The contributions from Sandro Magister and Pietro De Marco on the “Synodale Weg” underway in Germany and on the possible schismatic drift of the German Church are of great interest for those who seek to understand the relationship between the Catholic Church and contemporary society.
And yet the historian, even if not a specialist on Germany’s highly intricate religious history, has the impression of “déjà-vu.” Although with partially new contents, imposed by the sociocultural development of the last fifty years, we are faced with yet another attempt by individuals and groups – today, it seems, the majority – of German Catholicism to establish a sort of national Church, with the aim of putting back together in the medium to long term the religious unity of Germany, and of putting it back together with a substantial protestantization of its theology, liturgy, and internal structure.
If one does not keep in mind this national aspiration – others would say this national temptation – there is the risk of reducing everything to a theological drift, to a struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, to an intra-ecclesial conflict: all things that are there, but that perhaps are not enough to fully explain the phenomenon we have before our eyes.
German Catholicism has often oscillated between this “national appeal” (in practice an attraction, perhaps unconfessed, to Protestantism, with which – it should not be forgotten – it lives in symbiosis) and the recognition of Roman primacy: an oscillation made even more painful and dramatic by the fact that from Luther and Ulrich von Hutten onward, the Germanic identity was formed precisely in opposition to the Roman “Babylon.” Can one be a “good German” and at the same time a Catholic, meaning obedient to a distant power hated by so many compatriots? This question has unfolded over the centuries of German history, up to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and the religious policy of the Third Reich.
In the early nineteenth century, the most eminent figure of this “national appeal” and of the theological-educational proposal underlying it was Heinrich Ignaz von Wessenberg (1774-1860), vicar general and bishop’s administrator of the diocese of Konstanz, who proposed and defended his program of a German national Church at no less than the Congress of Vienna. He had behind him the classic anti-Roman theses of the “Febronian” tradition (the reduction of papal prerogatives to a simple primacy of honor and not of jurisdiction; greater importance given to the episcopal body; the supremacy of the council over the pope; the right of state prerogatives against the interference of the papal see) and the struggle of Enlightenment Catholicism against the mania of pilgrimages, the cult of relics, the authoritarianism of ecclesiastical structures.
Franz Schnabel, the great historian of nineteenth-century Germany, summarizes Wessenberg’s religious ideas like this: the susbtitution of rationalistic science for scholastic science; the institution of ecclesiastical parliaments in dioceses; the formation of the clergy according to the most modern science; the questioning of ecclesiastical celibacy; the reform of liturgical life, making preaching “the most important part of caring for souls”; the introduction of the Mass in German and the germanization of the breviary, of singing, and of devotional books; hostility toward pilgrimages and mendicant orders; the reform of ecclesiastical architecture according to Protestant or Puritan use, as austere and gray as possible (for the main altar no one but Christ was admitted, images of saints were avoided, except for church patrons, which however had to be placed only by the side altars “as long as these remained”). One of his ordinances on marriages allowed the blessing of inter-confessional marriages, provided that the sons followed the confession of the father and the daughters that of the mother.
Without making historical short circuits, isn’t there a certain family resemblance with respect to the theses of the current “Synodale Weg”?
Another sensational example of the “national appeal” was the schism of the Silesian priest Joahannes Ronge in the mid-1840s, when three decades had passed since the Congress of Vienna, decades in which German national consciousness had been enormously developed and overexcited, while ultramontanism had dominated papal politics.
