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A crisis in the German church? Synod questionnaire would suggest so

The Synod of Bishops began receiving in April responses to a questionnaire that had been sent to dioceses the world over in preparation for October’s Synod on the Family. The results from Germany indicate that most Catholics there hope for an openness to divorce and remarriage, as well as homosexual acts.

The synthesis of responses from Catholics in Germany was released by the nation’s bishops conference on April 16. The 17-page document, provided in an English translation, summarizes the responses, which filled some 1,000 pages.

According to the German bishops conference, the largest part of comments dealt with the issues of the divorced and civilly remarried, cohabiting couples, and same-sex unions.

The consultation “has led to considerable expectations among many faithful with regard to the Synod of Bishops, which they expect to provide a further development of the Church’s teaching and pastoral care in questions related to marriage and the family.”

The document’s introduction notes that “after having consulted the People of God, the German Bishops’ Conference is pleased to present its answers … which are implicitly intended to set the thematic emphasis.” (emphasis added)

The statements thus reflects the German bishops themselves, in consultation with their laity, as well as with official representatives of religious superiors, theologians, marriage and family pastoral offices, and priests councils.

Summarizing the totality of the responses, the German bishops wrote that “a large number of faithful would like to see clearer steps being taken towards overcoming the ‘divide between the reality practiced in families in our parishes and associations and the Church’s teachings’” and that there is “criticism … of the lack of a really appreciative language for forms of relationship which neither conform to the Church’s ideal nor take marriage and the family as an exclusive orientation.”

Catholics in Germany also criticized the lack of “discussion of contraception methods.”

The bishops wrote that there is “a longing for successful relationships,” but that there is at the same time fewer marriages, more divorces, and that “several aspects of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, partnership and marriage are hardly understood, even among church-going Catholics, and are also not practised.”

While noting that many aspects of Church teaching are neither understood nor accepted, the German bishops do add that Catholics in their nation do at least agree with some of the Church’s teachings: the values of monogamy, faithfulness, fertility, and marriage itself, as well as a rejection of abortion.

The document does have positive notes for pastoral care of marriage and families regarding the importance of marriage for people and the Church, marriage preparation and the accompaniment of young couples, the transmission of life, and the family’s role in evangelization.

It adds that pastoral care should not be too harsh on those who are violating the teachings of the Church.

“Pastoral care should also adopt an appreciative attitude towards those who do not, or do not yet, live up to the demands of the Gospel,” the German bishops wrote.

This pastoral care “submits offers from the Gospel,” yet also “must ensure that open, unprejudiced and non-moralising communication is also engaged in towards those who regard themselves as Christians and Catholics but who do not or cannot live in full congruency with the teaching of the Church in questions that are related to marriage and the family.”

Among these are those civilly married, many of whom are so because one partner is divorced.

“Pastoral care that regards such unions as sinful pure and simple and accordingly calls for conversion is not helpful as it contradicts the positive experience that couples have in such living arrangements. Values such as love, faithfulness, responsibility for one another and for the children, reliability and willingness to reconcile are also practiced when people live together and in civil marriages, and these deserve recognition in a Christian context. Pastoral care should be provided to young people in particular, and this must appreciatively support and accompany their various attempts to enter into and practice relationships.”

While discussing civil marriage and cohabitation, the German bishops emphasize that “a further development of the Church’s sexual morals” is needed. “This entails an enhanced appreciation of individuals’ ability to shape their lives in following Christ on their own responsibility and to form a personal conscience-based judgment.”

Turning to the cause celebre of the German bishops since the 1970s – the divorced and civilly remarried, and their admission to the sacraments – they said that this question “was answered by everyone, and in most cases also in a very detailed manner. It is a concern for many faithful, far beyond the group of those whose marriages have failed.”

“There can be no doubt that this remains a pivotal issue for the credibility of the Church. There is a very high expectation among the faithful that the Synod of Bishops will open up new paths for pastoral care in this respect.”

The document refers to paragraph 84 of St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio to support the thesis that the divorce and remarried “should be encouraged to play an active role in the parish.” It then immediately adds that “there is also an ongoing discussion on the question of possibly admitting Catholics who are civilly divorced and who have remarried to confession and sacramental communion … Exclusion from the sacraments, above all when it is permanent as with remarried divorcees, contradicts the conviction of faith held by the vast majority of Catholics that God forgives all sin, opens up the chance for conversion and makes it possible to have a new beginning in life.”

