‘The Situation is Dramatic’: On the Papal Letter to Catholics in Germany

Monsignor Michael Fuchs, Vicar General of the Diocese of Regensburg, has published a reflection on the June 29 letter Pope Francis wrote to Catholics in Germany, in which the pope called for a focus on evangelization in the face of the “erosion” and “decline of the faith” in the country.

Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015.
Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015. (photo: Vatican Media)

REGENSBURG - Monsignor Michael Fuchs, vicar general of the Diocese of Regensburg, has published a reflection on the June 29 letter Pope Francis wrote to Catholics in Germany, in which the pope called for a focus on evangelization in the face of the “erosion” and “decline of the faith” in the country.

Numbers provided in brackets are by Monsignor Fuchs and refer to the original letter. Translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer from the original German as published by CNA Deutsch.

Please find below the full text of Monsignor Fuchs' reflection:

Pope Francis writes a letter to Catholics in Germany. He, who places so much value on the strength of the local Church and emphasizes subsidiarity and synodality, finds himself forced to step in, as both a shepherd and a father.

The result is a word of warning, and at the same time a word of encouragement. This is a serious intervention.

It comes before a backdrop of developments in the Catholic Church in Germany in recent years, and in particular the last few months, of various protest actions and letters, of the current plans for the so-called "synodal process" (cf. section 3 of the letter) and associated demands and expectations. Their direction and their vehemence must have pushed the Holy Father to this word.

Francis does not contest particular points or weigh in on minutiae. The crisis of the Church in Germany is a much more profound one, and therefore the letter also takes a more fundamental approach. In doing so, Pope Francis refers repeatedly to his address to the German bishops on occasion of their ad limina visit on 20 November 2015 (cf. the letter’s introductory words, for instance) and his letter wants to be read and understood on the basis of that address.

In both his ad limina address and the letter, the Pope - after having praised the great achievements in Germany - clearly identifies the symptoms of the current crisis: fewer Catholics attend Sunday Mass or go to confession. The very substance of the faith among many has evaporated, and the number of priests is decreasing. He assures us of his closeness and his support for our efforts to overcome this crisis and to find new ways to do so, and he wants to encourage us.

But then he identifies a number of tendencies in the German search for solutions that cause him great concern.

The Pope's concern about a "dismemberment" of the Church

First of all, there is the concern that the church in Germany will sever ties with the universal Church and split off from the global ("Catholic") community of the Faith – the letter describes this as a "dismemberment" of the Church.

Accordingly, Pope Francis calls for "journeying together with the whole Church" (3) and refers to the  "communio [community] of all particular Churches in the universal Church" (Note 7). He points out that "especially in these times of strong fragmentation and polarization, it is necessary to ensure that the Sensus Ecclesiae is actually alive in every decision taken" and that "the particular Churches live and flourish within and out of the universal Church; if they were separated from the universal Church, they would weaken, perish and die. It is therefore a necessity always to stay in active and effective communion with the whole Body of the Church" (9), "knowing that we are an essential part of a greater Body" (ibid.).

The Pope further warns - with reference to a book by Pope Benedict XVI - against the "temptation of the promoters of Gnosticism" who "have always tried to say something new and different from what the Word of God has given them. (...) What is meant by this is the one who wants to be ahead, the advanced one, who pretends to go beyond the 'ecclesial We'" (ibid.). The passage from the Second Letter to John (2 John 9) mentioned in the text is revealing here: "Any one who goes ahead, and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, has not God". The pope [adds] that there is “a temptation by the Father of Lies (…), who (…) ultimately dismembers the Body of the holy and faithful people of God” (10). In contrast to this Pope Francis presents and proposes a holistic vision of synodality.

Obviously the Holy Father has not been unaware that some of the demands of the initiators of the "synodal process" (as the "synodal way" is often also called) go beyond - or do not sufficiently take into account - the globally binding Catholic foundations of Faith. At the very least, [these demands] could jeopardize the common path and the comprehensive communion of the Church. The Pope's choice of words is unusually clear here.

The warning of a "secularized mindset"

A second topic in the papal letter concerns the temptation to strive only for a "reform of structures, organizations and administration", constituting "a kind of new Pelagianism" (5), of which Pope Francis had already warned the German bishops during their ad limina visit in 2015. Pelagianism, rejected by the Church in the fifth century, claimed that there was no need for salvation from sins through Christ, and that man was sufficiently strong and good by himself.

In 2015 the Pope in this context already pointed out the temptation of "putting our trust in administration, in the perfect apparatus". In his letter Francis warns against "secularization and a secularized attitude of mind" (5). "May God free us from a secular Church under spiritual or pastoral drapery! This suffocating worldliness is healed by tasting the pure air of the Holy Spirit, who frees us from revolving around ourselves, concealed underneath a semblance of religiosity, above a godless void" (5). (Note 13)

Rather, a "theologal perspective" is what is required: "The Gospel of Grace (...) should be the beacon and guide. Whenever an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems by itself, (...) it ended up multiplying the evils it wanted to overcome" (6). "Without 'faithfulness of the Church to her own vocation', any new structure will perish within a short period of time”. (ibid.) Therefore the Church should not simply respond to "external facts and needs", "isolated from the mystery of the Church" (ibid.).

Much of what has been happening in Germany in recent times probably looks to the Pope like the activist undertakings of a quasi-political association, a "pious non-governmental organization", as he has often described it in other contexts. And indeed, some things uttered on behalf of the Church time and again appear to demand just that - without consideration of preconditions of Faith and in contradiction to freely receiving the faithful gift of becoming.

