Half a millennium after the Reformation, Germans are making trouble again for the Roman Church. This time, Germany’s Catholic bishops have set out to remake the Church in their own liberal image.
The German episcopate this week adopted a statutory framework to govern its upcoming “Synodal Assembly.” The agenda will include reviewing “Church teaching on sexual morality, the role of women in Church offices and ministries, priestly life and discipline, and the separation of powers in Church governance.” And lest there be any doubt about the direction the majority aims to take in these areas, the bishops drafted the statutes with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay outfit that advocates women’s ordination, an end to priestly celibacy, and various other concessions to the sexual revolution.
These moves have met with severe disapproval from a broad spectrum of ecclesial opinion in Rome. Pope Francis has asked the Germans to focus on evangelization in their synod. The Congregation for Bishops has described Germany’s “binding synodal path” as “invalid.” And the Church’s traditionalist prelates, most notably Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, are up in arms—in response to the German process as well as to the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, also heavily driven by the Germans.
What are the stakes, for the Church and the gospel? Can the German and Amazonian processes be stopped? To find out, I sat down last week with Cardinal Burke at his apartment just off St. Peter’s Square. The resulting interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sohrab Ahmari: Your Eminence, is the German bishops’ “binding synodal path” connected to the upcoming Pan-Amazon Synod?
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke: They are very much connected. In fact, a number of the great proponents of the thrust of the Amazon Synod working document are German bishops and priests. And certain bishops in Germany have taken an unusual interest in this Amazon synod. For instance, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen has said that “nothing will be the same” after the Amazonian Synod process, the Church will be so completely changed, in his view.
SA: Is Germany’s “synodal path” ecclesially valid?
CB: It’s not valid at all. This has been made very clear. . . . In the letter to German bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops [told the Germans] that they are undertaking a process that is basically outside the Church—in other words, attempting to create a church according to their own image and likeness. As far as I’m concerned, this synodal way in Germany needs to be stopped before greater harm is done to the faithful. They have already begun this, and they insist that it can’t be stopped. But we’re talking about the salvation of souls, which means we need to take whatever measure is necessary.
SA: What is motivating the German bishops’ push, both in their own country and in the Amazon?
CB: The German bishops believe that they can now define doctrine, which is false. Otherwise, we would end up with a whole group of national churches, each with their own preferences regarding doctrine and discipline. The catholicity of the Catholic Church is exactly what’s at risk. The Catholic Church is a church that has one faith, one sacramental system, and one discipline throughout the whole world, and therefore we’ve never thought that each part of the world would define the Church according to particular cultures. That’s what’s being suggested in this working document of the Amazon and in Germany.
They say that the Amazon region is a fount of divine revelation, and therefore when the Church goes there in her missionary capacity, she should learn from the culture. This denies the fact that the Church brings the message of Christ, who alone is our salvation, and addresses that message to the culture—not the other way around! So yes, there will be objectively good elements in the culture, inasmuch as conscience and nature point to revelation; there are things in the culture that will respond immediately to the Church’s teaching. But there will be other elements that must be purified and elevated. Why? Because Christ alone is our salvation. We don’t save ourselves, either individually or as a society.
SA: But the proponents of the Amazonian process say there are too few priests in the Amazon region.
CB: So we need to cultivate priests for the missions, and secondly, we need to cultivate vocations among the native peoples themselves. I visited Brazil in June of 2017, and I was visiting with an archbishop who had been bishop in the Pan-Amazon for more than a decade. I asked him directly this question, because there was talk already then about relativizing the Church’s teaching on celibacy to recruit more priests. And he told me that while he was bishop, he devoted himself especially to the development of vocations, and there were a good number of vocations.
Very clearly he said, “It’s not true, this notion that the people in this region don’t understand perfect continence required of priests or don’t respond to it. That’s not true at all.” He said, “If you teach them about the celibacy of Christ himself and therefore the fittingness that his priests should also be celibate, they can certainly understand that.” Amazonians are human beings like you and me, and they can order their lives with the help of God’s grace.
SA: A larger point made by proponents of both the German and Amazonian processes is that conditions in modernity are simply too difficult to sustain the Church’s moral teaching and her discipline, whether involving priestly celibacy or divorce and remarriage for lay people.
CB: I took part in the 2014 session of the Synod of Bishops on the family, and that argument was specifically used with respect to those who are divorced and their being able to enter into a so-called second marriage. It was a German cardinal who said the Church’s teaching on marriage is an “ideal,” that not all people are able to realize it, and therefore we need to give those who fail in marriage the possibility of entering into a second marriage.
