Originally posted in the New York Post
Pope Francis turned heads last month when he declared, “I am not afraid of schisms.” He also said, “I pray this won’t happen.” The pontiff was responding to claims about conservative American Catholics supposedly trying to divide the Catholic Church. Yet the real danger of division lies with one of Francis’ closest advisers, the liberal German prelate Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
On Sunday in Rome, the church commences its Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon. A synod is a gathering of the clergy and lay people aimed at helping the pope teach and promote the timeless truths of the Catholic faith. The Amazonian synod is aimed at helping the church evangelize and serve indigenous communities in Amazonia. But some in the church are trying using the ancient synodal process to change Catholic doctrine and discipline — including on sexual morality, women’s ordination and priestly celibacy.
Marx is chief among them. Marx, who also serves on Pope Francis’ six-person Council of Cardinal Advisers, is a member of the Amazon synod. He is simultaneously pursuing a separate synod in his own country, over the Vatican’s strong objections. The German synod looks like a deliberate attempt to undermine Catholic moral teaching.
Marx began setting the stage for a German synod earlier this year through his position as head of the German bishops’ conference. Pope Francis in a June letter warned the German hierarchs against “temptation” and calling on them to avoid “adapting” the church “to the current logic.” He also noted that “particular churches” — meaning the church in Germany — “wither and die” when divorced from Rome. Rarely does the pontiff issue such clear caution.
Yet the German bishops “set aside” the pope’s instruction, according to one of Marx’s allies. Two months later, the conference rejected a synod preparation process that took into account the pope’s guidance. Instead, it approved Marx’s plan, which gives a prominent leadership role in the synod to Catholics who dispute the Church’s teachings on priestly celibacy, women’s ordination and sexual morality.
Rome responded quickly. In early September, the Vatican sent another letter to the German bishops’ conference declaring that the proposed synod is “not ecclesiologically valid,” making it illegal and immoral in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The letter specifically noted the involvement of individuals and groups opposed to Catholic teaching, as well as the bishops’ stated intention to enact binding theological changes. Under Catholic church law, only Rome may take such actions.
Marx responded by doubling down. He told the Vatican that the German synod would proceed, and that it would be “helpful” for the German church to open up debate on Catholic teaching. Separately, members of the German bishops’ conference anonymously told the Catholic News Agency that Marx and his allies wanted to set a precedent that could be “exported” to other countries.
Marx subsequently discussed the synod with Pope Francis himself, and the German bishops’ conference called the dialogue “constructive.” Yet as one senior Vatican official said after the meeting, “If you are asking if Cardinal Marx will say one thing in Rome and another in Germany, perhaps.” There is a widespread belief that the German bishops will do what they want, regardless of what the Vatican says.
The German bishops’ conference voted in late September to move forward with a synod, scheduled for December. They approved a working document that makes a passing reference to “consideration of unity within the universal church,” an apparent attempt to mollify the Vatican. Yet the synod’s main focus is still a debate over core Catholic teaching. A theologian appointed by Pope Francis to a Vatican commission recently withdrew from the German synod, saying it was “fixated” on the ordination of women as priests.
The Vatican will surely continue to point out the dangers and errors of the German approach. Yet Pope Francis should also be wary of the German influence on the Amazon synod before it concludes in late October. As one of the senior-most participants, Marx is uniquely positioned to steer the gathering toward the rejection of Catholic teaching, just as he appears to be doing in his own country. Any such changes would clearly fall outside the bounds of the pope’s direction that the synod “identify new paths for evangelization” in the Amazon region.
The Catholic Church has successfully evangelized cultures and countries for two millennia by holding fast to its doctrine. Attempts to change Catholic teaching have met with Rome’s rejection, for the simple reason that moral truth is unchanging. Pope Francis is right that we should not fear schism, trusting in the Bible’s promise that the faith will endure. But so should the faithful follow the supreme pontiff’s lead and pray that no further division befall the church.
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