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This week: the real threat of schism comes from Germany

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 20, 2019

Last week, the hottest topic for discussion in Catholic circles was the Pope’s response to speculation about an American schism. This week the story shifts to Germany, where the episcopal conference is threatening to defy the Vatican, and make its own “binding” decisions on questions of Church teaching. Which sounds like… well, a threat of schism.

“Schism” is a specific, defined ecclesiastical offense, defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2089) as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” Some American Catholics have criticized Pope Francis. None, to my knowledge, has refused submission to him. And to rupture the communion of the Church, a true schism would require the leadership of one or more bishops. No American bishop has come close to denying papal authority.

As Father Raymond de Souza has written, with admirable clarity, in the National Catholic Register:

There is a not a single U.S. bishop who has said or done anything that would point toward anything even approaching schism. That there are sectors of U.S. Catholic opinion that are critical—even hostile—to Pope Francis is true, but internet chatter does not a schism make.

The situation is quite different in Germany. There, a majority of the bishops have backed a plan for a “binding synodal assembly” in the fall, at which they propose to vote on controversial propositions involving sexual morality and clerical celibacy. In June, Pope Francis wrote a long letter to the German bishops, urging them to modify their plans. Rather than making their own decisions on issues of Church teaching, he urged them to “walk together with patience,” awaiting the judgment of the universal Church. The Holy Father warned:

Every time an ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, relying exclusively on its own resources, methods, and intelligence, it has ended up increasing and sustaining the evils it tried to solve.

The German bishops politely declined the Pope’s request, voting 21-3 to go ahead with their plans. Their response contrasted with the way the American bishops reacted, last November, to a last-minute Vatican plea to postpone discussions on a mechanism to discipline negligent bishops and a plea for information about the McCarrick scandal. The US bishops’ conference immediately acceded to the Pope’s request, expressing confidence that the Vatican would fulfill its own promises to address the problems. Nearly a year later, the Vatican’s own new program to discipline bishops is very much open to question, while its investigation into the McCarrick scandal has published no results whatsoever. Yet there are no signs that the American hierarchy is restive, no public statements from bishops expressing a loss of confidence in the Holy See, no indications that the American bishops will again take up the issues that the Vatican has fumbled. In short, no hints of any appetite for a break with Rome.

Last week the Vatican pressed the German bishops a bit harder, with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, making public a letter in which he warned that the German proposal for binding votes on doctrinal issues was “not ecclesiologically valid.” He included an appraisal of the German bishops’ plans by the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts—the top body for the interpretation of canon law—supporting his argument that a single episcopal conference cannot make binding decisions on issues that concern the universal Church.

Still the German prelates persisted. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference, blithely announced: “I cannot see why questions about which the magisterium has made determinations should be withdrawn from any debate.”

Cardinal Marx met privately with the Pontiff this week, for what was described as a “constructive” discussion. The German bishops meet next week, to firm up their plans for their synodal assembly. We’ll soon know whether this threat of schism—a real one, as opposed to a red herring—will materialize.

Also this week, in developments that you might not have noticed at all, if you depend on the secular media:

  • With the news that the Vatican plans to prosecute a priest for sexual abuse of altar boys at St. Peter’s basilica, we have one more piece of evidence to confirm the charges made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. The Vatican prosecutor backed what the archbishop had earlier reported: that the young man who reported the abuse was dismissed from seminary, while the accused abuser was allowed to continue and eventually ordained to the priesthood.
  • The Diocese of Rochester, New York, filed for bankruptcy, becoming the 20th diocese in the US to take that drastic step in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. American dioceses have paid out at least $3 billion, and closed hundreds of parish churches and parochial schools to pay the costs of negligence and malfeasance—to say nothing of the spiritual costs. And the bishops who led the Church into this unprecedented disaster have, with few exceptions, retired with full honors.
  • The unapologetically grisly nature of the abortion business was vividly illustrated by revelations that a recently deceased abortionist in South Bend, Indiana, had kept the remains of more than 2,000 unborn children in his home. Who knows what ghoulish reason prompted him to assemble the collection? South Bend’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the presidential candidate, admitted that the discovery was “disturbing,” but said that “I also hope it doesn’t get caught up in politics.” This is the same Buttigieg who invoked the Bible to support abortion; he didn’t worry overmuch about having Sacred Scripture “caught up in politics” in that instance. The mainstream media, naturally, treated the South Bend scandal the same way they treated the Gosnell scandal: with silence.
  • And abortionists—or more specifically, their human victims—were also in the news (but not the mainstream news) when the chief executive of California-based StemExpress testified in court that her firm had harvested brains and hearts from intact unborn babies. Her testimony came in a hearing on the charges against David Daleiden, whose undercover videos exposed how Planned Parenthood traffics in fetal remains. Again, silence from the mainstream media.
  • And speaking of silence… This week saw the 3rd anniversary of the date when four cardinals presented their dubia to Pope Francis, urgently pleading with him for clarification of Amoris Laetitia. Two of those cardinals have subsequently died; the other two are still waiting for a response—any response—from the Pontiff.

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: fmgrant8955 - Sep. 25, 2019 8:24 PM ET USA

    I like Phil's new format. It makes for more work for him but a better product for us readers. Phil as usual does a bank up job. Frank Grant

  • Posted by: mclom - Sep. 25, 2019 5:20 PM ET USA

    I wish the good Lord would permit a comfortable sum of money to come my way, do I could donate more than small sums, and only once or twice a year 🙁. You do such a good job at informing Catholics in easy to read pieces of clarity and common sense. Thank you 🌻

  • Posted by: Cory - Sep. 21, 2019 12:41 AM ET USA

    Well, isn't the German church the Pope's pet? Are not Marx and his ilk the highly favored ones of the Pope? The Germans are doing nothing more than the Pope wishes. Just look at how we have been hammered with "synodality" even forcing it into the apostolic exhortation on the youth synod. Clearly, what the Germans want is really what the Pope wants. But he pretends to be against it. The German schism is only superficial because they really execute the will of Francis.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 20, 2019 10:03 PM ET USA

    "The young man who reported abuse was dismissed from seminary, while the abuser was ordained to the priesthood." This, unfortunately, is a recurring and growing phenomenon in seminaries that are open to accepting homosexual candidates. This is mockery of priestly vocation and it needs to stop. Seminaries in respect to students, rectors and the faculty must be homosexuality-free zones.