But the fundamental error is that marriage isn’t an ideal! It’s a grace. Marriage is a sacrament, and those who marry, even the weakest human beings, receive the grace to live according to the truth of marriage. Christ by his coming has overcome sin and its fruit, which is eternal death. He gives us, from his own being, from his own glorious body, the grace of the Holy Spirit to live in matrimony.
God gives grace to us whether we’re married or celibate. Christ himself is the example. He did not marry. He chose perfect continence in order to be for everyone, to be the savior of all. So he shows the cooperation with grace as it relates to the sexual aspect of our being. So the celibate clergy are also a tremendous encouragement to the married. Because it isn’t easy to be married, either. It’s not easy to be faithful. It’s not easy also to give one’s whole life, to be married until death do us part. And likewise, it isn’t easy to embrace the grace of procreation. So there’s this great mystery of divine grace in our lives, and that’s what’s being missed here. There’s a very strong influence here of German idealism, of Hegelian historicist notions.
SA: But doesn’t our hyper-sexualized culture make it so much harder to adhere to the Church’s moral teachings? I sometimes think that the great saints had it so much easier, either because they were cloistered, or because when they stepped out into the world, they weren’t confronted with such a thoroughly “pornographized” atmosphere.
CB: But even Saint Anthony of the Desert suffered these tremendous temptations. He saw images of naked women in his hermitage. One of our difficulties in life is that sometimes we permit ourselves to see sinful things: This is the great evil of pornography. We see images that stay with us and remain sources of temptation later. But in all of that, God gives us the grace to combat these temptations. Saint Paul says in the beginning of the letter to the Colossians, “I rejoiced to complete in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” It isn’t that there is anything lacking in Christ’s sufferings, except that we have to unite ourselves to them.
This is the mystery. Many today, because of the advances in science and technology, think that life should always be easier and more convenient, and they bring that mentality into the Church. So if there is any teaching that is hard, they simply say, “Well, that can’t be right. It must be all right to fornicate or whatever else.”
SA: Eminence, let’s turn to the legal structures involved: What is a synod? What is its legal or canonical status within the Church’s structures?
CB: The concept has always been there. The fundamental concept of a synod was to call together representatives of the clergy and the lay people to see how the Church could more effectively teach and more effectively apply her discipline. Synods never had anything to do with changing doctrine or with changing discipline. It was all meant to be a way of furthering the mission of the Church. The definition of a synod is based upon the truth that every Catholic as a true soldier of Christ is called to safeguard and promote the truths of the faith and the discipline by which those truths are practiced. Otherwise, the solemn assembly of bishops in synod would betray the mission. A synod, according to the Code of Canon Law, is supposed to assist the Roman pontiff with counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals, and the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. There’s nothing there about altering the doctrine or the discipline!
The working document of the Pan-Amazonian synod is a direct attack on the Lordship of Christ. It says to people, “You already have the answers, and Christ is just one among many sources of answers.” This is apostasy!
Christ is Lord, and in every time and place—this is the genius of the Church. When missionaries have preached Christ, they have also recognized the gifts and talents of the people to whom they were preaching. The people then expressed in their own art and architecture the truths of the Church. They added their own flavor to the expression of the underlying Truth. You’ve probably seen the Japanese Madonnas. They’re done in the Japanese style—but the mystery of Divine Maternity is expressed!
SA: Against this backdrop, Eminence, what gives you hope today in the Church?
CB: Liturgical renewal among the young is everywhere, and it gives me great hope. There are many young priests and seminarians who don’t buy this revolution one iota. And it’s the liturgy that often attracts them so much, because that is the most perfect and immediate encounter we have with Christ. They’re attracted to the ancient usage, the Extraordinary Form, because it has so many more symbols and is so much more expressive of the transcendent aspect of our life of faith: Our Lord descends to the altar to make himself sacramentally present.
Many people come to me very discouraged, some people wanting to leave the Church. But it isn’t all darkness. Look at these young people. Look at these vocations, not just in the United States, but even in Germany. You know they talk about the secularization of Germany, but there are still good Catholic young people and Catholic families. . . . I believe that Christ said that he would never abandon us, that he would be with us until the consummation of the age. I believe him. I trust him.
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke is an American cardinal of the Catholic Church. Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post.