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Following the German bishops’ lead—to disaster

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2023

“The Roman Catholic Church is in the midst of the greatest church crisis since the Reformation, which is not triggered by the worldwide abuse scandals, but finds a focal point in them.” That sentence, opening a very long article in The Tablet, expresses a thought that I voiced fifteen years ago, in my book The Faithful Departed. The Tablet authors and I agree (or so it would seem) that the sex-abuse scandal was an effect, not the cause, of the crisis in the Church.

Our agreement ends there, unfortunately. The Tablet lays out a long, long argument that the crisis is caused by outdated teachings, and the Church can only escape irrelevance by following the Synodal Path blazed by the German bishops’ conference. The authors (Sigrid Grameier and Christian Weisner) fear a pastoral disaster if the universal Church, at the coming Synod on Synodality, fails to endorse the German initiative.

There’s just one problem with that argument. (Well, actually there are many problems, but one stands out.) The German bishops have already produced a pastoral disaster. Their track record in recent years is the most compelling argument against accepting their leadership.

The German pastoral disaster

Acknowledging that the Vatican does not seem ready to accept instruction from the German hierarchy, Grameier and Weisner lament the “estrangement between the world headquarters in Rome and a theologically and financially relatively strong local church.” It’s certainly true that the Church in Germany is financially strong, thanks to the tax power of the German government. As for the theological strength of the German hierarchy, that’s the subject for the current debate. But there is something crucial missing from this appraisal. What about the pastoral strength of the German Church? How successful have the German Church leaders been in their efforts to bring people into the Catholic fold?

Not very. On the contrary, the most remarkable trend in German Catholicism is the mass movement of Catholics leaving the Church. More than 2 million Catholics have formally renounced their faith in the past decade, and the trend seems to be accelerating. In 2010, about 181,000 Germans removed themselves from parish rosters. In 2020 that number was 221,000. And in 2021, as the bishops embarked on their Synodal Path, a record-breaking 359,000 Catholics left the Church. With only about 1 million Germans attending Mass regularly, the number of ex-Catholics is double the number of practicing Catholics.

So if your goal is to empty out the Catholic churches of the world, by all means take your cues from the Synodal Path. But if the goal is evangelization, beware of German leadership.

The Tablet essay skips over that unfortunate track record, to concentrate instead on the “hot-button” Church teachings that earn the scorn of secularists. The authors want us to recognize “what a gap there is between the reality of life today and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.” Yes, there is certainly an enormous gap between the teachings of the Church and the everyday lives of men and women living in the secularized societies of the Western world. But are people happier—let alone holier—on the secular side of that gap? The authors see a marked difference between traditional Catholic thought and the “enlightened” opinion of contemporary Europeans, and conclude that because this difference exists, the Church teachings must be wrong. Non sequitur. From a strictly logical perspective it is equally possible that contemporary European attitudes should change. Add the hard evidence provided by the miseries of life in the “enlightened” societies—the breakdown of families, the alienation of generations, the epidemics of emotional and sexual dysfunction—and the case for Catholic teaching appears much stronger.

Judging by whose standards?

But the Tablet authors do not weigh the evidence, or compare the merits of the two schools of thought. They have no patience for the more traditional Catholics who still hold fast to the perennial teachings:

These circles have no answer to the spiritual and sexual violence that has led to a dramatic loss of credibility of the church and are not prepared to deal with the systemic causes.

Here we encounter another non sequitur, and a curious one at that. The Tablet authors imply that the sex-abuse scandal caused the loss of credibility in Church teaching. But the secular world dismissed the Church’s teaching long before the scandal erupted. In The Faithful Departed, I argue that the causal chain pulled in quite the opposite direction: the spiritual and sexual violence emerged after—and to a large extent because—Church leaders backed away from the clear proclamation of the truths traditionally taught by the Catholic Church.

But read the Tablet essay carefully (if you have the time; did I mention that it is long?), and you may notice something peculiar about the authors’ references to the sex-abuse scandal. While they refer to “systemic causes,” they do not explain why the scandal occurred. Did priests begin molesting altar boys because they were disappointed by Humanae Vitae? Did bishops ignore the crimes because the Vatican frowned on dissident theologians? What was it about the “system” that caused the abuse and motivated the cover-up? The Tablet essay provides no answers to those questions. It doesn’t even ask them.

The essay began with that striking (and accurate) claim that the sex-abuse scandal did not cause the current crisis in the Church. But at every opportunity the authors invoke that scandal as a reason to question Church authority. Why this contradictory approach? Perhaps because the German authors—like the German bishops, on their Synodal Path—see the scandal as a justification for attacks on Catholic tradition. It’s a form of guilt-by-association, really. “Do you defend the filioque clause? Well then you’re defending the ‘system’ that protected predatory priests.”

That “system” was wrong, certainly, to defend the predators. But it does not follow that the filioque clause, or any other traditional Catholic teaching, was the “systemic” cause of the scandal. But the secular world has seized on the scandal as a convenient weapon to be used, whenever convenient, against the Church. Look carefully down the Synodal Path, now, and ask whether the German hierarchy—financially powerful, theologically confused, and pastorally bankrupt—is judging the Church by the standards of the Gospel, or the secular culture? The standards of Caesar, or of God?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 25, 2023 2:58 AM ET USA

    The Vatican has allowed the German dissidents to hold a Synod on their own terms, with a preordained outcome. A foolish decision that will only aggravate the problems in Germany and the rest of Europe. PF must disavow the authority of the synod and reject clearly their conclusions. No more archbishops or cardinals in Germany until they straighten out. Plenty of faithful bishop appointments. Let the dissidents die off and the new team eventually take over.

  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 24, 2023 7:11 AM ET USA

    You recommend to read the article in the Tablet. But why should one waste time with the deranged musings of its authors? Life is too short.