Catholic News Service had a report today on a statement by Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, following his private audience with Pope Francis this morning. The article quotes from Bätzing’s statement, which says he “‘informed the pope in detail’ about the status of the German church’s ‘Synodal Path’ and ‘made it clear that the rumors that the church in Germany wants to go its own way are not true.’” Bätzing went on to explain in his statement that “Pope Francis encouraged us to continue on the Synodal Path, to discuss the questions at hand openly and honestly, and to come to recommendations for a change in the church’s actions.”

For Catholics who are interested in a balanced understanding of the German Synodal Path, today also brought some extremely helpful reporting and analysis that illuminates the “other side of the story” in response to the onslaught of accusations from members of the US Church that the “real” threat of schism comes from Germany.

America Magazine’s Colleen Dulle, who was recently named by the Catholic Media Association as its 2021 Multimedia Journalist of the Year, hosted a new episode of Inside the Vatican—the podcast she does with America’s Vatican correspondent Gerry O’Connell—about the German synod. She spoke to figures in the German Church about the concerns that have been raised in the US Catholic media. Dulle’s article on the synod was also published today, and it is, to date, the best in-depth explainer of Germany’s “Synodal Path” written for an English-speaking audience.

In the explainer, Dulle found that despite accusations to the contrary, “Every expert I spoke with—even one outspoken critic—reiterated that the German church has no intention of breaking from Rome or attempting to change doctrine without Rome’s approval, even if none of their proposals are accepted.”

This has long been my impression, and also reflects how I read the “Forum 1” document produced by the Synodal Path. As I wrote in a recent article, “Certainly, much of it came across as too deferential (and even wishy-washy) for my American sensibilities. It certainly lacked the degree of doctrinal assertiveness to which I am accustomed. But from what I have read so far, I don’t see a [German] Church that is looking to capitulate to the world as much as I see a Church that is searching for something to say to a world that has given up on listening.”

But why have US conservative Catholics been so insistent on their own fidelity to the Magisterium while pushing the idea that the German Church is headed toward schism? I think much of it is rooted in a strong desire of many conservative US Catholics—those who haven’t already abandoned all pretense that they support Pope Francis—to demonstrate their fidelity to the Church and the pope, but to do so without undergoing the fundamental transformation and conversion required to embrace Francis’s vision.

Pope Francis wrote about this in chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, repeating an important aspect of his approach to encountering and evangelizing:

“The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: ‘There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always, always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement . . . The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart . . . For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.’” (AL 296).

Are the members of the US Church who are insistent on raising the issue of the denial of communion—whether to Catholics in irregular situations or politicians who oppose Church teachings on social and moral issues—committed to the “casting off” way of thinking? It seems that way, given how many of them stressed the “urgency” of the need to deny communion to certain Catholics. It as if they see denial of the Eucharist as a prerequisite first step in engaging Catholics who aren’t living fully in line with the Church. They appear to completely disregard the caution advised by Cardinal Ladaria in his letter.

Christopher Lamb summed up this disconnect between the US bishops and Francis in his analysis of the conflict during the recent USCCB meeting. Although the details of the changes to the proposed document on the Eucharist in response to Cardinal Ladaria’s letter are unclear, it seems that some bishops were encouraged by the direction of the document (including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City). Therefore, the vote on the Eucharist document may not be the best gauge on the USCCB’s feelings about Pope Francis. Lamb suggested a more accurate sense of the US episcopate’s acceptance of Francis might be gleaned from another, less-publicized vote:

“Perhaps the most instructive vote during the recent bishops meeting, however, came when Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago suggested that Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia be referenced in a forthcoming family life document…

In the end, 52 per cent voted in favour of Cupich’s amendment while 42 percent opposed and 6 per cent abstained. This vote, which was effectively a referendum on a key teaching document from Francis, illustrates the sharp divisions within the US hierarchy. It is also extraordinary that there is such disagreement among bishops over referencing a major teaching document on the family from the Pope.”

In his article, Lamb also points out that many US bishops have never explained or retracted their support for Archbishop Viganò’s August 2018 letter, which included call for Pope Francis to resign. In light of these and other points of contention, Lamb weighed in on the “US schism” vs. “German Schism” debate, concluding his article with the question, “Rather than Germany, isn’t the real threat to church unity coming from the Communion-denying bishops in the United States?”

I asked Colleen Dulle if she’s observed a trend in English-language Catholic media to promote the idea that the German Church is headed toward schism. She told me, “I don’t think all English-language media is guilty of this, but I think that a certain subset of media in the U.S. has put forward a narrative that the German bishops are out of control or headed toward schism, which is false.” But is it deliberate? She continued, “I don’t know; I can’t read their motives, but it certainly is stoking unnecessary outrage to drive views and ad impressions at the risk of further dividing the church.”


Image:  Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference

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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

German schism vs US schism: Competing narratives
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