With the appointment of its first lay woman secretary-general, and the first anywhere in the world, the German Bishops’ Conference last week wanted to indicate the fruits of the Synodal Path of the Church in Germany. In short, a signal that the changes they are discussing will be implemented, whether Rome wants it or not. A spirit that disregards the letter that Pope Francis sent the conference in June 2019.

That letter from the Pope showed that there was already present, albeit hidden, the risk of a schism caused by the decision of the Church leaders in Germany to have a synod that could have binding decisions. “Every time – Pope Francis wrote – that an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems by itself, relying only on its strength, methods, and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and feeding the evils it wanted to overcome.”

Notwithstanding the formal acknowledgment of the Pope’s letter, the Church in Germany has continued to go its way. And the modus operandi seems to be to proceed with functional reforms, which do not require Rome’s consent, but which can still have a significant impact.

The choice of a female secretary-general goes in this direction. It is not the first time a woman is appointed general secretary of a Bishops Conference. Sr. Hermegild Makoro was secretary of the Southern African Bishops Conference, for instance, and was followed by Sr. Tshifhiwa Munzhedzi,  OP, since 2020. Since 2009, Sr. Anna Mirijam Kaschner CPS (Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood) is secretary-general of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference . However, choosing Gilles can be considered somehow a premiere.

Beate Gilles, a 50-year-old theologian, was elected to succeed the Jesuit Hans Langendoerfer, who had been the German Bishops’ Conference number 2 since 1996. Gilles comes from Limburg’s diocese, where she was head of the department for children, young people, and the family.

The bishop of Limburg is Georg Baetzing, who said: “We are keeping the promise of promoting women to leadership positions.” Considering that the general secretary has a decisive role in the episcopal conferences and is the actual executor of directives addressed to the bishops, we are faced with the first layperson who will manage a group of bishops.

This is an intermediate step towards what Bishop Baetzing would like immediately: the ordination of women priests. He reiterated this in an interview with Herder Correspondenz in January – an interview in which he also complained about the red light of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a document (“Together at the Table of the Lord”) drawn up by the Ecumenical Working Group which was open to the shared communion between Catholics and Protestants, the so-called intercommunion.

These are all signs that show how the Church in Germany wants to move forward on reforms. The problem, however, runs deeper. The Church in Germany is putting into practice a secular reading of the reality of the Church. The sacraments are not considered. Functionality is considered. It is a theme that has continually come up in debates since the time of the Second Vatican Council. A theme that has emerged forcefully again and that was never completely set aside.

To be clear, it was John Paul II, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “guardian of the faith,” who worked to overcome the polarization of the conciliar debate. Between a Church considered only in terms of functions and a pre-conciliar Church, John Paul II preferred a Church founded on Christ. It was a work that tended towards unity and was helped by Cardinal Ratzinger, who knew the German world well. Not that there weren’t bishops in Germany who went further and who lobbied. The Catholic Church in Germany has always been a bit “borderline” due to her proximity to the powerful Protestant Church and the direct competition that the two ecclesial communities maintain in attracting the faithful, which numbers automatically translate in funding levels through the Kirchensteuer, the tax revenue for the Church.

Benedict XVI continued this work of unity, and the signs were all there on his trip to Germany in 2011. Faced with a German Church that promoted functional ideas, the Pope presented himself calling for a return to God. And he asked the same thing to the Protestants, who expected an ecumenical gift. It was a reversal that was very difficult to digest for the Church in Germany, which had continued to orient herself to the progressive agenda.

With Pope Francis, this work was carried out systematically. The excuse – and this is evident from the Synod’s working document – is the question of abuse in the Church. The abuse is about a leadership problem. Leadership comes from the way power is exercised. How power is exercised must be changed, and it must be changed democratically. This is the synthesis of the rationale behind the German Synodal path.

But the change of the agenda based on the response to abuse goes far beyond the issue of power. It did not enjoy consensus, just as some of the definitions in the text cannot count on a general consensus, because they are based on the anti-Catholic prejudices of the secular world that do not correspond to the truth.

An example above all. The text repeatedly stresses that the Catholic Church has not convincingly inculturated itself “into a democratic society based on the rule of law,” and indeed has “used its own legal order to discriminate against certain segments of the population, to threaten standard democratic processes and to immunize herself against critical inquiries against her teachings and its democratic structures.”

It is the “cancel culture” on the Church applied by the Church itself. This way, the Church can’t see beyond her nose. She does not realize the Church’s work in Germany in fostering the democratic process during the Cold War. She does not even look within herself at the many politicians who make up the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK).

Does the reform of the Church entail a parliamentarization of the Church herself?

