A ‘Dirty Schism’ in Germany? As Synodal Way Nears Conclusion, Lay Group Warns of ‘Worst Possible’ Outcome
NEWS ANALYSIS: Without decisive intervention from Rome, faithful Catholics in Germany are likely to be pushed ‘underground,’ cautions New Beginning
Observers of the Catholic Church in Germany have long feared that the country’s ongoing Synodal Way would lead to a split from Rome. And after the German bishops refused a Vatican request in November to put a “moratorium” on the controversial process and its push for women’s ordination, lay governance, and approval of homosexual sex, those fears were likely only heightened.
But barring a more decisive intervention from the Holy See, an outcome even more damaging than a formal break from the universal Church is emerging as the most likely possibility: a “dirty schism.”
“Dirty schism” describes the situation in Germany if the heterodoxical dictates of the Synodal Way become the norm throughout Germany, without the Vatican sufficiently intervening. In this context, heterodoxical bishops would still canonically govern most of Germany’s dioceses, ideas that violate the universal faith would be presented as authentic Church teaching, and faithful German Catholics would face repression.
The details of a dirty schism were recently sketched out by New Beginning, a lay movement of German Catholics opposed to the Synodal Way’s heterodoxical trajectory. The group held a briefing with American Catholic journalists earlier this week, describing the possible outcomes of the synodal process as it nears its final synodal assembly, to be held March 9-11.
New Beginning described a dirty schism as “the worst possible” outcome for both the particular Church in Germany and the Church universal.
“In fact, there would be two magisteria: the Roman Catholic one, which is forced into a niche existence in Germany, and the very present ‘differently Catholic’ magisterium of the Synodal Way, which is pushed by secular and church media,” said New Beginning in the briefing, referring to a quote from Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, on the goals of the synodal process.
The group added that a dirty schism would create the conditions in which faithful German Catholics feel they have “to leave the [c]hurch,” meaning the publicly recognized ecclesial body, “to stay in the Church.”
Even though the propositions of the Synodal Way are technically non-binding, New Beginning members expect there to be a widespread “de facto implementation” of these errant ideas through most of Germany’s dioceses.
Some German bishops, such as Bishop Bätzing, will implement the Synodal Way’s heterodoxical propositions in their dioceses because they believe they are correct. In fact, after a measure to promote a heterodoxical vision of human sexuality failed to receive the needed support of two-thirds of the Germany episcopacy at the Synodal Way’s September 2022 assembly, Bishop Bätzing told the media that he would nonetheless make sure that that the text became a “reality” in his Diocese of Limburg. The influential bishop added that he knew that several other bishops would follow suit.
But the majority of German bishops are likely to accept the Synodal Way’s propositions not for ideological reasons, but because they will fail to stand up to immense pressure.
Pressure for the bishops to accept heterodox positions on sexuality, ordination, and governance is coming not only from Germany’s secular media, but perhaps especially from within official German church institutions, including the Catholic media and the staffs of Catholic schools and diocesan chanceries.
In part because it is enriched by the kirchensteuer, or government-collected "church tax,” the Catholic Church in Germany employs nearly 800,000 people. According to Bernhard Meuser, a co-author of the Youcat series and a New Beginning member, who spoke at the press breifing, many of these Church employees do not believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church, nor do they participate in the sacramental life of the faith.
These “salaried church-functionaries,” as Meuser described them, dominate the powerful Zentralkomitee, or Central Committee of German Catholics that is driving forward the Synodal Way. He said that this group took advantage of the weakness of the German episcopacy after its failure to adequately address the sex-abuse crisis in order to “ignite a brutal struggle for power by political means.”
Meuser, who is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, also dismissed claims that the propositions of the Synodal Way were necessary to address causes of abuse as “a false narrative with the purpose of ramrodding manifold … changes to the magisterium.”
Birgit Kelle, a best-selling author and spokeswoman for New Beginning, said in her remarks that the greatest pressure being exerted in the synodal assembly, but also in local dioceses, comes from #OutInChurch. The “LGBT” advocacy group of ecclesial employees and activists, Kelle said, wants to continue working for the Church while also having their immoral sexual behavior validated.
“We are talking about a hostile takeover of the Catholic Church by the LGBT lobby under the pretext of a synodal debate,” said Kelle, who expects pressure to increase on bishops in the coming months as the synodal process concludes.
Kelle added that measures to “nip any resistance in the bud” are already included in the Synodal Way’s proposed texts. For instance, a synodal text called “De-Tabooing and Normalization of Non-Heterosexual Priests” states that those who do not accept the Synodal Way’s heterodoxical vision of sexuality and the priesthood should “not be able to hold positions of responsibility and leadership.” If implemented, this measure would apply to bishops and seminary faculty.
In order to enforce their new vision of sexuality and the priesthood, the document calls for cooperation with “state and civil-society antidiscrimination agencies,” effectively allowing the German state to police teaching and policies within the life of the German Church.
