The Year of Our Lord 2023 will likely witness Catholic dramas we cannot predict now; that is the way of Providence. What we can know with certainty about next year is that the German crisis in the world church will come to a head, because what’s happening in Germany will collide with the first session of the Synod on Synodality for a Synodal Church in October 2023. And the resolution of the German crisis will be, if not wholly determinative, then hugely consequential, in defining the legacy of Pope Francis.
So what is happening in Germany, along its national “Synodal Path”?
Many things are happening: a weaponization of the crime and sin of sexual abuse in order to reinvent Catholicism; the rejection of settled Catholic understandings of human love and its expression; an unconditional surrender to gender ideology and its deconstruction of the biblical concept of the human person; a revolution in ecclesiology that, in the name of lay empowerment, empties the offices of bishop and priest of their full sacramental character; the gradual reduction of the church to a wealthy NGO, doing good works defined by the politically correct consensus of the moment.
Beneath all this — and here we come to the bottom of the bottom line — is a rejection of the Second Vatican Council’s solemn teaching on divine revelation. And as Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, known by its Latin title Dei Verbum (The Word of God), was the council’s fundamental achievement, to reject the teaching of Dei Verbum is to reject Vatican II. The German “Synodal Path” is not a development of the council. It is a rejection of the council.
Dei Verbum robustly affirmed the reality of divine revelation and its binding authority over time. Drawing on more than a century of biblical and theological reflection on salvation history, Vatican II insisted, against the grain of modern high culture, that Christianity is not a pious myth or a collection of inspiring legends. Christianity is an encounter with the incarnate Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who brings to fulfillment the self-revelation of who God is, and what God intends for humanity, which began when God spoke to the Jewish people through Abraham, Moses and the Prophets.
Dei Verbum also taught that God’s revelation to humanity was completed in Jesus Christ. Catholics continually plumb the depths of that revelation and its meaning over time, and so our Christian understanding grows. But revelation judges every historical moment; revelation is not judged by the “signs of the times.”
Or to put the matter as simply as possible: God knows better than we do about what makes for human happiness, flourishing, and, eventually, beatitude. The “signs of the times” may help us better grasp what God has said in Scripture and Tradition. But if the “signs of the times” (for example, gender ideology) contradict what God has revealed about our nature and destiny, the “signs of the times” are awry, not the word of God.
The documents of the German Synodal Path, often couched in a mind-numbing sociologese overlaid with a thin veneer of religious language, essentially deny all of this.
In these texts, the “signs of the times” are the driver of the Church’s self-understanding, such that there are no stable reference points for knowing whether an alleged development of doctrine is a genuine development or a fraud. Nor does divine revelation give us any firm grasp of who we are and of what makes for righteous living: “self-determination” trumps the truths inscribed by God in human nature and relationships, “gender is…to be seen multidimensionally,” and to suggest otherwise “leads to human rights violations.”
German Catholicism is often said to be in a de facto schism. That is an inadequate description of the German crisis. The German Catholicism manifest in the documents of the Synodal Path is in apostasy. The German Synodal Path does not accept the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Rather, one of its “foundational” texts affirmed earlier this year that “in the Church, too, legitimate views and ways of life can compete with one another, even in terms of core beliefs.”
Thus does Catholic Lite lead inexorably to Catholic Zero.
Pope Francis bears a heavy burden in seeking a resolution of the German crisis that is true to the reality and binding authority of divine revelation. If such a resolution is not achieved, however, it will raise the gravest doubts about the entire project of “synodality” central to his pontificate.
Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.