The German problem is not just a problem in Germany. If Germany is the laboratory, the issue is the subject of debate everywhere. It comes out repeatedly, obsessively. We talk about the female presence in the Church as if the Church were a company. The Church is never considered for what she is: an institution divinely founded and based on the sacraments. This is why bishops have functions of power: by sacramental ordination, which gives them the munus docendi, munus sanctificandi, munus regendi (the tasks of teaching, sanctifying, governing).

The Church is not a democracy. Communion is not democratic. It has a sense, a value, and a deep meaning, like everything in the Catholic Church. Reducing everything to functions, reducing everything to the need to make processes democratic and transparent, betrays the very nature of the Church.

There is a lot of talk about the Church’s Protestantization, and the central role given to personal conscience in many issues seems to prove this theory right. But probably the point is other. The Church is paganizing itself. In the end, putting functions, democracy, and secular agendas before divine agendas is a sign of paganism rather than Protestantization.

It was a problem that Benedict XVI had already identified in his essay “The new pagans and the Church,” which dates back to the 1950s. That diagnosis is still current. The fact that the Church in Germany is putting into practice a functional process, not even in agreement with Rome, does not mean a possible schism is taking place. It means that the Church needs to look at herself again with Catholic eyes. If she continues to look at herself through the lenses of others’ perceptions, she will no longer have a reason to be.

(updated March 1, 2021 at 9.20 am with information about other women appointed general-secretary of Bishops’ Conferences)


10 Responses to Pope Francis, the German question risks putting the whole Church in crisis

  1. Margaret O’Hagan scrive:

    Let Germany go….

  2. Daniel T. from Germany scrive:

    Let Germany go…

    That is probably the only solution in the end. And people here – some of those that are loyal to the Sacred Tradition – think, that this is the objective of the German Churchs leaders.
    Thanks to the author for the good overview of what is happening here.

    What I am missing is any action item: What to do?
    I think it it time for Rome to act more rigorously. Our Bishop Conference and the political ZDK will continue their way until a hard barrier is set. All letters and other comments from Rome have been interpreted in a way that says: Please go on. Or, if that did not seem to be an option at all, considered at least as coming from the ivory tower.

    Where Germany’s church might go – you just need to look at the Protestant Church in Germany, which is slightly more than a NGO with philosophical touch. And even if I do not see a competition for members (faithfukl?) between the two main confessions here, there for sure is a strong influence of ideas.
    Let’s pray for the Church in Germany. St Joseph, intercede for it!

  3. Robert in Denmark scrive:

    Following the protestant reformation, Germany came to be confessionally and territorially divided between catholics and protestants, basically following the ancient Rhine border of the Roman empire. Similarly, the confessional divide between latins and greeks follows ancient politics. This has never been about dogma, but since Germany’s unity, the protestant and modernist territories dominate the catholic, who give in to the formers usual hatred to Rome. If Germany wants state above Church, she will have it, because German political unity will triumph religious liberty of minority Roman catholics. Luther has perhaps won. Except perhaps in Bavaria, so in the end, if the semi-protestants win on the religious map, Bavaria may eventually break loose from political unity, given that German political unity is still built on liquid sands. Suffers it to say that the Germans have been struck by amnesia. They need some time to recover. Nobody takes them serious spiritually. Of course, you all know why. German idealist theology simply does not make up for mysteries. Now you say, is it only Germany or is it also the E.U. Certainly, it is also the E.U. with modernist amnesia. Given that what we really want to not see, to not hear, and to not talk about, is the abortion genosuicides, you can understand why Germany is particularly in amnesic denial.

  4. Robert in Denmark scrive:

    “In the end, putting functions, democracy, and secular agendas before divine agendas is a sign of paganism rather than Protestantization.” Yes, it is about people above God. And the Second Vatican Council was completely against it. Fortunately, catholic dogma derives from unity personalized in the pope rather than from the pope as human being, and catholic unity is infinitely stronger than secularism. Because people above God soon divide in selfish parties.

  5. martin scrive:

    Time for the Vatican to clean house in Germany.

  6. [...] of McCarrick’s “Influential Italian Gentleman” – Steven O’Reilly at Roma. . . Pope Francis, the German Question Risks Putting the Whole Church in Crisis – A. Gagliarducci Dear B16: 5 Non-Negotiables are Official U.S. Policy, Are They [...]

