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“Flirting With Schism”. . . Playing A Dangerous Game In Germany

October 2, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

Image result for german bishops synodBy FR. JOHN L. UBEL

(Editor’s Note: Fr. John L. Ubel is the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn. Below is his weekly column for the parish bulletin of September 22, 2019. It is reprinted here with his permission.)

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“Kids say the darndest things.” True enough, but they also “do the darndest things.” I will neither defend nor explain why we played the game of “Chicken” on our bicycles. Its object was to ride your bicycle at full speed towards another and see who was the first to “chicken out,” turning to avoid a collision. Sound fun? Due to how quickly I “abandoned ship,” I have no recollection of a crash ever occurring! I preferred the “stare down” game to see who blinked first; perhaps your eyes stung a little, but that was it.
But as I survey the ecclesiological landscape, I am increasingly concerned about what is transpiring in Germany. It’s a battle of wills, a stare down, a game of ecclesiastical Chicken. Terms are liberally bandied around: council, synod, consultation, binding synodality, discernment. These terms are precise (synodality still confuses me) and it is unreasonable to expect the lay faithful to delineate the shades of difference among them.
Even smaller local councils have produced texts with far-reaching effects. Consider the Eleventh Council of Toledo in 675 AD. Though a mere 17 bishops assembled, they produced a Symbol of Faith so well-crafted, in fact, that it played a significant role in the development of the Church’s Trinitarian doctrine. In Neuner and Dupris’ magisterial summary of Catholic Doctrine entitled The Christian Faith (fifth edition, 1992), the authors heaped praise upon this “Symbol of Faith.” It is said to reflect “the deepest insights and the clearest affirmations ever proposed by any document of the West, as regards these two mysteries” (i.e., Trinity and Incarnation).
That’s quite a compliment for a local council whose entire membership could fit comfortably into our Ryan Room. [You can click on the online edition of this weekly column at www.cathedralsaintpaul.org to read the text of the Symbol of Faith]; but I warn you, it is dense and you may well scratch your head a few times!
Here is an excerpt [from the Symbol of Faith]: “He Himself is the Father of His own essence, who in an ineffable way has begotten the Son from His ineffable substance. Yet He did not beget something different (aliud) from what He Himself is: God has begotten God, light has begotten light.”
Does your head hurt yet? Still, these deliberations had a far greater reach than any could have thought possible.
Bingo — so too with Germany. Cardinal Marx speaks of a two-year “synodal pathway” and is intent upon discussing four key themes: (1) “authority, participation, and separation of powers,” (2) “sexual morality,” (3) “the form of priestly life,” and (4) “women in Church ministries and offices.”
Clearly, they are not discussing practical pastoral matters (e.g. the age of Confirmation for youth across Germany, or the establishment of regional seminaries, etc.) Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, has stated that such plans for a binding synod are “not ecclesiologically valid.” In Church parlance, “them’s fightin’ words” and Cardinal Marx is not taking it well.
Ouellet explained that these themes “do not only affect the Church in Germany but the universal Church and — with few exceptions — cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter.” Ouellet wrote: “It is clear from the articles of the draft of the statutes that the [German] Episcopal Conference has in mind to make a Particular Council pursuant to canons 439-446 but without using this term.”
Canon 439 §1 of the Code reads: “A plenary council, that is, one for all the particular churches of the same conference of bishops, is to be celebrated whenever it seems necessary or useful to the conference of bishops, with the approval of the Apostolic See.” No national gathering of Catholic bishops and laity is authorized to make pronouncements of a doctrinal nature, if that doctrine contradicts binding universal Catholic doctrine.
A synod is never binding — certainly not a national one. It is consultative and when the entire country is involved, it is typically called a “plenary council,” as we held here with the Plenary Councils of Baltimore. While they set national policy, they do not craft new doctrine; rather, they apply it. According to the teaching of Vatican II, the local bishop receives his office of teaching and ruling (the munus docendi and the munus regendi) directly from Christ through the sacramental Ordination to the episcopacy.
In other words, the local bishop is not a mere “branch manager,” of the “Catholic Church, Inc.” corporation. Nor is he a branch manager in his own national episcopal conference. Each bishop who receives a mission to teach, sanctify, and rule does so only after first being given a particular canonical mission and remains in hierarchical communion with the college of bishops and its head, the Bishop of Rome. This is not merely academic jargon. This is crucial. Neither an individual bishop, nor any national Episcopal (Bishops) Conference may be understood without a reference to the universal Church of which it is a part.
So, where does the rubber hit the road? In his latest interview while returning from Africa, the Holy Father was asked about his critics, and whether a schism is possible in the Church. “There always is the schismatic option in the Church,” the Pope said. “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom. I am not afraid of schism….I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.”
Indeed, it is. This ecclesiastical version of “who blinks first” among the Curia, the Pope, and bishops in Germany is no kid’s game. Cardinal Marx appears resolute to proceed. Much is at stake; this is serious stuff and I have no clue where it will end.

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