“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”
―Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As each of the synods during the pontificate of Francis gets underway, we are treated to what has become a familiar dance. For lack of a better description, we’ll call it the “Rhine-Tiber Two-Step.” It typically takes the form of a carefully calculated good cop/bad cop routine between Rome and the German Church — a church with deep pockets that is widely believed to have bought undue influence by paying the bills of the financially troubled Vatican. There are always some unusually bold steps in the dance, but those are just to dazzle and distract. What we inevitably wind up with as the music stops is some form of Hegelian synthesis that moves the agenda of “reform” (AKA revolution) forward just a little bit farther.
Yesterday, Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported that the bishops of Germany were “pressing forward with a controversial synodal program” in cooperation with an “influential German lay group” (the Central Committee of German Catholics, known as ZdK) to create a “binding synodal process” on so-called key issues “arising from the clerical abuse crisis: clerical celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.” The “synodal assembly” being proposed would have the authority to make decisions in the name of the German Church.
The “binding” part is a key focus here. According to Condon:
Recent statements from the ZdK indicate an expectation that the Synodal Assembly will become the principal forum for debating, and deciding, ecclesial issues in Germany.
The ZdK’s 2019 Plenary Assembly concluded that its agreement to participate in the Synodal Assembly was conditioned on a guarantee from the German bishops that synodal resolutions would be binding.
If you want to know the sorts of things to which ZdK would like to bind German Catholics through this “process,” it isn’t too hard to find out. The group has been on record calling for “the admittance of civilly remarried divorcees to holy Communion, acceptance of all forms of cohabitation, the blessing of same-sex couples and the reconsideration of the Church’s teaching on contraception.”
This is my shocked face.
The draft document is still a work in progress; however, Condon assures the reader, the “decision to proceed comes despite a warning from Pope Francis to the German bishops that they must remain in step with the whole Church.”
The saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” is once again useful in reference to the unique interplay between the Vatican and the German Church.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane together, shall we?
In 2015, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, original member of the council of cardinal advisers to the pope now known as the C6, and head of the Vatican’s financial oversight council (this last being arguably his most important role, if one follows the money), made a defiant statement to the press in anticipation of the debate over Communion for the divorced and “remarried”:
[C]oncerning pastoral practice, he said the German Church “cannot wait” for synodal statements, as marriage and family ministry has to be undertaken now, according to an article in Die Tagespost, translated by the blog Catholic Conclave.
Cardinal Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, said as far as doctrine is concerned, the German episcopate remains in communion with the Church, but on individual issues of pastoral care, “the synod cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany.”
The German bishops want to publish their own pastoral letter on marriage and family after the synod, the article says.
“We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” Cardinal Marx said. “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.” [emphasis added]
So it came as a surprise when, as the synod was about to get underway, Marx suddenly came out as an ambassador for unity and obedience to Rome:
“We must try to remain together,” he said. “The Church is the only institution in the world that can reach unanimous agreement. Thank God we have the pope. We bishops do not have to decide. Church unity is not in danger. And once the pope has decided, we will abide by his decision.”
I suggested at the time that this complete reversal of his position without any explanation seemed likely to have been the result of certain reassurances from the pope that the German Church was going to get exactly what it wanted.
And now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it did. (Get what the Germans wanted, that is.)
To make the pattern clearer, let me offer another, slightly more complex example.
The issue of Catholic-Protestant intercommunion came rushing to the forefront during a meeting between the pope and some Lutherans in Rome in 2015. The pope was asked by the Lutheran spouse of a Catholic if she could receive Communion in a Catholic Church. He responded:
It’s a problem each must answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?” — “Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and then take the consequences from there. I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
This set off a wave of developments on intercommunion in the years that followed, many of which have been covered here at 1P5. In February of 2018, these stories appeared to culminate in the decision by the German bishops to publish a handout with guidelines allowing Protestants, under certain conditions, to receive Holy Communion in Catholic churches.