This addendum does not mention the remainder of Familiaris consortio 84, which teaches, “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist … the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.”

Instead, the German bishops referred to their June 2014 resolution to admit the divorced and remarried to Confession and Communion even if they do not resolve to live in continence.

They added that several dioceses and associations want a consideration of the Orthodox practice of second marriages after divorce: “it is also proposed to consider blessing a second (civil) marriage, which should however be quite distinct from a church marriage in liturgical terms.”

Furthermore, a streamlining of the nullity procedure, which has been much discussed and is being undertaken by a Vatican committee – was received as “certainly welcome,” though ineffectual, since most people who divorce and seek a second marriage don’t bother with annulment anyway.

Continuing an expansion of the admission to Communion, the German bishops then turned to the issue of marriages between a Catholic and a Protestant: “Considerable scope is attached in the responses to the question of the possible admission of the non-Catholic partner, particularly of a Protestant partner, to sacramental communion.”

“The exclusion from communion of the partner who belongs to a different denomination is regarded as an obstacle particularly for the Christian upbringing of the children and of the faith life of the family … in the interest of strengthening sacramental marriage, and when it comes to the Christian upbringing of the children, the question thus needs to be asked as to how the non-Catholic spouse is to take part in the life of the parish and under what circumstances he/she can in fact be admitted to communion. Do inter-denominational marriages which are bound by the dual sacramental tie of baptism and marriage not constitute a grave spiritual need permitting the admission of the non-Catholic partner in an individual case?”

Turning to pastoral care of persons with homosexual tendencies, the bishops noted that Germany has a broad consensus welcoming civil unions, which is “shared by a majority of Catholics.”

“Only a small number of respondents fundamentally reject homosexual relationships as constituting a grave sin. The vast majority expects the Church to carry out a differentiated moral theological evaluation which takes account of pastoral experience and of the findings of the humanities. Most Catholics accept homosexual relationships if the partners practice values such as love, faithfulness, responsibility for one another and reliability, but they do not thereby place homosexual partnerships on the same footing as marriage … Some of the statements also favour a blessing for such partnerships which is distinct from marriage.”

The document concluded that “pastoral care that accepts homosexuals requires a further development of the Church’s sexual morals which incorporates recent findings from the humanities, as well as from anthropological, exegetic and moral theology.”

The German bishops’ document, highlighting the expectation of Catholics there that the Synod on the Family will result in “development” of Church teaching, echoes a comment made Feb. 25 by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the conference, who said there are “certain expectations” of Germany in helping the Church to open doors and “go down new paths,” and that “in doctrine, we also learn from life.”

Cardinal Marx had added that “we are not a branch of Rome. Each conference of bishops is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context and must preach the Gospel in its own, original way. We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here,” explaining that the German bishops would pursue its own program of pastoral care for marriages and family regardless of the outcome of October’s Synod on the Family.

The Archbishop of Munich and Freising’s comments were promptly responded to by two fellow German prelates who now find themselves in Rome: Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, and Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Mueller called Cardinal Marx’ understanding “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church,” adding that bishops conferences “are not a magisterium beside the Magisterium, without the Pope and without communion with all the bishops.”

Yet the response of the German bishops to the synod questionnaire ostensibly affirmed that “there is no doubt that the local churches agree ‘cum Petro et sub Petro’ in dogmatic questions regarding marriage and the family,” while continuing that “some of the responses favour regional agreements on pastoral guidelines at local church level. The basis could also be formed by diocesan discussion processes on the topic of marriage and the family the outcome of which would be discussed with other local churches.”

The much-talked about expectations of Catholics in Germany regarding “developments” in doctrine and pastoral care for the divorced and remarried, cohabiting, homosexuals, and those in mixed marriages, reflect the beliefs of those Catholics in Germany.

Recent surveys have found that only 54 percent of priests there go to confession even once a year; only 58 percent of priests pray daily; 60 percent of parishioners don’t believe in live after death; 66 percent don’t believe in Christ’s Resurrection.

Cardinal Cordes observed in March that only 16 percent of Catholics in western Germany believe God to be a personal being, adding that there is thus “no reason to pride ourselves on our faith if we stand in comparison to other countries.”

“If [Cardinal Marx] wanted to express that Germany is an example in leading the faithful to a giving oneself up to Christ, then I think the bishop is fooled by wishful thinking,” Cardinal Cordes wrote.

“The existing German ecclesial apparatus is completely unfit to work against growing secularism.”


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