Maike Hickson

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Pope Francis with Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops conference.

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Cdl Marx: ‘no stop sign’ from Pope Francis for our German synodal path on celibacy, sexual morality

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September 24, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Yesterday, on the first day of the German bishops' fall assembly in Fulda, Cardinal Reinhard Marx gave a press conference, in which he discussed his recent meeting with Pope Francis and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, as well as his plans for the upcoming German synodal path, which, as he insists, is “not a synod” or a “particular council” which would be subject to canon law.

Speaking about his visit and conversations in Rome which ended on September 20, the President of the German Bishops' Conference and archbishop of Munich-Freising insisted that they have been “throughout positive and encouraging.” 

“There is no stop sign,” explained Marx, “it was a constructive encounter” with Ouellet and the Pope, so that “I cannot see that the synodal path now somehow would be endangered.” 

That is to say, Pope Francis did not tell Cardinal Marx to stop a project that plans to question the Church's teaching on celibacy, on sexual morality, on the all-male priesthood, as well as on the link between ordination and governance in the Church.

Further commenting on Pope Francis and his June letter to the German Catholics, Cardinal Marx said that “the Pope really has opened the doors with his letter, and as we understand him, as I understand him – and as I also have found it confirmed in my conversation [with him] – he points to aspects which we should keep in mind and which are not new to us and which we accept.” 

Asked as to whether the final statutes of the German synodal path – as the German bishops will vote on them during their September 23-26 gathering – need to be approved, Cardinal Marx answers: “A condition that a higher approval is required? – I did not hear that.” 

That would mean that Rome lets the Germans have it their own way. LifeSiteNews reached out to Matthias Kopp, the press speaker of Cardinal Marx, asking for a further elaboration of Cardinal Marx' comments, but Kopp so far has not yet given a response to the question.

German synodal path to lead to Vatican III?

Cardinal Ouellet, the head of the Congregation for Bishops, had written a September 4 letter – with a critique by the Congregation for Legislative Texts attached – to the German bishops, saying that the German synodal path intends to “convoke a particular council without, however, using that term.” Such a particular council, however, is subject to canon law. For such a synodal path to have binding character, would lie “outside of its [the German Bishops' Conference] competence,” the letter states. The documents also point out that decision making has to be linked to the “hierarchical structures” in the Church. 

Furthermore, the document of the Congregation for Legislative Texts asks: “How can an assembly of a particular church make decisions on topics of the Universal Church, and how can a bishops' conference be dominated by an assembly, the majority of which are not bishops?” Here, the critics point to the strong influence of laymen in the German synodal path.

At this year's spring assembly, the German bishops had approved of the synodal path in the last minutes of their March 11-14 gathering in Lingen, after having heard invited speakers questioning the Church's teaching on homosexuality, cohabitation, contraception, the gender theory, as well as other important moral topics. The synodal path is to begin this Advent and last for two years.

Putting aside Rome's objections to the synodal path as a “binding” process, which would include lay involvement, also with regard to the voting process at the end, Cardinal Marx now says that the German synodal path is meant as a “discussion,” at the end of which the German bishops would then send a “votum” to Rome, asking Rome to continue this debate.

“This then is also not the end of the synod,” Marx explained, “[because] then the synodal path goes on to Rome.”

One may wish and work for the idea to “change the Church's law,” according to the German cardinal. “If nothing would change, we would not have had a council,” he added, making a reference to the Second Vatican Council. “It is even legitimate,” he continued, “to speak of a next council, that is not forbidden.” 

In light of these words, one may well imagine that Marx' plan is to start a synodal path which then will lead to a Third Vatican Council in Rome.

Marx is now saying that, in spite of the fact that he calls the German synodal path “binding,” it is merely meant to be a discussion – with no further binding character for the bishops involved – and that the result of this discussion would then be sent to Rome, with certain requests attached. “Of course, we cannot, with the help of a synodal path, remove the legislative power of a diocese,” Marx now states. He also insists that the German bishops wish to remain in union with the Universal Church. “We can only make decisions in communion with the Pope.”

This case-by-case method has been applied by Marx already with regard to the guidelines on Communion for Protestant spouses. After many disturbances and interventions from Rome, Pope Francis had given approval that Marx publish the German bishops' controversial guidelines approving of Communion for some Protestant spouses, but with the reference that it is left to each bishop whether he wishes to implement them or not.

Thereby, the doctrinal objections against these guidelines were simply overlooked and ignored. Practice dominated doctrine.

In this manner, Cardinal Marx now also hopes to continue his synodal path in Germany, which in his eyes then should influence the Universal Church.

At the September 23 press conference, the German prelate insisted that it is not only the Germans who wish for change. “I see that on the level of the Universal Church, there is much movement,” Marx stated. It is not so, that in other countries, “all are of the same opinion.” “That is to say,” he added, “we also make contributions for the Universal Church.” 

The German bishops are set to finalize the statutes for their synodal path in the coming days. The fact that the Pope seems to have given free reign to Cardinal Marx and his fellow bishops will encourage them to approve of their statutes. Observers expect that there will be only few abstentions or counter votes on the final vote.

Opposition to German synodal path

Two German bishops, however, are publicly known to have opposed the synodal path: Cardinal Rainer Woelki and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer. They only recently proposed an alternative plan for the synodal path which would have been in accordance with canon law and which would have stressed the need for evangelization, as distinct from questioning the Church's perennial teachings on matters such as celibacy and homosexuality. It would have left out altogether the discussion of female ordination, which as Woelki and Voderholzer insist, has already been ruled out by the Church.

Cardinal Woelki, in a talk dated September 25, 2019, reminds his fellow Germans with reference to Pope Francis' letter to the German Catholics that “the synodal path may not take place without the Universal Church.” He once more warns against “a substantively and also formally separate path which would cut us out from the Universal Body of Christ.”

But they are not alone in their opposition.

Archbishop Nicola Eterović, in his September 23 address to the German bishops, reminded the German Bishops' Conference of the need to concentrate on the task of the “evangelization,” a task that applies also to the “particular churches.” He also quotes Pope Francis' recent words that “a synod is not a parliament” which is subject to the methods as they are being used in politics. Once more, Eterović stresses in his address the “primacy of evangelization,” something that both Woelki and Voderholzer also support.

‘Fixation’ on female ordination

Moreover, Professor Marianne Schlosser, a member of the doctrinal commission of the German Bishops' Conference and a participant of the synodal path's forum on women, declared on Friday that she canceled her participation since she saw that the discussions have a “fixation” on the topic of female ordination, something that has been long ruled out by the Catholic Church.

In an additional Open Letter as published by the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, Schlosser also explained in detail as to why a female priesthood is not possible, in light of God's Revelation. She shows herself “shaken” by the fact that women are now asking “the question of power” and link it to the matter of ordination, since the Catholic Church is not about power, and, according to Saint Gregory the Great, those who push themselves forward for ordination should not be ordained. “In the Church,” she explains, “there is only to be the authority as it has been bestowed upon by Christ Himself.” Schlosser also is troubled by the claim that women have a “right” to ordination. 

She sees a “wrong understanding of ordination” at play. Professor Schlosser also insists upon the fact that Pope John Paul II' explicit ban on female ordination in his 1994 document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis has a “binding” character. Such a teaching, as many others, she adds, do not need an explicit formal declaration. “It is not at all the case that everything that has to be accepted 'de fide' – that is to say in the Faith – is formally declared a dogma.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.