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George Weigel: Is the German church on the cutting edge, or on the brink?

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Participants in Germany’s synodal assembly are seen at the Dominican monastery in Frankfurt in January 2020. Photo: CNS, Harald Oppitz, KNA

On November 10, a “Synodal Committee” created by the recently completed German “Synodal Way” met for the first time. The committee’s mandate is to prepare the foundations for a “Synodal Council” of laity, clergy, and bishops to govern the Catholic Church in Germany from 2026 on.

The idea of such a “Synodal Council” has already been rejected by the Holy See. And in a recent letter to four German laywomen who had resigned from the “Synodal Way” to protest deviations from settled Catholic truths and practices, Pope Francis reiterated that the “Synodal Council” cannot be reconciled “with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church.”

The Pope also said this about the current state of Catholic affairs in Germany:

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“Instead of seeking ‘salvation’ in ever new committees and discussing the same topics with a certain self-absorption, in my Letter to the People of God in Germany I wanted to recall the need for prayer, penance, and adoration, and invite people to open up and go out to meet ‘our brothers and sisters, especially those who are abandoned on the steps of our churches, on the streets, in prisons and hospitals, squares and cities.’ I am convinced that this is where the Lord will show us the way.”

About which, perhaps a few things may be observed: Doesn’t “seeking ‘salvation’ in ever new committees and discussing the same topics with a certain self-absorption” describe precisely what Synod-2023 did for four agonisingly long weeks two months ago—and what the preparatory local, national, and continental “phases” of the Synod on Synodality were doing, at a great cost in time and money, for the past two years?

Why is “salvation” in quotation marks in the Pope’s letter? Is it because he’s referring to “saving” the institution of the German church, which is hemorrhaging congregants (and thus losing revenue, because fewer self-identified Catholic congregants means the institution gets less of a cut of the German church tax)?

Given the German context, that suggests why “salvation” was put in quotation marks. But it might also be noted that the theme of salvation in its full biblical and theological sense—and the corollary notion of the Lord Jesus as the unique and sole savior of humanity—was not explored in any great depth during Synod-2023, or during the German “Synodal Path.”

Which leads to a third point: The Pope suggests that institutional German Catholicism will save itself by opening itself up to the poor, displaced, and marginalised in society. The German church already does that, however, maintaining (with the help of the church tax) a considerable network of social service agencies and programs.

If meeting the marginalised were the answer to contemporary German Catholicism’s religious ennui and evangelical anemia, the German church would have become a powerful engine of the New Evangelisation decades ago.

But it didn’t, and it isn’t. The reason why has little or nothing to do with a failure to meet the marginalised, and everything to do with that loss of faith in Jesus as Lord, and in the church as his sacramental body in the world, that turns local churches into non-governmental organisations doing good works.

Meeting the Lord Jesus in Word and sacrament is (to borrow from the pope’s letter) “what will show us the way.”

It was interesting that, at Synod-2023, the “hot-button” issues beloved of the German Synodal Way were, in the main, not pressed by Germans, but by others.

The president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, oozed gemütlichkeit throughout, a smile constantly on his face.

Perhaps this deliberately low profile reflected a recognition by the German bishops’ leadership that it would be inadvisable to inflame things in Rome, given their fractious situation at home. But another reading of those tea leaves is possible.

As suggested in this space before, some of those in charge of the “Synod on Synodality” may have regarded the German “Synodal Path” as a useful instrument in clearing the path for a dramatic reconfiguration of Catholic self-understanding and governance, moving the goalposts so far to the left that the old 50-yard line of the Catholic Vital Center would now be the old left end zone.

Those of that cast of mind may not have wanted the Germans to get so far out front as to give the whole game away before Synod-2024 meets next October; so the German stalking horse was advised to trot, not gallop.

Which might suggest that German Catholicism is not regarded in certain Roman circles as being “on the brink” so much as “at the cutting edge.”

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