The individual bishops as . . . member[s] of the episcopal college and legitimate successor[s] of the apostles, [are] obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church. For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church.”
This passage from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, underscores one of the principal doctrines articulated and developed at the council: the collegiality of bishops with one another and in union with the Bishop of Rome, and the solicitude each is to have for the universal Church, beyond the confines of his own local church.
The council’s Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, picks up on this theme with greater specificity:
As legitimate successors of the Apostles and members of the episcopal college, bishops should realize that they are bound together and should manifest a concern for all the churches. For by divine institution and the rule of the apostolic office each one together with all the other bishops is responsible for the Church. They should especially be concerned about those parts of the world where the . . . faithful . . . are in danger of departing from the precepts of the Christian life, and even of losing the faith itself.
Inspired by this teaching we have received from the Second Vatican Council, this week I signed A Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany together with seventy other cardinals and bishops from around the world (and the number of signatories is still growing). Because the German Synodal Path departs radically from settled Church doctrine and ancient and well-established discipline, it threatens to cause a schism in the Church, even beyond Germany itself. Our expression of concern is prompted by this threat, especially when we hear leading voices of the Church in Germany rejecting the authority of Scripture and Tradition, in particular with regard to the unbroken teachings of the Church on matters of sexual morality, gender ideology, the sacraments, and the exercise of authority in the Church.
The open letter, then, is an exercise of the collegial episcopal authority given to the Church from Christ, and follows on other recent interventions of members of the College of Bishops—in particular, the Letter of Fraternal Concern from the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference to the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, and the similar letter from the Nordic Bishops’ Conference. As we reminded our brother bishops in the fraternal open letter:
. . . Christian history is littered with well-intended efforts that lost their grounding in the Word of God, in a faithful encounter with Jesus Christ, in a true listening to the Holy Spirit, and in the submission of our wills to the will of the Father. These failed efforts ignored the unity, experience, and accumulated wisdom of the Gospel and the Church. Because they failed to heed the words of Jesus, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5), they were fruitless and damaged both the unity and the evangelical vitality of the Church. Germany’s Synodal Path risks leading to precisely such a dead end.
I signed as the archbishop of San Francisco so the faithful of my own archdiocese may know that I have grave concerns about the action of the German bishops. I signed to be in collegial solidarity with bishops from around the world in opposition to the direction of the Synodal Path of the German church. Through contacts I have with the Church in Germany, I also heard pleas of the faithful Catholics in Germany for support from the Church around the world. To give these faithful German Catholics such support and encouragement is another act of solidarity for the good of the unity and peace of the Church.
In particular, I hope the letter makes it clear that:
- Bishops’ conferences have no authority to teach doctrines contrary to the teaching and tradition of the universal Church, nor to set up the Catholic Church in their country as a national church independent of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
- The Ten Commandments are not subject to revision. No human being has the authority to modify any of the Ten Commandments. It is a scandal for any bishop to suggest that the Catholic Church modify the divine order in relation to chastity.
- Priestly celibacy is a precious value in the life and mission of the Church and should not be set aside. If priestly vocations are scarce, Catholic communities should do an examination of conscience on how they live the gospel.
- The Church has no power to ordain women to the priesthood. Saint John Paul II made a definitive declaration on this. While the diaconate is a different order from that of priesthood, there is a unity among the ranks of Holy Orders, and to suggest that women be ordained deacons will inevitably lead to their (putative) ordination as priests.
To this last point it should be added that all baptized women and men, as a dignity conferred in baptism, exercise the baptismal priesthood, which is a strong foundation of the lay apostolate. The history of the Church is filled with great things achieved by women in promotion of the kingdom of Christ. To suggest that women must be ordained as priests in order to have equality with men in the Church is, ironically, demeaning to women, for it presumes that what has traditionally been exclusively the realm of men is the only measure of dignity or worth, and so whatever is uniquely feminine is inferior. This is a profoundly unchristian view of what equality and complementarity mean in God’s plan of creation and in the ordering of the Church.
I believe that it is no accident that many of the bishops who first spoke out by signing this letter are from Africa, where the Church is growing in spite of (or because of) the firm commitment of the Church there to preserving Christ’s teachings on sexual morality, even though these are starkly opposed to many African traditional mores (including polygamy). If settled Church doctrine, consistently taught and developed over two millennia, is to be discarded as socially unacceptable, then all the truth claims of the Christian faith collapse. It may seem ironic to some, but it is classical Catholicism that evangelizes. A tepid accommodation to the latest dogmas of secular orthodoxy, on the other hand, cannot be the basis for renewal.
I hope and pray that the German bishops will listen to the Holy Father and their brother bishops and turn from their path of division. The deposit of our Catholic faith cannot be changed, and those who try to change our faith do grave harm to themselves and to the faithful.
Salvatore J. Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco.
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Photo by Dennis Callahan, courtesy of the archdiocese of San Francisco.