US Theologians Echo Fears of Schism in Catholic Church in Germany

As the closely watched ‘Synodal Path’ in Germany moves forward, scholars in the U.S. say a bolder response from Rome is needed.

Crescent moon Madonna above the left main entrance   of Cologne Cathedral.
Crescent moon Madonna above the left main entrance of Cologne Cathedral. (photo: Markbenecke/CC BY-SA 4.0)

WASHINGTON — The Catholic Church in Germany’s two-year reform program that has questioned established teachings on faith and morals has prompted Pope Francis and Vatican officials to take increasingly urgent action to head off the possibility of a formal schism. 

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. bishops have largely remained silent on the German program of reform, called the “Synodal Path.” But Catholic scholars here made their anxiety plain in interviews with the Register. They called for additional action by Pope Francis, pointed to signs that open dissent was spreading in Europe, and highlighted decisions in Rome and Germany that laid the groundwork for the Synodal Path.

“The situation in Germany is coming to a head, and it is at a critical juncture in Pope Francis’ pontificate,” Chad Pecknold, a professor of historical and systematic theology in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. 

“The Pope is an instrument of unity, and on his watch we are seeing displays of dissent from German bishops that are comparable to those we saw in Germany in the 16th century,” Pecknold added. “The Synodal Path has been circumscribed by the Vatican at every turn, and Germany doesn’t seem to be giving an inch to Rome.” 

The most significant steps by the Holy See, noted Pecknold and others, followed the German bishops’ decision in 2019 to move forward with the Synodal Path, an effort initially prompted by revelations of priestly sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up. Yet as the momentum for change gained traction, the focus shifted to a list of proposed “binding” reforms that, if approved by the German bishops, would contradict Church teaching on homosexuality, ecumenism, church order, and women’s ordination to the priesthood. Such a move by the Church in Germany could lead to schism with Rome, theologians contacted by the Register have said. 

Deeply concerned by this shift of direction, Pope Francis in June 2019 wrote a strong letter of objection to the German Church, warning that if they continued on this course their approach would result in “multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

In September 2019, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, wrote to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, then-president of the German bishops’ conference, to report that the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts’ legal assessment of the draft statutes for the Synodal Assembly determined that the proceedings had no binding authority. Cardinal Marx indicated that the assembly would proceed as planned. Other subsequent Vatican cautions were similarly ignored.

 

Recent Developments

Then, on March 15, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a responsum that clarified the Church’s teaching on same-sex unions and barred priests from blessing those partnerships. The ruling and accompanying note were approved for publication by Pope Francis and signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the CDF.

Widely interpreted as an attempt to check Germany’s reform program, the directive prompted a slew of Church leaders across Europe to challenge the CDF’s clarification. Most prominent among these voices is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a member of Pope Francis’ “council of cardinals” and the CDF, and the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church under Pope St. John Paul II. 

Meanwhile, the release last month of the “Fundamental Text,” the document guiding the deliberations in Germany, has stirred even more anxiety, with the document’s authors asserting that “there is no one truth of the religious, moral, and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority.” 

Reacting to the language of the “Fundamental Text,” George Weigel concluded that the assembly had reached the point of “apostasy,” and, in a column published last month, he urged Francis to contain the damage. 

Like Weigel, most Catholic scholars contacted by the Register questioned the wisdom of the Vatican allowing the Synodal Path to play out to its conclusion before additional steps are taken. But they disagreed on whether Francis should respond directly or allow key Vatican prefects to act on his behalf. 

“The unity of the Church is at stake,” said Father Goran Jovicic, a Hungarian-Croatian theologian and canon lawyer at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

“The Pope should engage in dialogue, but also invite them to profess the Catholic faith publicly because they have already made public statements,” said Father Jovicic, who studied in Vienna and briefly taught at the University of Erfurt in Germany. 

If the Vatican fails to act expeditiously — even to the point of ordering outspoken bishops to “recant,” he said, the Germans’ example “could be an invitation for other countries to join their efforts.”

“We have learned from the Protestant Reformation” how a schismatic movement can gain adherents, he added, tracing the transmission of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” in the 16th century through their publication in the vernacular. And, today, social media has already facilitated the spread of theological dissent “even more rapidly.” 

 

The Pope’s Synodal Push

A more complicated question that has prompted intense discussion among these experts is whether Pope Francis bears primary responsibility for the crisis in Germany that has moved to center stage on his watch. At issue are Francis’ efforts to promote synodality, with the possibility of increased autonomy for national bishops’ conferences that want to modify Church discipline and doctrine.

“The tendency of the German episcopate to see themselves through, as well as operate out of a dangerously excessive notion of autonomy from Rome, well predates Francis’ pontificate,” E. Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, told the Register. 