Similarly, a new church labor law approved by the German bishops in November could also be used as a cudgel to deter authentic teaching of Catholic anthropology and sexuality and punish those who do. Already adopted in 14 of 27 dioceses, according the Kelle, the legal framework effectively holds that one’s personal morality and sexual lifestyle cannot be considered when determining suitability for employment in the Church.
All in all, the New Beginning presentation characterized the German episcopacy as practically incapable of resisting the Synodal Way’s demands for heterodoxical change without intervention from Rome, something affirmed by the testimony of a delegate to the Synodal Way who spoke at the meeting.
“The predominant silence of the bishops probably goes back to this perception of having entangled themselves in a situation which, in the present state of affairs, can no longer be corrected by them. It is an uneasy silence, a silence filled with terror,” the delegate said on condition of anonymity.
The consequences of a dirty schism were sketched in straightforward but bleak terms by New Beginning. Catholics faithful to the magisterium and the universal Church would be forced to “withdraw from their concrete church environment (parish, diocese)” to form “a kind of ‘underground Church.’” Sacraments, catechesis and spiritual life would have to be sought “through unofficial channels and personal relationships.”
Similarly, participation in publicly recognized Church ministry, including the priesthood, “would no longer be an option for faithful Catholics.” Priests and religious who want to remain faithful to the universal Church would “find themselves in an existential trap,” caught between fidelity to Catholic truth and obedience to their lawful superiors. And the Church as an institution in German life would become “shapeless,” with no clear identity and incapable of evangelization, as its relevance continued to sink “to the bottomless depths.”
But New Beginning predicts that a dirty schism in Germany would have a harmful effect far beyond the country’s borders.
“The diseases in the German part of the Body of Christ would spread like an abscess along anatomical clefts … until the abscess becomes a systemic disease of the universal Church,” the group said.
Discussion during the briefing raised concerns about the influence the Synodal Way, which theologian Martin Brüske described as “a puzzling synthesis of apostasy and schism,” could have on the universal Church’s Synod on Synodality. The Catholic Church in Germany’s significant financial contributions around the world could deter global opposition to the erroneous teachings of the Synodal Way that are being pushed upon the wider Church.
For instance, two German authors published an article Jan. 20 in The Tablet on how the German synodal process could contribute to “transformation” in the universal Church.
New Beginning acknowledged that good fruit could emerge in such a climate of apostasy and persecution in Germany, as has happened in other historical periods of grave challenge within the Church. Networks of “like-minded people” faithful to universal Church could form, leading “from the ruins into a new intensity of the Church,” and German Catholics would be compelled to choose to practice their faith with renewed intentionality, as opposed to cultural convention.
But the group was also clear that although God can bring good out of evil, it would be best if such evil were resisted in the first place.
“[A dirty schism] is the worst possible option and, at the same time, the most likely one, should Rome not clearly intervene,” stated the lay movement. “Therefore, this scenario must, under all circumstances, be prevented.”
New Beginning considered two other possible outcomes of the Synodal Way: reconciliation and formal schism.
Reconciliation would require Rome to act “resolutely,” for instance, by demanding a profession of faith and oath of fidelity for all those in shepherding and teaching positions, ordering a general visitation of the German Catholic Church, or even resorting to the so-called “Chilean solution”—effectively deposing all bishops from office and only reinstating those who submit to Rome.
However, while reconciliation is clearly the most desirable outcome, New Beginning states that it is “hardly imaginable in human terms” at this point, given the paralysis demonstrated by the German episcopacy throughout the synodal process, as well as no guarantee that Rome will respond with sufficient decisiveness.
The group also considered the possibility of a formal schism, which would require Rome to act decisively if the German bishops reject a demand for unity with the universal Church. New Beginning acknowledged that the negative consequences of such a move would be “drastic,” with each diocese needing to determine if it will be “with Rome or against Rome,” and the initiation of a messy deliberation of which ecclesial body would be officially recognized as the “Catholic Church” under German law.
Even so, the group maintained that a formally established schism would be the “most straightforward solution” to “clarify the situation of the German particular Church.”
“In any case, a formal schism by the cleanly drawn cut leads to an internal purification of the Church, to a rejection of the model of the People’s Church, and to a sharpening of the ecclesiastical profile of both parties, which [would] break down into visible options [between] which one has to decide,” reads the New Beginning document.
Reaching a Breaking Point
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, is expected to intervene prior to the Synodal Way’s final assembly in March, expressing in more concrete terms the requirements for the German Church to remain in unity with the universal Church. The Holy See previously asserted that the Synodal Way cannot institute “new modes of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals,” and Cardinal Parolin warned that the Synodal Way risked “reforms of the Church, but not within the Church” in a meeting with the German bishops during their November 2022 ad limina visit to Rome.
In its briefing, New Beginning made clear that after the Synodal Way’s final assembly in March, “the Church [in Germany] will no longer be what it was before.”
Whatever the Catholic Church in Germany will look like going forward, it will in large part be decided in the coming months, determined by how the Holy See intervenes and by how Germany’s bishops respond.