In a first installment of the synod held last year, concerns were raised by many that some in the Catholic hierarchy, apparently supported by the Pope himself, were willing to consider changes in the Church’s teachings regarding such issues as communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation, and homosexuality.
Those issues seemed to be questioned with the possibility of moving toward some kind of modus vivendi after notes from the meeting were released prematurely and triggered a feeding frenzy in the media. The feeler, if such it was, was met immediately with pushback by the forces of traditionalism, including lay groups and many high ranking bishops.
In the end, the notes were dismissed as simply that and a formal summary report of the Synod’s position on the issues released that upheld the status quo.
That said, despite recent comments to the contrary, the Pope’s apparent support for continued exploration of how the subjects might be addressed within the framework of the Church’s Majesterium has kept the matter alive and has even discouraged some in the hierarchy from dropping the issue completely.
Enter Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Germany, who has hinted that decisions on what to do with or how to treat homosexuals, divorced and remarried persons, and those in social circumstances outside the mainstream of traditional Christian practice be handled on the national level rather than on a Churchwide basis.
Such a path, if chosen, would Balkanize the universal Church into a patchwork of different teachings some that would undoubtedly condemn certain practices, others that would take a more forgiving approach, while still others could fall anywhere in between.
The practice of what are now sometimes referred to as “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose what Church teachings they will accept while rationalizing the others away, will in effect become institutionalized, permanently condemning the wider Church to confusion and uncertainty.
Eerily echoing a position often taken by President Barack Obama, Cardinal Marx has said in a recent interview that the German Church “cannot wait” for the formal processes of the Vatican to work their way through the issues; instead, local episcopal conferences should be able to state their own position on the issues and proceed accordingly, albeit without violating Church doctrine.
“We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” said Marx in an article for Die Tagespost. “Each episcopal conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture and has to proclaim the Gospel in its own unique way. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have to carry out marriage and family ministry here.”
Already, some German bishops have expressed support for finding ways to draw in divorced and remarried couples by describing a period of penance before ultimately allowing them to receive communion. Meanwhile, homosexual couples would be welcomed to serve in various Church run institutions.
Marx’s position is one of inclusion and to find ways to get people and the Eucharist together.
On the other hand, there are those who warn that such practices could seal off pastoralism from the teachings of the Majesterium, in effect, making the Majesterium toothless.
Which could end up putting the Church itself into a worse position than simply being the target of the angry left, it would become irrelevant.
Marx, however, doesn’t represent the entire German Church and has been refuted by fellow Cardinals Paul Josef Cordes and Gerhard Müller.
As reported in the National Catholic Register online, Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that doctrinal, or even disciplinary, decisions regarding marriage and family are not up for determination by national bishops’ conferences.
“It is an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the catholicity of the Church,” said Müller.
Part of the driving force behind Marx’s move to be more conciliatory toward the Eucharistically disenfranchised is likely the rapidly declining numbers not only of German Catholics but of Christians there in general.
According to the German newspaper Die Welt, only 12.3 percent of Catholics in the country attend church regularly.
But with a population half of which does not even believe in God, would compromising on the Church’s teachings be worth it just to bring in a few more congregants, a trickle that in all likelihood, would peter out within a few years anyway?
Cordes doesn’t think so, even going so far as to reprimand Marx for taking such a bold stance in light of German Church’s poor record in evangelizing his fellow countrymen.
In an article published by the Catholic News Agency, Cordes characterized Marx’s glowing description of the Church in Germany as “wishful thinking.”
“The existing German ecclesial apparatus is completely unfit to work against growing secularism,” declared Cordes, noting that Church leaders there were asked by Benedict XVI in 2011 to tone down their worldly attitudes.
But beyond the immediate question of the state of the Church in Germany, is Marx’s position indicative of something more? Does it, for instance, suggest that the Church may be entering a period of internal dissent? Not among lapsed or cafeteria Catholics this time, but among the hierarchy itself? Not since the liberation theology movement of the 1970s or the later leftist infiltration of the religious formation process of the 80s and 90s has the Church faced such a threat.
The looming situation appears to leave the Church with just two choices: It can agree with these new calls for compromise (as a result of which, it will likely go the way of mainline Protestantism, ie shrinking congregations, drift from the traditional teachings of the Church, and irrelevancy) or it can stick to its principles, preserve its teachings, and become a beacon of reliability in a world that is rapidly losing direction.
Look for this fall’s Synod on the Family to yield first signs of which it will be.
image illustration via shutterstock / rangizzz