The German Catholic Church had embarked on a “synodal path” in 2019, following the publication in September 2018 of a report that severely criticized the failings of the Church in Germany in its handling of the sexual abuse crisis. The goal is to offer a major reflection on the organization and future of Catholics in Germany. The synod was marked by several major steps. The first assemblies took place in January 2020 and September 2021. A new plenary assembly is scheduled to meet in February 2022, and the process is to be completed in the spring of 2023.
The German synod has raised many concerns, among them proposals on ending priestly celibacy and validating the ordination of women, neither of which have been welcomed by the Vatican. The discussions have taken an heterodox turn, which worries the Curia, especially since the initiatives were not really held in consultation with Rome. In June 2019, Pope Francis invited German Catholics in a dedicated letter to avoid the temptation of purely structural reforms. In September 2019, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, in turn published a letter with serious reservations about the German approach, saying it contrary to ecclesiology. In September 2020, a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected the proposals of the German episcopate on intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants.
For the Germans involved in the synodal process, the question of sexual abuse has become a shrewd pretext and breeding ground for querying foundational teachings of the universal Church. Such excesses though are not to everyone’s taste, even in Germany. On January 5th, 6,000 German Catholics sent a petition to Pope Francis to express their opposition to the “synodal path” taken by the German Bishops’ Conference. The 8-page document was handed to him during his weekly audience. Its terms are unambiguous. The manifesto accuses the synod of “violate[ing] the peace of congregations, abandon[ing] the path of unity with the universal Church, damage[ing] the Church in the substance of its faith, and pav[ing] the way toward schism.” It points to the fact that the objections transmitted by the pope in the preceding months were simply “ignored.” Finally it challenges the representativeness of the synodal path: even if the decisions are approved by the majority of German bishops, they cannot bind the totality of believers behind them.
The Vatican is watching closely to what is happening in Germany, because the stakes are not only spiritual. The Church in Germany is now the richest in the world. By virtue of the Kirchensteuer-–a church tax that, for example, conditions access to the sacraments–the Church in Germany thus collected in 2020 almost 6.5 billion euros – a figure to be compared with the operating budget of the Vatican, which in 2020 only amounted to 260 million euros. But money corrupts, and German history has precedents. Just over five centuries ago, on 31 October 1517, Luther posted his proposals on the doors of the church in Wittenberg. On 5 January 1521, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Luther’s role in the Reformation was partly incited by the Church’s material prosperity. The German church was extremely wealthy at the time: the property of the Church represented then a quarter to a third of the surface of the Empire. Today too the German Church has full coffers, but empty churches. Some believers might be tempted to repeat Luther’s coup d’éclat. The risk of schism is thus indeed present. The question will certainly be raised during the next ad limina visit of the German bishops to Rome in 2023.