a few bishops expressing their disagreement. In the United States, the charge against the CDF was led by the Jesuit America magazine.

Indeed, America’s Rome correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, went to great lengths to suggest that somehow Pope Francis did not really mean what the CDF said, despite giving his public and official “assent” to its publication. 

O’Connell’s efforts became slightly hilarious when he argued that the March 12 ban on Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica certainly reflected what Pope Francis devoutly desired, though it had no reference to him whatsoever, while the March 15 CDF statement should be doubted, despite the Holy Father explicitly assenting to it. O’Connell is the de facto stenographer of the papal court, reliably passing on the consensus of those around Pope Francis.

The mutually contradictory explanations offered indicate the level of anxiety in those circles. There is anxiety because the great progressive gamble of the Pope Francis pontificate appears to have failed.

While initially expressing the desire for a “poor Church for the poor,” the Holy Father has pursued the long-desired agenda of the rich Churches. 

He opened three key issues dear to the rich local Churches of Europe, Germany primary among them: Holy Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried; authority over liturgical translations; and enhanced doctrinal authority for national bishops’ conferences. All three were advanced under the banner of “synodality.” All three issues had been definitively resolved by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in Familiaris Consortio, Liturgium Authenticam and Apostolis Suos, all in a way displeasing to the majority liberal wing of the German bishops. The growing local Churches in the global south — the actual poor Churches — had little interest in the inward-looking German agenda.

The Francis gamble was that in advancing the “rich Church for the rich” agenda, Pope Francis might be able to breathe some evangelical life into the dying Churches of Europe. Hence he has kept silent even on practices that flagrantly violate his entire poverello spirit, like the German practice of denying the sacraments, including a church funeral, to those who do not pay the annual church tax. In 2019, that tax generated nearly $8 billion in revenue for the German Church. 

The German episcopate evidently judged the accommodating gestures of Pope Francis as too weak after 35 years of dealing with the firm stances of John Paul and Benedict. They pocketed the concessions made by the Holy Father and decided to press for maximum advantage. Hence the “Synodal Path,” which is now underway in Germany. There is no mystery as to where the path will lead: changes in the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, homosexuality and contraception; changes in the teaching on holy orders; and the diminution of the authority of bishops to govern the Church. 

The Holy Father’s German gamble failed. He led with an open hand and got a clenched fist in return. He is unwilling to go where the majority of the German bishops are heading.

Now the long-feared and long-avoided post-conciliar catastrophe is at hand: schism. In the turmoil that often follows ecumenical councils, compounded by the social and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s, the challenge faced by St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI was to prevent schism. It was feared from the “progressive” side, given the passionate energies were boiling over. Through a series of skillful and courageous decisions, from Humanae Vitae and the Credo of the People of God, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor, the helmsmen kept the Church united in the truth of Christ, throughout the tempests.

The only division was a minor one in terms of numbers, with the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre moving into an irregular, but not schismatic, canonical situation. That situation has, in large part, been practically resolved with generous gestures on the part of both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, the Germanic locus of progressive dissent has been patient, waiting perhaps for a pope from the “ends of the earth” whom they judged that they could manipulate and intimidate. 

But Pope Francis is no fool. He knows the stakes and that his entire agenda and the legacy of his pontificate hangs in the balance. Should the schism come on his watch, his priorities of “synodality” and “discernment” will be thoroughly discredited in practice, even if they are not wholly responsible for the German mutiny. A pope who presides over schism is a failed pope before the judgment that every supreme pastor of the Church must face.

That’s why Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that the German “Synodal Path” is unacceptable and must be abandoned as originally formulated. The Holy Father wrote a lengthy and blistering letter to the Church in Germany in June 2019, warning them that their path would end up “multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

Thereupon followed a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to the German bishops in September 2019, flatly stating the synod plans were not “ecclesiologically valid.” The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts ruled at the same time that the alleged “binding nature” of the German project was a legal fantasy, as no one could give, much less had given, that authority to the “synodal path.”

A year later, with the Germans taking no heed whatsoever of the Holy Father’s objections, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, revealed that the Holy Father had expressed grave concerns about the general direction of the Church in Germany.

Now the CDF has weighed in on the practice of blessing same-sex unions, already illicitly underway in some German parishes, and certainly to be one of the decisions of the “binding synodal path.”

Pope Francis has thus engaged the battle for Germany with considerable vigor. The managers of the German “Synodal Path” have treated his interventions with contempt and disdain, and wholly ignored his pleas for Catholic unity in doctrine and discipline. The ninth year of the Francis pontificate will be consumed by the consequences of that contumacy.