However, in April of the same year, Pope Francis signed off on a decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to reject the handout. The German bishops denied that their handout was rejected. Sources continued to affirm that not only was it rejected, but the pope had expressly told the German bishops that he did not want to publish a document on intercommunion. (Can you hear the dance music yet?)
Battle-weary Catholics rejoiced that the pope had done something orthodox for a change.
Not so fast, I warned. Look at his record on this. He’s not doing what you think he is.
And two months later, we got our answer about where he stood. “Pope says local bishop should make the call on intercommunion,” read the headline at Crux on June 21, 2018. Francis said during a plane presser that he supported the CDF request for a “rethink” of the proposal from the German bishops.
But was it because he was opposed to intercommunion? Nope:
[U]nder the Code of Cannon [sic] Law it is up to the local bishop to decide under what conditions communion can be administered to non-Catholics, not local bishops’ conferences.
“The code says that the bishop of the particular church, and that’s an important word, ‘particular,’ meaning of a diocese, is responsible for this… it’s in his hands.”
Moreover, Francis said, the problem with having an entire bishops’ conference deal with such questions is that “something worked out in an episcopal conference quickly becomes universal.”
What Francis didn’t want, where the German bishops had tripped on the dance floor (whether on purpose or not), was that they wanted to make something explicit and standardized that would have been more effective had it been vague and relative to each diocese. They had exhibited a little too much organization, which works against the pope’s operating motif of “make a mess.”
They still got exactly what they wanted. In fact, each bishop got even more power over the issue than he would have if it had been a conference-wide policy. The illusion of papal opposition to intercommunion was just that: an illusion.
I refer to this technique as the “papal shell game,” after the magic trick where a magician uses a ball hidden under one of three cups and asks his audience to figure out where it is as he rearranges them on the table:
The problem with the Bergoglian version of this illusion is that there’s no final reveal. The magician distracts the audience from what’s happening on the table and then thanks them for coming without ever lifting the cups to show them where the ball landed. He doesn’t actually want them to know he performed his magic, because his whole job was simply to distract them long enough that they forget he was pulling a trick at all.
The ones watching the stage show go home assuming the ball stayed right where it was.
But it’s not under the “Francis forbids intercommunion via the CDF” cup anymore. It’s now under the “Francis says individual bishops can decide the rules on intercommunion” cup.
And the end result?
No ruling from the top. No official decree. Much easier to kick it downstairs and create chaos. Atomize and deconstruct the universal faith, one bishop at a time.
So here we are again, with the Germans leading the charge on a “synodal process,” which we know Francis loves. After all, his entire papacy has been a revolving door of riotous synods.
They are involving a big group of the laity, which is very Vatican II, and sounds super-collaborative, and conveniently enough, they’ve chosen to work with a group known for pushing to overturn non-negotiable moral teachings of the Faith.
And now we have the pope stepping in, warning the German Church:
… against “plans and mechanisms” which could prove “anything but helpful for a common path” for the Church. The pope said that any “synodal path” would need to be the subject of careful reflection.
“What it means concretely and how it develops will certainly have to be considered even more deeply,” the pope wrote, reminding the Germans that synodality “means going out together with the whole Church under the light of the Holy Spirit.”
The stated goal of the group is to “deliver the first interim results” of their draft resolutions this fall, with the reports “expected to coincide with the meeting of the Synod on the Amazon in Rome, in which members of the German hierarchy have taken a close interest and played an influential role in drafting the preparatory documents.”
Gee, this all feels so familiar.
Will the pope push for a more decentralized program in Germany? Will the German bishops provide assurances to the pope that even their “binding” decisions will be the fruit of consensus of the people?
I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Don’t be distracted by the dance. Whatever it is that they really want, the German Church will get its way, and it will become the seedbed for similar results in other countries where the will to follow suit exists. Like Communion in the hand, the limited permission to continue an abuse can transform quickly into a universal entitlement. Anyone who thinks differently has not been paying attention.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.