Archbishop Aquila: Germany’s Synodal Path Needs Repentance, Belief, Truth
In a 15-page commentary on the fundamental text produced by the first forum of the German Catholic Synodal Path, Archbishop Aquila warned that the first basic text offers “selective and misleading” interpretations of Church teaching.
DENVER, Colo. — The German Catholic bishops and those involved in the German Church’s synodal path must be the first to “repent and believe”, even as they call the world to do the same, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver has said. He warns that the synod’s first text puts forward “untenable” views of the Catholic Church, downplays the Church as God’s instrument of salvation, and ignores the tensions between the Church’s mission and worldly attitudes.
“Most of us outside Germany are aware through the media of the German Catholic Synodal Path and the outspokenness of some bishops in calling for radical changes to Church teaching and practice,” Archbishop Aquila reflected in his open letter dated May 13, the feast of the Ascension, and released May 26, the feast of St. Philip Neri.
His letter is a 15-page commentary on the fundamental text produced by the first forum of the German Catholic Synodal Path. Archbishop Aquila warned that the first basic text offers “selective and misleading” interpretations of Church teaching, but emphasized that he offered his response for the German bishops’ prayer and reflection and to encourage other bishops to “bear witness boldly to the truth of the Gospel, to Jesus Christ.”
The archbishop wrote that the German synodal assembly is right to voice distress over clergy sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups. The synod’s fundamental text is right to say these scandals have engendered “a true crisis of credibility for the Church.” The way forward, Archbishop Aquila said, is to accept the just consequences for these failures, work to restore trust, and work to provide pastoral care for the victims of clergy abuse. Church leaders must make public acts of sincere contrition and penance and make a commitment to genuine transparency.
For Archbishop Aquila, this transparency includes clarity about what the Church believes.
“If the Church is unwilling to tell the truth with prudence and courage about matters of discomfort to her own leaders, why should the world trust the Church to tell the truth on matters of discomfort to the world?”
The bishops, the shepherds of the Church, must be the first to “repent and believe” even as they call the world to do the same, the archbishop added.
The “Synodal Path” is a process that brings together German lay people and Catholic bishops to discuss four major topics: how power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women. When the German bishops launched the process, they initially said that the deliberations would be “binding” on the German Church, prompting a Vatican intervention that rejected such claims.
Some critics of the effort are concerned it will lead to German bishops and lay Catholics promoting positions that contradict Catholic teaching and discipline on matters like the ordination of women and intercommunion, even resulting in a “de facto schism.”
Archbishop Aquila voiced his own concerns about the fundamental text. At one point, the text states that even for theology “there is no one central perspective, no one truth of religious, moral, and political evaluation of the world” and “no one way of thinking that can lay claim to final authority.”
“Even in the Church, legitimate views and ways of life can compete with each other even in core convictions,” the text continued. “Yes, they can even at the same time make the theologically justified claim to truth, correctness, comprehensibility, and honesty, and nevertheless be contradictory to each other in their statements or their language.”
To this, Archbishop Aquila responded: “This is a remarkable claim if only for its incomprehensibility.”
“It is difficult to know how to comment on it, for such a candid rejection of the law of non-contradiction is already its own reductio ad absurdum,” he added. “Despite lip service to the authority of Scripture and tradition, it is evident that the Synodal Assembly’s interpretive approach is sufficiently malleable to strip them of any truly decisive content.”
The archbishop warned that this approach makes divine revelation captive to “endlessly protean hermeneutics of ‘dialogue’.” This should be contrasted with “the authentic understanding of dialogue articulated by Vatican II and developed by the post-conciliar popes.” For Archbishop Aquila, the text’s reinterpretation of the Church’s teaching office corresponds to “explicit, radical doctrinal relativism.”
According to Archbishop Aquila, the fundamental text’s interpretation of the Second Vatican Council documents is “selective and misleading” and works “to prop up untenable views of the nature of the Church, her relationship with the world, and her foundation on divine revelation.” These views are “impossible” to reconcile with a full understanding of the Council and result in a vision for the Church that risks abandoning Christ, the one who has “the words of eternal life.”
Despite the synodal assembly’s apparent emphasis on process and dialogue, Archbishop Aquila said, the assembly “believes itself not only competent but duty-bound to make binding decisions for the Church” and to break through “blockading discourse.”