Tensions and imbalances instead of adaption

Pope Francis speaks in his letter several times of "tension" and "adaptation". He warns of “adapting [the life of the Church] to the currently prevailing logic or to that of a particular group" (5), and of establishing an "order which then puts an end to the very tensions that are inherent in our humanity and which the Gospel seeks to provoke" (ibid.). "We must not forget that there are tensions and imbalances which have the taste of the Gospel, which must be maintained because they promise new life" (ibid.). Evangelization is "not a 'retouching' which adapts the Church to the spirit of the times but makes her lose her originality and her prophetic mission" (7). Rather, it is a matter of "recognizing the signs of the times, which is not synonymous with mere adaptation to the spirit of the times (cf. Rom 12:2)" (8).

Much of what was said before the synodal process is predicated on an anxious need to not lose touch with the world’s plurality and the intention of closing the gap between the Church and the reality of life. Pope Francis dismisses this argument decisively.

Reclaiming the primacy of evangelization

Instead, "it is necessary to regain the primacy of evangelization (...) because the Church, the bearer of evangelization, begins by evangelizing herself" (7). It should be "our main concern to encounter our brothers and sisters, especially those who can be found on the thresholds of our church doors, on the streets, in prisons, in hospitals, in public squares and cities. The Lord expressed himself clearly: 'But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well' (Mt 6:33)”. (8). "It is the holiness 'from next door' (…) that protects and has always guarded the Church against every ideological, pseudo-scientific and manipulative reduction.” (ibid.)

For this the Pope demands a basic attitude of "vigilance and conversion" (12), an "attitude of withdrawal" (ibid.), and he refers to "true spiritual remedies (prayer, penance and adoration)" (ibid.). Joy should be the defining factor: "Evangelization leads us to regain the joy of the Gospel, the joy of being Christians". (7)

Have we abandoned the primacy of evangelization in Germany, and lost, through obstinacy and defiance, the joy of Faith? Pope Francis spells out clearly what he means by evangelization and encountering the poor, and he criticizes any reduction thereof to mere adaptations, administrative reforms, and tendencies to isolation. He thus calls us to think bigger, to step outside of our own homes and to spread the Good News in word and deed.

Do not downplay conflicts by way of polls

In his letter, the Pope does not comment on formal technical details of the synodal process (such as its regulation, voting rules, etc.), but the following words are thought provoking: "The synodal view does not remove contradictions or confusion, nor does it subordinate conflicts to decisions of 'good consensus' that compromise faith as a result of censuses or surveys on this or that subject." Rather, it is about the "centrality of evangelization and the Sensus Ecclesiae as determining elements of our ecclesial DNA" (11).

Incidentally, Francis uses the term "Sensus Ecclesiae" five times in the letter, which he deploys in a universal sense, and he avoids the term "Sensus fidelium" which is theologically and ecclesiastically founded, but is sometimes misunderstood as “groupthink” or mere majority opinion.

A synodal togetherness and the Sensus Ecclesiae obviously mean more to Pope Francis than to suppress conflicts, so to speak, technically, by votes or by polls or relying on false compromises "which subvert the faith".

Is the contents of the letter surprising?

Not for those who have followed the Pope's statements on the topics that the synodal process is to work on and decide. And not for those who listen to the Pope on fundamental questions of renewal and evangelization.

On the ordination of women to the diaconate, he has repeatedly called for restraint, even after several studies: "I cannot make a sacramental decree without a theological, historical basis," he replied to those who demanded it.

In 2016, on his return flight from Sweden, he was asked whether he could imagine the ordination of women to the priesthood. His answer was clear: he referred to his predecessor John Paul II, who had spoken the last word with his "No". "And that remains." In response to a question asked by the journalist, Pope Francis referred to the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church and briefly explained them.

Perhaps some still remember his various statements on the conditions for admission to the priesthood. He expressly excludes the dissolution of celibacy thus: "The sentence of Saint Paul VI comes to mind: 'I would rather give my life than change the law of celibacy'. This occurred to me, and I would like to say it, because it is a courageous sentence, in a more difficult time than this one, in the years around 1968/70 ... Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift for the Church. Secondly, I do not agree to allow optional celibacy, no. Only for the remotest places would some possibility remain..." (Return flight from Panama, 27.01.2019). For the Amazon region just such an exception is, as is public knowledge, in discussion.

In addition, the Holy Father has repeatedly called problematic the presence of homosexual men in seminaries, and affirmed a corresponding regulation of the competent Congregation, which has led to weeks of fierce debate in Germany.

The letter "Maschio e femmina li creó" ("As man and woman he created her") on the gender question, which the Congregation for Catholic Education published recently, has so far also received predominantly public malice and criticism from the Church in Germany.

What does this mean for the "synodal process"?

Following this papal letter, simply “carrying on as planned” is no longer an option, neither in content nor in form. Actually, the letter urges a complete rewriting of the process, which should be directed towards evangelization and spiritual renewal and towards "the people on the margins"; a process which does not "do" or "adapt", but relies on God who can renew and convert and give us the joy of the Gospel; and a process which in all concerns goes with the community of the Catholic Church, which encompasses time and space.

During our ad limina visit, Pope Francis told us to take to heart the following - and perhaps we could also summarize his letter in this way: "The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself (Evangelii gaudium, 27)".