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Just a speed bump on the Synodal Path?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 09, 2022

Well, we dodged a bullet again. So if you are confident in our ability to keep dodging bullets, you can relax. I’m not so confident.

The German bishops narrowly defeated a statement that would have put them on record in favor of a radical change in Church teaching on sexuality. Should we view yesterday’s vote as a victory for orthodoxy, a reassuring affirmation of unity within the universal Church? Or was it merely a speed-bump on their Synodal Path toward schism?

The latter, I’m afraid. Because:

  • Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the German bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the most influential member of the German hierarchy, both expressed disappointment with the result.
  • A majority of the German bishops endorsed the radical statement; as did more than two-thirds of the lay delegates involved in the Synodal Path. It failed only because the rules required a two-thirds majority among the bishops. And it fell just five votes short of that standard.
  • Irme Stetter-Karp, who co-chaired the assembly, strongly suggested that some bishops who voted against the statement actually supported it. In her view, presumably they were “not prepared to voice their opinions” for fear of Vatican disapproval.
  • Having failed to approve the one radical statement—in a vote that prompted angry demonstrations on the convention floor—the Synodal Path went on to suggest a reconsideration of ordination for women, and to approve “Eucharistic hospitality” for Protestants.
  • And perhaps most telling, Bishop Bätzing announced that he plans to introduce the controversial statement—approved or not—to next year’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops. He said that the failure to approve the document proved that “synodality has not gone far enough.”

Every report that I have seen on the German bishops’ vote implied that the call for radical change fell short this time, but would probably be approved if it came up for a vote again. So if this is a victory for orthodoxy and unity, it is only a temporary victory: a short respite in a continuing battle.

Bishop Bätzing’s statement is particularly telling, because he argues that the statement would have won approval if German Catholics had a proper understanding of “synodality,” and he will bring that argument to the October meeting of the Synod—which, you will recall, is devoted to the topic of synodality.

Most of us have difficulty understanding exactly what “synodality” means. Here Bishop Bätzing offers us a useful clue. Synodality apparently means that a small cadre of Catholic activists—in a country where Church attendance is in freefall and hundreds of thousands of Catholics are formally renouncing their faith—should be allowed to lead the universal Church, changing fundamental moral and doctrinal tenets that have stood unchallenged for centuries.

Does that sound absurd? Yet Bishop Bätzing sounds confident, and with reason. Pope Francis, in his many calls for synodality, has said nothing that would clearly contradict the German bishop’s notion. In his mild rebuke to the German bishops’ Synodal Path, the Pontiff did not scold them for undermining the faith; he only cautioned them against moving too fast, without approval from the universal Church. Bishop Bätzing seems hopeful that such approval will be forthcoming from the Synod of Bishops. If Pope Francis disagrees, he has not said so.

Nor have many other bishops called their wayward German colleagues to account. A few prominent German prelates have warned against the centrifugal force of the Synodal Path: Cardinal Müller comes to mind, and more surprisingly, Cardinal Kasper. A scattering of other bishops, from different parts of the world, have raised the alarm about the German experiment.

But for the most part the champions of orthodoxy are silent. Apparently they are more concerned about preserving the façade of unity than their progressive German counterparts. Or perhaps they are hoping to weather the controversy, to ride out the storm. Listen to the progressive prelates, and you will conclude that acceptance of the radical agenda is only a matter of time. Listen to the more conservative bishops (or should I say listen for the conservative bishops), and you hear no rebuttal.

Stetter-Karp would have us believe that some German bishops approved of the statement on sexual ethics, but were afraid to say so. But does anyone really believe that the Vatican would punish bishops who take such public stands in favor of change? All the available evidence suggests otherwise; under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Vatican is more likely to reward them.

The German bishops’ Synodal Path has been the most conspicuous force for radical change, but in preparation for the worldwide Synod meeting, several other episcopal conferences have approved statements that point in the same direction. Next October in Rome there will be a determined offensive, launched by progressive Catholics, championed by the mass media, designed to bring about a radical change in Church teaching on sexuality. All the momentum is in that direction. If faithful, orthodox Catholic bishops plan to defend the perennial teachings of the Church, silence will not suffice.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Sep. 12, 2022 2:13 PM ET USA

    The way things are today, it appears that it is the more conservative bishops the ones that may be afraid of taking a pubic stand in favor of orthodoxy. They may be afraid of being denounced as rigid fundamentalists, pharisees, and 200 years behind the times by Pope Francis.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 11, 2022 6:52 AM ET USA

    I have sounded off on this before, and you have published it, and I think it is good to keep in mind. The very best way for the Holy Spirit to show the world that He is in charge is to put a disaster in the chair of Peter, let him flail away as much as he likes, let him enjoy the mess that he has allowed, and then let the world come to realize that the church as begun by the apostles is still strong, still standing, regardless of said disaster's attempted chicanery.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 10, 2022 9:58 PM ET USA

    If they think the exodus from the Church is accelerating now, just wait until heresy sets in. They won't be able to "consolidate" parishes fast enough. The point is that the gates of hell will never prevail against the true religion. A remnant of this religion will remain no matter what the Vatican does. It's our job as laymen to make sure the remnant does not succumb to heresy. What was true in A.D. 60 cannot be false today. Thus if the hierarchy denies truth, then the laity have an obligation

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Sep. 10, 2022 11:42 AM ET USA

    You are of course right, Phil. But let's stop calling it mere "radical change" -- a term that, these days, no longer carries any sting and in some circles prompts rejoicing. Let's instead call it what it is: subversive destruction. Francis was leading the charge (it was he, after all, who directed his acolytes to "Make a mess!"), until Batzing, Marx, Stetter-Karp, and their ilk went farther and faster than he was prepared for. The Left always eats its own.

  • Posted by: mclom - Sep. 09, 2022 6:01 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this news although it is rather frightening. But Catholics cannot bury our heads in the sand; clear articles in language I can understand are very welcome to me. I cannot believe such heretical thinking has occurred in my lifetime - if I'd been asked ten years ago, I would have answered that the Church was strong enough to overcome any "new" heresy. Then Pope Francis happened...

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Sep. 09, 2022 5:25 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Mr. Lawler for this post. Well, if someone leaves the faith by proclaiming and teaching heresy, then they are no longer part of the Catholic Church. This would also include any person in ecclesiastical office. Whether they would continue to pretend to some members ship in the church would be moot. All we can do as laity is pray to the Holy Spirit that such evil outcomes as Mr Lawler will not prevail.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Sep. 09, 2022 4:34 PM ET USA

    Far from dreading the inevitable, I wish it would come now. I'm so weary of the wallowing in ambiguity - I want clarity. Let's separate the wheat from the chaff now. Even Jeff Mirus will have to choose and admit that hope for orthodox teaching from Rome is foolishness.