Ronge as well had the “Febronian” tradition behind him, still alive in Silesia. In October of 1844 he wrote an open letter to Trier bishop Arnoldi to denounce the ostentation he attributed to a famous relic, the “Tunic of Christ,” to which half a million pilgrims had come running. Ronge accused Arnoldi of consciously manipulating the unwary Catholic faithful through “non-Christian theatrics” for the sake of fattening ecclesiastical coffers and promoting the “material and spiritual slavery of Germany” to Rome. The Silesian priest was addressing two different audiences, providing each with a specific target: he invited the rationalists present in the Catholic clergy to oppose theological conformism, and the “German compatriots, both Catholic and Protestant” to overcome the confessional division of Germany. Following excommunication in December of 1844 he announced the establishment of a separate “German General Church” (see Todd H. Weir, “Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession,” Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Like many followers of Wessenberg after 1830, Ronge also radicalized his political and religious positions: he participated in the events of the Frankfurt parliament of 1848-49, then went as an exile to Great Britain, where he became a champion of “secularism” and free thought.
A schism of professors and intellectuals – even if the adhesion of an illustrious prelate and historian like Ignaz von Döllinger was not lacking – was that of the Altkatholiken, the Old Catholics, in 1871, in opposition to the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility approved by Vatican Council I on July 18 1870. According to one of their leaders, the great canonist Johann Friedrich von Schulte, that dogma changed the nature of the Church and its apostolic constitution and posed a threat to states, because it would have given the Holy See enormous possibilities of intervention in their internal life, demanding the blind obedience of episcopate, clergy, and faithful. This danger was particularly evident for the new Germanic Empire founded on January 18 1871, in which there was a strong Catholic presence, particularly influential in some states, and a new Catholic party, the Zentrum, which risked becoming the Vatican’s “longa manus” in German politics.
Dogmatic and religious concerns, therefore, and national and anti-Roman concerns coexisted in Schulte and in the Altkatholiken, in the illusion of finding support in the German episcopate, which instead – with very few exceptions – joined the infallibilist majority. Then the Altkatholiken sought an interlocutor at the top of the new Reich, in particular in the prince of Bismarck, and it is known that this alliance was then one of the bases of the subsequent Kulturkampf.
These three attempts met with the firm condemnation of the Holy See, with canonical trials and excommunication, and had little follow-up in the clergy and the laity, even though the Ronge sect, that of the Deutschkatholiken, survived for several decades and the Old Catholic Church still exists today. Without – I repeat – exaggerating in the historical parallels, it seems instead that the “synodal journey” undertaken today (the radicality of which would certainly have amazed Wessenberg and perhaps also the first Ronge and Döllinger) has conquered the hierarchy of Germany in its entirety.
I believe that the underlying philosophy of today’s “Synodale Weg” was indicated years ago by such an eminent German churchman as Cardinal Walter Kasper. I have already had occasion to point out to the readers of Settimo Cielo a conference on Luther held on January 18 2016 (W. Kasper, “Martin Luther. An ecumenical perspective,” Brescia, Queriniana, 2016) and the proposal contained therein for a “deconfessionalization” of both the Protestant confessions and the Catholic Church: a kind of return to the “status quo ante” the outbreak of the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century. Since such a “deconfessionalization” has already largely taken place in the Lutheran field, it is the Catholic world that would have to proceed with greater courage in this direction: Kasper speaks of a “rediscovery of original catholicity, not restricted to a confessional point of view.” It is clear that Kasper’s proposals are addressed to the universal Church, but their German roots are equally evident.
The “synodal journey” that the German Catholic hierarchy proposes is precisely in view of this “deconfessionalization” and therefore also of an encounter with the other components of Germanic Christianity. It certainly has behind it the theological paths clearly indicated by Pietro De Marco, but it seems rather a classic historical process “by exhaustion.” The impression is that the classical reasons and motives of Catholic theology and ecclesiology that De Marco recalls no longer truly interest anyone in the majority of the hierarchy and the German Catholic world, which now has an approach that is more “political” – as De Marco also warns – than “theological” to fundamental questions, in line, moreover, with the ever greater centrality of politics in Catholic discourse. If the “synodal journey” continues and is accomplished, what will really be missing for putting back together the religious unity of Germany, at least in the lives of the faithful who remain?
What about Rome? “L’intendance suivra!” I have the impression that this is what the German bishops think: that even Rome, with its convoys, sooner or later will come along.
Source: Settimo Cielo
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