The German bishops on the brink of schism
Unity of church and state has spelled destruction for Catholic communities for millenia, and now the specter of schism looms from Germany where the state and the Church are intimately tied.
The Catholic Church in Germany is well-funded and well-staffed despite its low numbers of attendance by German Catholics — or adherence to the sacraments. For context, according to the German Bishops’ Conference most recent 2020 census, Germany’s total population of 83.2 million includes 22.1 million registered Catholics, only 900,000 of whom report regularly attending Mass — but the Church in Germany employs over 800,000 individuals. This extreme discrepancy between the bureaucracy and practicing Catholics is possible due to the German government’s “church tax” that comprises 9% of German citizens’ income tax — directed towards one’s religion of choice — and also explains why a great many of these lay employees are not active Catholics or members of the Church at all.
Citizens have elected the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference as the recipient of over 6 billion euros in annual income, all funneled through the German government. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a close relationship between the German bishops and German political interests.
German politics, which aligns with the pro-LGBT and progressive elements of much of the European Union, has crept into the upper echelons of the clergy in such members as Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, who has espoused the current “Synodal Way” as a medium for pushing the issues of priestly celibacy, sexual morality and church authority. Created under the excuse of executing the conference-level portion of the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, this process has excited an incredible amount of scandal and controversy both within Germany and worldwide.
This ostensibly autonomous decision-making body is currently organized to circumvent the Vatican and papal authority, and has already ground a great many sparks between Pope Francis and the current German episcopate.
“Despite all serious and inevitable reflection, it is easy to fall into subtle temptations … [I]f we are not aware of these temptations, we easily end up with a complicated series of arguments, analyses and solutions with no other effect than to stay away from the real and daily encounter with the faithful people and the Lord,” wrote Pope Francis in a recent letter to the German bishops. “What we need is much more than structural, organizational or functional change.”
Bishop Georg Bätzing, bishop of Limburg and chairman of the German Bishop’s Conference, said in an interview with the Associated Press in January that the German bishops and Pope Francis had “fundamentally different views of synodality” in response to Francis’ comments in a previous Asoociated Press interview on the “German process” that “the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in.” Undoubtedly, his concerns are warranted, especially when one considers the actions that this “Synodal Way” has taken since its inception.
Among the items on its agenda — some already executed, others in the works — are ordination of women to the priesthood, the giving of communion to Protestants married to Catholics as well as to Catholics who have been divorced and remarried, rewriting Church doctrine on homosexual activity and transgenderism and the formal establishment of a permanent “Synodal Council” to replace the current “Synodal Way,” continuing the trend of autonomous disobedience of Church authority.
These issues are firmly established as non-negotiable in Church teaching. The ordination of women, for instance, was firmly declared as impossible and off-the-table by Pope John Paul II, and Catholic moral doctrine around sexuality is very much intransigent, with both Scripture and many authoritative teachings from popes and Church councils throughout history affirming its immutability. There is simply no hope to be had in successfully pushing changes on these doctrines to the global Church.
If the German bishops insist on remaining in their disobedience to the Church’s hierarchy, the end result will and must be disastrous for all involved. The Church will not back down, nor will it assent to whatever pressure tactics the German Bishops’ Conference may push, and if this comes to a head — as it seems most likely to — the end result will be the corruption of the church in Germany and scandal to the whole world.
Those Catholic laity and clergy who wish to remain faithful to Church authority and avoid being embroiled in schism will be forced to oppose their local superiors, and perhaps go into an “underground Church” faithful to Church teaching. Such secretive behavior would be tragic but necessary if the few remaining faithful in Germany were to rebel against the mainline Catholic leadership.
The scandal that the German bishops are propagating is of immense harm to the faithful they have been given charge of instructing and guiding, as well as to the world as a whole. All the Church is holding its breath in dreadful anticipation of what happens next.