Germany’s bishops discuss decentralizing the Church in meeting with Pope Francis
ROME, November 23, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- The German bishops, sixty-seven of them, recently visited Rome together for their obligatory Ad Limina visit with the pope from November 16-20. This Ad Limina visit, which is obligatory for all bishops of the world, was of a special importance, inasmuch as the German bishops played an important role during the recent controversial Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family in Rome. The German bishops' last Ad Limina visit was, surprisingly, some nine years ago, instead of the prescribed five years. Unlike previous popes, however, Pope Francis does not meet the bishops individually during such a visit in order to receive an account of the state of their dioceses, but only in smaller groups. At the end of the nearly week-long visit, he met in a plenary session with all German bishops together, on 20 November. On this occasion, Pope Francis, as well as the head of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, both gave a speech.
In his own speech, Pope Francis pointed out the decline of the Catholic Faith in Germany, with a dwindling Mass attendance and a comparably diminishing practice of the Sacrament of Confession. The Holy Father said “one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic Faith in Germany.” And he added: “Whereas in the 1960’s the faithful almost everywhere attended Mass every Sunday, today it is often less than 10 percent."
When asking himself what the remedy could be for the loss of Faith in Germany, the Pontiff proposed something inspired “by the life of the early Christians.” With reference to the collaborators of St. Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple, the pope thus stressed the important role of the laymen, the “volunteers,” as he called them. Pope Francis continued: “The example of these 'volunteers' may cause us to think, especially in the face of the tendency for a growing institutionalization of the Church. More and more structures are being created, although the faithful are missing.” In his eyes, this “exaggerated centralization” is what is making the Church's life “more complicated.” For Pope Francis, the Church somehow has to be more “alive” and thus “can be causing unrest and can also be inspiring.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, made reference to a similar theme when he expressed his gratitude for the pope's recent October 17 speech on Synodality and a Decentralization of the Church. After first declaring that the German bishops will soon publish their own proclamation concerning the question of the pastoral care for marriages and the family, Cardinal Marx said:
Holy Father, the German bishops are grateful that you – in order to deepen and continue the discussion of these themes [of marriage and the family] – chose to take the Synodal Path which has now led to the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and which, in turn – and we do request you to do it – will open us up into a new stage with the help of the document soon to be written by you.
Cardinal Marx also said that a “Synodal Church” would help establish more decentralization in the Church's structures in relation to the pope's central governance. Such a readjustment of proportions, in Marx's eyes, is necessary “due to the diversity of the developments and the disparate cultural situations in the different parts of a globalized, yet interconnected world.”
In a similar vein, several prominent German and Swiss voices have expressed their support for the concept of a further decentralized and more synodal Church. For example, Father Bernd Hagenkord, S.J., head of the German branch of Vatican Radio, stated: “Decentralization is on the agenda, as Pope Francis explained in more detail in his speech on occasion of the [50th] Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.” And Hagenkord stressed: “We are now living in a free society in which centralism is not any more the order of the day.”
The Swiss Bishops Conference's official website kath.ch also published an article about the theme of decentralization and the necessity to give more weight to the national bishops' conferences. It also makes reference to an article by Father Herrman Pottmeyer who is a declared opponent of the unique charism of papal supremacy. He had been one of the participants of the controversial Spadaro seminar which had caused some suspicion because it was organized right before the recent October 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the Family. Pottmeyer, in his own comments about Pope Francis' proposals for more decentralization, proclaimed that the papal call for a more “synodal Church” has “initiated the end of Roman centralism.” He refers to “the intended re-vivification of the original synodal practice of the Church” which is even now purportedly being revived. Pottmeyer, himself a professor of Fundamental Theology, sees it to be necessary that the local churches “have more weighty influence” in the universal Church and that “national, as well as regional, bishops' conferences – or particular councils – receive an enlargement of their legitimate competencies.”
The theme of a decentralized Church has caused an intervention, during the last Synod on the Family, by the retired Cardinal Arinze. In an interview with LifeSiteNews, he pointed out that on issues of faith and morals, such as homosexuality and marriage, the local churches may not teach differently than Rome. He said:
The Ten Commandments are not subject to national frontiers. A bishops’ conference in a country cannot agree that stealing from a bank is not sinful in that country, or that divorced persons who are remarried can receive Holy Communion in that country, but when you cross the boundary and go to another country it now becomes a sin.
Moreover, Voice of the Family, a coalition of pro-life and pro-family organizations, also expressed some grave reservations concerning this apparently planned decentralization of the Church which could even lead to an undermining of the Church's clear doctrinal and moral teaching. Voice of the Family concluded its own article with the following statement:
“Decentralization” has been demanded by prelates who are openly stating that they wish to see Episcopal Conferences depart from the faith and practice of the Universal Church. Far from correcting such prelates Pope Francis has often, as in the case of Cardinal Marx, appointed them to positions of influence. It is reasonable therefore for Catholics to be gravely concerned when he echoes their call for decentralization. Pope Francis can only restore trust by publicly correcting heresy and by ending his practice of conferring honours and influence on prelates who reject the Catholic faith.
Pope Francis himself had also dwelt in his recent speech on the importance of establishing a more decentralized Church, especially with the help of the national bishops' conferences. He said:
The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Ecclesiastical Regions, Particular Councils and, in a special way, Conferences of Bishops. We need to reflect on how better to bring about, through these bodies, intermediary instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating certain aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical organization. The hope expressed by the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized.
This strengthening of the local churches and a further decentralization of the Church, in the sense of a stronger “synodality,” also has for Pope Francis an ecumenical importance, as he points out more explicitly a little later:
The commitment to build a synodal Church — a mission to which we are all called, each with the role entrusted him by the Lord — has significant ecumenical implications. For this reason, speaking recently to a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reaffirmed my conviction that “a careful examination of how, in the Church’s life, the principle of synodality and the service of the one who presides are articulated, will make a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches.”
In a way, this speech may therefore well be understood as a further papal attempt to weaken the role of the pope, a uniquely privileged office which has always been a stumbling block for the other Christian groups or denominations – Protestant or Orthodox. In stressing the desirably decentralized and synodal character of the Catholic Church, a rapprochement with the other ostensibly Christian churches might thereby be intended.