“The Synodal Assembly in fact proposes truly radical revisions of the structure of the Church and of her understanding of her mission,” he said. The fundamental text’s proposals are based on “a partial and tendentious account of the origin and nature of the ordained ministry” that is at odds with the Church’s own understanding.
On the issue of women’s ordination, Archbishop Aquila said the text implicitly questions the distinction between the priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood. The text’s approach “seems calculated to undermine the definitive and permanent character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”
The archbishop specifically cited the fundamental text’s call to re-evaluate the teaching of St. John Paul II that the Church is unable to ordain women to the priesthood. He doubted the text’s claim that there are “new insights” that question this teaching’s coherence.
Archbishop Aquila thought the trends of the fundamental text showed symptoms of “deeper maladies” linked to its view of authority in the Church.
While Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, “could hardly be more forceful in its restatement of the doctrine of direct episcopal succession from the Apostles and of this succession’s divine institution,” the fundamental text hardly acknowledges this and shows “an astonishing paucity of references to the Gospels.”
The hierarchical nature of the Church, in Catholic teaching and in the Second Vatican Council, is taught to be the “manifest intention of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit themselves,” said Archbishop Aquila, and it is thus “outside the competence of the Church, in Germany or elsewhere, fundamentally to alter it.”
This hierarchical nature is for the sake of the whole Church, and this means that Church structures of authority are not simply a power that can be balanced or checked by others to ensure good governance, as some worldly models would advise. Rather, these structures and those in the hierarchy must be purified through “penance and the sincere pursuit of holiness,” in Archbishop Aquila’s words.
For Archbishop Aquila, the German synodal text reinterprets the Church in “remarkably anthropocentric terms,” such as its belief that because the Church is a “sign,” it must “be understood” and “must speak the language of its recipients.” While the Christian message begins from common ground, the archbishop said, eventually people are “confronted with the otherness of the transcendent God, whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways” but has invited us to become practiced in “the Lord’s way of speaking.”
The fundamental text “badly misconstrues” the Church as an instrument for mankind, in its demand that the Church, as the German assembly says, “must be easy to grasp and efficient, designed for its effectiveness and able to be used without causing harm.”
“The Sacraments—and much less the Church!—are not our ‘instruments’. They are God’s instruments, for he alone is the principal efficient cause of all the graces mediated through the Church and the Sacraments."
While the German synodal assembly has noted in passing that many Catholics who leave the Church are displeased with Church teaching on same-sex relationships, divorce, remarriage, and some Catholic bishops in Germany have called for changes on these matters, Archbishop Aquila said he would refrain from discussing these topics which appear to be reserved for the synodal path’s second forum.
At the same time, he reaffirmed his commitment to Pope Francis’ teachings in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia on outreach and accompaniment for those who have suffered broken family relationships or who show a homosexual orientation.
“The Church has a sacred obligation to proclaim God’s love for every human being, a love so great that he sent his Son to save the world."
The synodal assembly, Archbishop Aquila argued, wrongly avoids the dynamism and tension between the Church and the world. It seems to see the Church as “equally beholden” to both “the demands of the Gospel and the standards of a pluralistic, open society in a democratic constitutional state.”
Judging from its fundamental text, it appears that the assembly “hopes to bring about a Church that, far from being prepared to suffer the world’s contempt for her fidelity to Christ, will be preeminently conditioned by the world and comfortably accepted by it as one respectable institution among others.”
The text “ignores the cost of discipleship,” said Archbishop Aquila, and instead embraces the standards of the world, what the text calls “enlightened and pluralistic society.”
Archbishop Aquila closed with several questions.
“Are we willing to speak of the Cross? Do we have the courage to walk in the way of the Cross, bearing the world’s contempt for the message of the Gospel? Will we ourselves heed the Lord Jesus’ call to repentance, and have the courage to echo it to an unbelieving world?”
He continued: “Are we ‘not ashamed of the gospel’ (Rom. 1:16) and its offer of freedom from sin through the death and resurrection of Christ, and of an intimate relationship with his Father in the love of his Holy Spirit? Will we stay attached to the vine, Jesus Christ, and bear fruit, or will we continue to wither (John 15:5–6)?”
The archbishop closed his letter asking whether we are like the Church in Ephesus, addressed by Christ in the Book of Revelation as having “abandoned the love (we) had at first.” This Church was exhorted repeatedly to repent lest Jesus come and “remove your lampstand from its place.”
“My brothers, let us remember Christ crucified. Let us remember our first love,” said the archbishop.