“But the Pope’s insistent push for ‘synodality’ has undoubtedly provided cover to the Germans to go public and push farther with their dissent,” Brugger added. 

However, Russell Shaw, the author, most recently, of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, noted that Francis’ predecessors bore responsibility for the appointment of Cardinal Marx and other senior German prelates. Thus, a full accounting of the crisis, he said, requires a historical review of the relevant Vatican prefects of the Congregation for Bishops, German bishops appointed to the congregation, and apostolic nuncios that helped to shape the present Church leadership.

At the same time, CUA’s Pecknold perceived one silver lining in the turmoil rocking the Church. 

“Synodality, in some ways, has been clarifying,” he observed, because it has exposed “where the real divisions are.” 

“Under John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, you have an attempt to centralize and secure the Church after all the upheaval of the [Second Vatican] Council. Then Francis gives a lot of leeway to synodality, and what you find is that people’s real views are coming through, which means you can face them and deal with them.” 

Father Emery de Gaál, the chairman and professor in the Departments of Dogmatic Theology and Pre-Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, is a Hungarian priest incardinated in the Diocese of Eichstätt, Germany. He raised an additional point regarding the ideological trends in the post-modern West that helped reset expectations for the Synodal Path.

“During the Reformation and afterward, local synods organized by St. Charles Borromeo and other bishops revitalized the Catholic Church,” Father de Gaál told the Register. But in a “postmodern” context, it would be far more difficult to achieve a similarly “positive result.” 

In Germany, he said, the push to reform Church teaching and practice has been shaped by secular ideologies that question the very reality of truth and reframe the Church’s apostolic tradition as an oppressive system that unjustly privileges an all-male hierarchy and clergy. In this context, sacred Scripture and the continuity of Tradition become “subservient to the process” of the Synodal Path, which sets out to generate its own binding truth.

Turning to the working documents guiding the deliberations in Germany, Father de Gaál observed that they reflect the broad decline in acceptance of Church teaching on the sacraments, specifically on how grace perfects nature.

Many modern Catholics believe “there is no qualitative difference between nature and grace. And this means that the sacraments merely confirm the inherent goodness we already possess; they do not actually ontologically change us (in our being),” he said.

Likewise, he added, the working documents mark the decline of belief in the very reality of sin, “at the personal level.” Some Catholics now openly challenge this central teaching, and their primary focus has become the “elimination of social sin.”

 

Germany’s Administrative Practices

Father de Gaál then considered how administrative practices adopted by the Church in Germany laid the groundwork for the Synodal Path. 

The Church there is the richest in the world, due to the national Kirchensteuer, the church tax system that funds local dioceses. In 2017, it received a reported €6 billion ($7.2 billion) through this system, though a significant portion of these moneys are used to support Catholic institutions and charities in the developing world. 

In the 1990s, said Father de Gaál, the German bishops began hiring consulting firms to reorganize their dioceses, and Church offices have been streamlined, with an improved bottom line. The pay scale for diocesan clergy and lay employees matches that of civil servants and other governmental employees, he noted, but the “zeal for evangelization has been lost.” 

Pope Francis referenced the sharp decline in German church attendance in his June 2019 letter to the country’s bishops, which described “[e]vangelization” as the “guiding criterion par excellence, by which we can recognize all the steps we are called to take as an ecclesial community.” 

CUA’s Pecknold elaborated on the problem posed by a large and powerful Church bureaucracy.

“In Germany and Austria, where you have a state tax that goes directly to the churches,” the institutional Church “starts to behave as if it represents a class, rather than the interests of the Church,” said Pecknold. “It is an elite class that is wealthy and has certain social-progressive demands they want met. The bishops feel beholden to that class.”

“It is ironic,” he added, that “this is happening under a pope who wants to be a pope for the poor.” 

 

Fraternal Correction?

As Francis weighs his next move, the same experts here believe that bishops in the West can also play a supporting role by offering fraternal correction to their German brethren. Thus far, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver appears to be the only U.S. bishop to publicly express his “disappointment” with the German bishops’ agenda, aside from Cardinal Raymond Burke. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to a request for comment regarding the Synodal Path.

But Father Jovicic suggested that Church leaders across the West could be pulled into the crisis and forced to take a stand. 

“Ultimately, it will depend on every bishop whether these ideas” gain a foothold, said Father Jovicic. “I don’t see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops admiring this effort, but there are some bishops here who lean to this position. It could be that they will try to implement those policies in their dioceses.”

Cardinal George Pell at the annual Eucharistic procession at the Angelicum in Rome, May 13, 2021.

Cardinal Pell Leads Eucharistic Procession in Rome

Marking the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, The event began with a reflection by the 79-year-old Australian cardinal at the Angelicum’s Church of Sts. Dominic and Sixtus, one of Rome’s titular churches assigned to cardinals.