Where Peter Is received some criticism last week in the wake of breaking news regarding the wrangling in the Vatican that took place over the proposed ‘synodal way’ of the Church in Germany. Some asked why we weren’t issuing breathless condemnations over this allegedly real schism in the Church. I don’t know if our accusers realize that Where Peter Is is not a news agency. It publishes work by normal folks who research and write in their spare time and get most of their information from English-language sources. I don’t think any of us are comfortable issuing on-demand condemnations based on partial information with little context. Many of us watched the development of what is now happening in the Church in the United States for years before publicly speaking out about it. We would be irresponsible if we did not adequately research the ‘synodal way’ before drawing conclusions.
Despite my irritation at being goaded to comment on the German situation, however, I have been doing some reading. I can read some German, even if Church-related news articles, Bishops’ Conference press-releases and Vatican correspondence all present significant challenges. My research so far has confirmed that we are dealing with very different situations in the US and Germany, and it is not clear that the German ‘synodal way’ will end up resulting in schism, although of course it is a possibility. Also, we cannot say that the Church in Germany has placed itself in stark opposition to the Holy Father, since an emphasis on synodality is something that Pope Francis has encouraged and fostered (see, for example, his important 2015 address at the Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops). His letter to the Church in Germany was not an authoritarian demand that they immediately stop what they are doing; rather, it was a fatherly intervention that contained both encouragement and some stern warnings. If, after negotiations, they choose not to heed these warnings and Cardinal Marx severs his close relationship with Pope Francis, then we will have a serious situation.
The rebellions in the US and Germany are different beasts. Still, in researching the ‘synodal way,’ I have discovered that there are some important similarities as well—ones that can help us understand this turbulent period. These similarities revolve around the role of the laity in the Church.
Many Catholic conservatives are quick to portray the Church in Germany as a hive of Modernist heresy, led by bishops who wish to Protestantize or secularize the Church through the ordination of women, the elimination of clerical celibacy, and support for gay marriage. This is surely a caricature, but it is nevertheless fair to say that the Church in Germany tends toward the ‘progressive’ end of the Catholic spectrum. However, what they miss is that much of this progressive tendency is coming from the laity, who are not only highly organized, well-financed, and well-represented by the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), but also desperately frustrated with and angry at the Church. The ‘synodal way’ was conceived as a response to what many German Catholics consider a situation of emergency in the wake of the abuse crisis. For decades they have been asking for change that did not come; they were instead granted a legacy of clerical sexual and physical abuse that will leave scars for many generations. Now, they are no longer willing to settle for ‘business as usual.’ They will not be satisfied with a ‘synodal way’ that is manipulated by Church leadership and takes all of the most crucial items for discussion off the table. Although it does not seem that the ‘binding’ resolutions they have called for as a result of the ‘synodal way’ will actually be binding on bishops or involve matters of doctrine that are reserved for the universal Church, they want tangible results.
Australia is also gearing up for a similar (though more ecclesiastically sound) process, as the National Catholic Reporter detailed earlier this year, with preparations for their 2020 Plenary Council, “in which laypeople will be allowed to vote and decisions could be binding on the nation’s Catholics, once ratified by the Vatican.” It, too, is the product of a reckoning with the abuse crisis, namely the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. NCR quotes Jack de Groot, who is involved in the review and implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, as saying “The plenary council of the church, it’s only going to have credibility if laypeople get to vote on its recommendation—and that they have at least half the vote […].” Even if we may have misgivings about such demands for active and meaningful participation from the laity, they can’t be ignored.
We should look at what is happening in North America in the context of this larger push for decentralization and lay participation in decision-making within the Church. I spend a lot of time arguing against the various manifestations of anti-Francis sentiment that appear daily in social media and American Catholic media—and some of it is truly outrageous—but I also recognize that much of it is rooted in anger and despair. The decades-long abuse crisis in the US has taken its toll, and now a large number of dissatisfied Catholics are using social media and the vast Catholic media networks that were built up over the course of the long JPII/BXVI era as their forum for protest. They are also demanding, in ways that would have been almost unthinkable before, that no items of discussion are “off the table.” As a result, we are seeing an influx of ideas that were formerly confined to the traditionalist fringes of American Catholicism into formerly ‘mainstream’ sources. Such ideas include the wholesale rejection of Vatican II, theories of Freemasonic infiltration of the Church, Integralism, Marian apocalypticism, the public rejection or dismissal of encyclicals and exhortations, calls for a return to older catechisms or older versions of the Catechism, and more. Catholic media figures have made it clear that they will stand for what they believe the Church has always taught, even if that means criticizing the pope. The lesson to be learned is that the old ways are through—the laity will have their say, or even promulgate their own teaching, no matter what the pope and bishops might think. If it doesn’t happen through a synod or plenary council, it will happen through other means.
Contrary to what people might think, I do not think the solution to this instability is a form of ultramontanism which would demand uniform submission to every utterance of Pope Francis. Or perhaps I am such an ultramontanist that I think we need to carefully consider the will of the pope and the themes of his pontificate. Pope Francis has not quashed all disagreement or even dissent. He remains open to criticism and frank discussion, and has encouraged synodality as a way of making the Church truly global and less centralized and conformist. He is a father, not a dictator. We must choose to obey; he can’t force us. As he said on September 10, “In the Church there is always the option for schism, always. But it is an option that the Lord leaves to human freedom.”
As we begin this new era for the Church, we should listen to the Holy Father as he listens to us. I pray that he will be able to shoulder the responsibility he has been given. The whole pilgrim Church on earth is entering the synodal way, whether we like it or not.