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Dubia cardinal criticizes German ‘synodal path’ as protestantizing Catholic Church

The preparatory document for the German bishops' synodal path, says Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, is obsessed with 'power' and will turn the Church into an NGO.
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Cardinal Brandmüller addressing the 'Humanae Vitae at 50' conference in Rome, Oct. 28, 2017. Diane Montagna / LifeSiteNews
Maike Hickson By Maike Hickson

Maike Hickson By Maike Hickson

February 13, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, one of the two remaining dubia cardinals, has just published in the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost a thorough analysis of the German synodal path’s preparatory document that deals with the question of power. As he shows, this document has been permeated by arguments that are similar to the ones used by Martin Luther in the 16th century and is undermining the Church’s hierarchical structure as it was established by Jesus Christ Himself.

The German bishops have started a two-year discussion process called the “synodal path,” which aims at questioning the Church’s teaching and discipline regarding such important matters such as celibacy, female ordination, the role of the laity, and homosexuality. At the end of this process, they plan to decide, together with many laymen, upon a reform agenda for the Catholic Church in Germany. Part of that reform agenda is the strengthening of the laity, in the field of participation and even in the field of Church leadership.

The leadership under Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Professor Thomas Sternberg (of the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay organization) established last year four discussion forums (on power, women, sexuality, celibacy), each of which published, in September 2019, a preparatory document for the two-year discussions. Since the members of these forums remain the same — except with a few additional members — their documents can give us a good idea of what the plans of this reform process are.

As Cardinal Brandmüller says in his new analysis, here is a great danger that the Church in Germany is being protestantized or even turned into an NGO. He writes about the preparatory text: “Here one is all too obviously oriented toward the model of the Protestant regional churches, their structures and synods. This applies, difficult to understand, also to the composition and structures of the ‘synodal path.’ Such a model of church — the ‘synodal path,’ — corresponds, admittedly, rather to that of a non-governmental organization of socio-pedagogical design than to the Church of Jesus Christ.”

The German cardinal especially highlights that the preparatory document of last September presents the concept of a democratic church, aimed at weakening the importance of ordination. He says: “When there is talk of a fundamental equality of all Church members, then that is, when correctly understood, a matter of course, but in this context, it is only a copying of Luther: ‘For what has crawled out of Baptism can boast that it has already been ordained priest, bishop and pope…’ that ‘we are all equally priests.’”

Cardinal Brandmüller refers here to a certain text by Martin Luther, commenting that “it is astonishing to what extent the demands of the synod paper correspond to Luther’s concern.”

In his sharp analysis, this prelate sees mainly “political” language and a political way of thinking that is alien to the Catholic Church and reminds one rather of a parliament or company.

He states:

Again there is talk of “leadership offices and exercise of power,” which are “to be invested in a participatory way and to be practiced sustainably,” when it is about personnel decisions, distribution of finances, and determination of the “major (ecclesial-political and pastoral) lines.” If there was not also talk of ecclesial and pastoral politics, one could also be reminded of the topics of the supervisory board meeting of an industrial company.

Brandmüller notices in this document “the exclusion of the really central objects the actual illness of the official German Catholicism” — namely “the circling around oneself, the self-referentiality that replaces the ‘going out into all the world,’ the proclamation of the Gospel.”

As an important conclusion, the German prelate and church historian writes that “the obvious attempt to impose secular, democratic structures with its procedures on the Church is basically directed against the essence, the very mystery of the Church.”

Please see here the full analysis of Cardinal Walter Brandmüller:

The German “synodal path”

Now the “synodal path” has begun. To see where it should lead, it may not be too late to take a thoughtful look at the “Working Paper of the Preparatory Forum” of September of last year. For the time being, it may suffice to take a look at the working paper specifically dedicated to the topic “Power and Separation of Powers in the Church — Common Participation and Sharing in the Mission.” Although this text may meanwhile seem outdated with regard to relativizing explanations, it nevertheless reveals quite unprotectedly the world of ideas and intentions of its authors.

Now, one might think that it is about the central truths of the Faith and their convincing proclamation in the world of the 21st century — how necessary that would be!

But none of this is mentioned in the preparatory paper — just as in the discussion within the Church in Germany.

What is to be discussed and decided upon, rather, is power in the Church, the role of women, celibacy and sexual morals, as it has been done incessantly and tiringly since the Würzburg Synod of 1971 [a synod held in Würzburg by the German bishops from 1971 to 1975 —M.H.].

It is shattering to see how, with this choice of topics or the exclusion of the really central objects, the actual illness of official German Catholicism becomes now visible: the circling around oneself, the self-referentiality that replaces the “going out into all the world,” the proclamation of the Gospel.

There one then notes with astonishment how often in this text the term “power” occurs, when in the Church — quite differently from the civil society — it must be about not “power,” but “authority.”