  7. Robert in Denmark scrive:

    Of course, paganism means that the people itself is divine, hence many peoples implies many gods, and atheism implies as many gods, as there are selfish human beings. In other words, democracy only means rule of the popular majority, as plutocracy means rule of the economic majority, and dictatorship means rule of the brute power majority. But none of these various majorities are God. Democracy means that God who was minority (namely Jesus of Nazareth) must become diluted among many gods who are the people. It is not fit for the Church. Because then we loose touch with God. While democracy, or plutocracy, or dictatorship can be fit for the civic state, the civic state is not the Church, as the people is not divine. The Church much at all costs remain absolute monarchy, ruled by Holy Mary mother of God. She is orthodox, with her is the Church, one holy catholic and apostolic. Because only she is Virgin, Mother and Queen and with her we have sacred scriptures, the Jewish as well as the new testament. If the Church is ruled by the people it is only as constitutional monarchy together with Mary, never dissenting from dogma that derived froæ catholic unity in Jesus whose bishop was Petrus. Because if we makes the City of God conform to the earthly city which is the people, then there is no city of God, and where will we go. The people is not divine. Everybody needs the Church to lead us to Jesus Christ. Even if we are majority, and God is minority. To replace God with democracy is stupid, because to whom will we go, if we carve gods in our own images, even if we are popular majorities. Democracy is fit for the civic state, but the Church exists for those who seek God as the minority he is, because we need holy wisdom. In the German language, deutsch means people. Indeed the civic state Germany is admirable as democracy. But the Church would let down on minorities who seek God, if it were to let herself rule by popular majorities. The civic state avoids pagan polytheism only with holy Church.

  8. Robert in Denmark scrive:

    And Justinus Martyr said that Christendom is the true philosophy. It came as divine revelation through the Jewish people, a minority in the great world, and through the holy family, further minority among Jews, and perhaps even through the apostle Paul, the minority among apostles. Epistemologically, to replace divine revelation with democracy or with arbitrary majorities of power or money, is simply stupid. Because there exists truth greater than ourselves, and everybody needs to drink from the true vine. Especially, there exists children, elders, sick, and poor whose only hope is divine revelation. Democracy excludes those who are already marginalized in functional society, which can be all right in the civic state, because they too depend on the civic state being functional. But the Church needs really not be functional. The Church is primarily metaphysical, and it is only functional in the incarnation. All right, your article is way better than my comments.

  9. Robert in Denmark scrive:

    “The Sociology of Religious Belonging” is an unread book in my bookshelf, mainly because I am not a theologian. Bishop Augustine wondered, which is best to God, being a sinner who is catholic, or a righteous who is pagan. While he did not dare to judge, Luther preferred the former. Neither is it probable that people who are pagan are in general less sinful or more righteous than most catholics, or so I say. Still, how must the pastoral and dogmatic approach be to catholics who are sinners, because they feel sociological belonging to the Church, and perhaps even spiritual, but do not grasp God, virtue, and immortality in the revealed sense. Indeed, it probably always was so, since in earlier times, the lay people while regularly attending sunday mass only went to confession and to communion once a year, in the Easter liturgy, and Luther of course, wanted to change this, so that the lay people went to communion regularly. Now, sexual sins are fundamental in the sense that the Church fathers say that they were the immediate consequence of original sin, so to most people, sexual virtue will not be restored, until the world itself becomes mostly catholic and the debates about sexuality and gender seem so futile. How can most people, who use contraception, who practice homosexuality, who use porn, or whatever contrary to the Humanae Vitae, still feel religious belonging to divine revelation, while they live as unrighteous pagans, yet this was probably always the pastoral headache of the Church. Nevertheless, I am not a theologian, or at least only half, so I think that perhaps rites and sacraments should not be so important to desire for people who are not fit for them. It is this desire to popularly majorize God which is new paganism. Then the Church falls apart, and the catholic sinners who felt religious belonging become homeless too. Why can unrepentant sinners not be satisfied with mass, and if they think confessions have become futile, do not go to communion. Everybody is called to become catholic and righteous, but there are still sinners and pagans, and it is not for the latter to overthrow the Church who can cure. Perhaps we have all been too eager that everybody must be equal. Plurality means that sinners are wellcome, but God is not equal. The rites and sacraments still belong to God. Being in Church together, let us respect almighty God’s righteousness, being human beings let us respect equal dignity. Human dignity is equal to all, but mass is holy. Everybody has their place in holy mass, some righteous and some sinners, but the personal God cannot be equal. On the contrary, the more we approach God, the more plural and personal we ourselves become. Equality is inner, not about conforming the personal God to this world. While the popular majority will remain sinners or pagans, until the catholic belief becomes truly universal to the world, there must be some pastoral approach to respect religious belonging of sinners who truly feel catholic. But pastoral care is probably more about common human dignity and respect than about mindless rites and homemade dogmas. Why is a nun not good enough as secretary to the bishops. Why must she be a church political spokeswoman for lay people. Why do so many lay people want to paganize the Church. They simply do not know what they are doing. We are all children

  10. Elias Galy scrive:

    Concerning the on-going processes in Germany: is there ANY fruit for the Church so far, on any level? or benefit? if not, is there some chance it will turn out well so that at this time it definitely must be allowed continue?

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