But this means that it has to be exercised, conferred, and answered for by mandate. So much for the “key term” of the text.

When then there is talk about the “standards of a plural society in a democratic constitutional state,” the observance of which is expected by many Catholics “also in their Church,” then it is nevertheless to be asked what in the eyes of the authors still distinguishes the Church from a secular community.

If that is what it is really about, then you can actually start making demands with a “We want...” and formulate intentions, etc. For example, there is talk of participation (in what?) of all members of the People of God and of the separation of powers. The “power,” it says there, is so far “unilaterally bound to the consecration.” There is talk of a “unilateralization of the ordained ministry.” Thus, the question arises of a common participation of all faithful in the assumption, exercise, responsibility, and control of power.

Now finally also the question: “How are office and ordination connected?” In such a perspective, even this question is then asked: “how power of leadership (!) in liturgy, teaching, and diakonia [charity, pastoral care] is divided in such a way that ...” In the end, it is thus basically about “power, participation, and separation of powers” in the Church. Finally, the paper relies “on the intuition of the People of God,” on the “possibilities of theology to think of the Church differently,” whereby “the signs of the time” are to be considered.

Thus, the Church could be led into the width that God opens up. “We do not want a new Church, but a renewed Church. We want to live and think of the Faith differently from how it was before the turning point, which is set by coming to terms with the abuse.” So much for the introductory chapter.

In the following, the text gets to the point more clearly. Here the authors note a “widespread understanding of the Church in Germany,” “which is characterized by a charging of the ordained ministry as ‘holy violence,’” which corresponds “less to a Catholic necessity than to an anti-modern tendency.” But that was a new invention after the Enlightenment. Significantly, there is not given any proof — which is hard to give.

Then the authors find particularly offensive “the concentration of sacramental, legislative, executive, administrative and legal authority,” which is said to be only a development of the 19th century. Question marks must also be placed behind this assertion.

And again, the “normative claims that are lived practice in modern democratic constitutional states,” as well as in the Church, are decisively opposed to this questioned system.

“The universal claim to freedom and equality, which the Church raises [?!], cannot be asserted by her without contradiction when it bounces off the institutional walls of the Church.” Did the authors think here of Luther’s writing “To the Christian nobility...,” which speaks of these very walls? Moreover, a distinction must be made between “being of equal value” and “being equal”!

Once again, the authors are venturing onto the slippery slope when they claim that since the 19th century the Church has “strongly organized herself according to the model of a monarchy” — really? How then?

At the end of the section — for how many times and in an undifferentiated way — the “normative principles of freedom and equality” are invoked, according to which the Church had to be “organized at the level of the institutional possibilities of the time.”

Let us leave it at that for now. The direction in which the Church is to be led is clearly recognizable.

But now, in the end, “principles” are formulated, which, however, require critical examination. The introductory statement, “understanding and exercise of power, participation and separation of powers are key issues” is in fact itself the key to understanding the whole text, indeed the actual intention behind the enterprise called the “synodal path.”

According to the text, the Church needs a “new reflection on the calling and empowerment of the whole Church [!] to proclaim the Gospel.”

This demand is immediately made concrete: it is about nothing more and nothing less than the abolition of celibacy and access of women to the ordination of priests and bishops, which is to be openly discussed. The reference to the necessity of a regulation for the entire Church is only a fig leaf, with which the clear commitment to the female priesthood is for the time being still to be veiled.

And then: The theological basis for it consists in the fundamental equality of all Church members, which is sacramentally sealed in Baptism and Confirmation and is expressed in the “common priesthood of all believers.” Why then ordination to the priesthood would still be required remains unsaid. Once again, it is not recognized that the equal rank of all members of the Church is nevertheless connected with a difference in vocation. Were the authors aware that — with the exception of the mention of Confirmation — they were simply repeating the statements of Luther’s pamphlets of 1520?

When there is talk of a fundamental equality of all Church members, then that is, when correctly understood, a matter of course, but in this context it is only a copying of Luther: “For what has crawled out of Baptism can boast that it has already been ordained priest, bishop and pope...” that “we are all equally priests.” Thus says Luther in “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation on the Improvement of the Christians,” a writing in which he, among other things, not only mocks, but denies the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is astonishing to what extent the demands of the synod paper correspond to Luther’s concern.

There is then also talk of the separation of powers, of the rights of the faithful — and of the claim that “power of leadership and decision-making cannot be exclusively bound to ordination.” “The leadership of the congregations is also one of these tasks.” It is not bound to ordination!

The next topic is the selection of bishops, for which “participation of those concerned” is considered necessary. Finally, the “synodal path” should decide also upon a framework for differentiation and co-operation of the different ministries in the Church, including the episcopal ministry. And again a “problematic-monopolistic” image of the Church is criticized, which would have to be broken up by processes of “accountability and control, of participation and separation of powers.”

So it is very surprising when one reads in conclusion: “The pastoral ministry of bishops as well as of pastors [!!] is undisputed in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless: it does not justify absolutism in the exercise of ecclesiastical authority.” Of course! But has this ever been denied? However, “also common and shared decision-making powers” were necessary. “Rights to have a say, rights of decision" — obviously by laymen — were already documented here and there. Regional differences are also conceivable.

Again there is talk of “leadership offices and exercise of power,” which are “to be invested in a participatory way and to be practiced sustainably,” when it is about personnel decisions, distribution of finances, and determination of the “major (ecclesial-political and pastoral) lines.” If there were not also talk of ecclesial and pastoral politics, one could be reminded of the topics of the supervisory board meeting of an industrial company.

It is astonishing enough that finally the term “sacramental authority” appears, even if it is immediately again about “authority to rule.” Of course, not to be neglected is the mention that procedures for the separation of powers (what is that?) as a control of power have “proved themselves in modern democracies.”

If now it is also demanded that “Church leadership” (what is that?), legislation, and jurisdiction should not be in the hands of the bishop alone, this not only goes beyond the scope of the existing law, but also contradicts the hierarchical structure of the Church grounded in the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is astonishing enough that it is nevertheless recognized in casual tones: “The episcopate is indispensable and central for the structure of the Church,” as indeed “the bishop’s ministry in ordination and in the assignment to leadership” is clarified in the Catholic Church.

It is difficult to see how the contradictory statements or demands concerning the episcopate could be reconciled with one another. Finally, the text takes giant steps toward the goal of democratizing the Church: selection processes in the form of elections “and deliberations” (what is that?) with participation of elected representatives of the whole People of God, accountability of all office bearers to “democratically elected bodies,” time limitation — i.e., probably term limits — for important executive offices...would have a result that would have only the name in common with the “Church of Jesus Christ.”

So much just to characterize the actual aim of this paper — and thus of the whole synodal enterprise. The obvious attempt to impose secular, democratic structures with its procedures on the Church is basically directed against the essence, the very mystery of the Church.

II

Read with due attention, our text thus grants deep insight not only into the ideas and intentions of the authors, which are probably to be found in the vicinity of the “Central Committee of German Catholics.” The reader here also hears language as it is usually to be heard in the political milieu. It is a political vocabulary that the reader encounters in an ecclesial text. It is quite characteristic that in its 19 pages, the word “power” appears 79 times — an observation that shows what the authors are ultimately concerned with: power. It seems to have been forgotten that authority can exist in the Church only as an authority exercised by the Lord of the Church by virtue of a mandate, and that this authority is conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, and not by popular election. The religious and pious phrases interspersed rather abruptly contrast strangely with the political vocabulary of the text. This is probably a reference to the existence of different authors. But the overall impression remains: it is about politics. “Your language betrays you — you are a Galilean” (Mt. 26:73).

A further characteristic of the text is the one-sided emphasis on the participation of the laity in the Church. One might think this was previously unknown. Meanwhile, the authors here meet with open doors — and thus reveal their simple ignorance of canon law, which — according to Codex Iuris Canonici Can. 224–231 — determines the rights and duties of the laity.

The demands made in our text, however, go far beyond that. Here, one is all too obviously oriented toward the model of the Protestant regional churches, their structures and synods. Here one is all too obviously oriented toward the model of the Protestant regional churches, their structures and synods. This applies, difficult to understand, also to the composition and structures of the “synodal path.” Such a model of church — the “synodal path,” — corresponds, admittedly, rather to that of a non-governmental organization of socio-pedagogical design than to the Church of Jesus Christ.

It is as significant as it is strange to see how little the authors of our text understood that the Church of Jesus Christ is neither a monarchy nor a democracy, etc. She is a mystery of faith that cannot be adequately grasped by human categories, and about which even Holy Scripture can speak only in images. But where is this insight in the present text — apart from the slight use of theological, pious vocabulary?

One might think that for the “synodal path” of the German Catholics, the Constitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council first of all is decisive. In the present text, however, no reference is made to it. Also, where are the relevant documents of the post-conciliar teaching authority?

And what about those passages of the Gospels where the mission of the apostles is mentioned, where it is about the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ, as the House of God, as the vine? Well, Jesus said not to the crowd or to the women and disciples who followed Him: “Whoever listens to you, listens to Me, receives the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any,” et cetera, but, rather, only to the Twelve, who were gathered in the Upper Room, and who were given the commission “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

All this, and also Paul with his spirit-filled vision of the mystery of the “Church” — all this is not supposed to have any meaning for the “synodal path”? Apparently, this also applies to Vatican II’s constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church.

How urgently, even evocatively, does the admonition of the Apostle Paul sound here: “Do not make yourselves equal to this world” (Rom. 12:2). This appeal applies today in a special way to the bishops, the Catholics of Germany.

Translation by LifeSite’s Maike Hickson.


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