by Deacon Nick Donnelly
On the whole I’m a hopeful person and I quickly regain my joy in life, after a good meal, spending time with my family, walking in the countryside or being with the Lord in prayer. But I must admit that I have a growing sense of anxiety when I consider the prospect of the Synod in October.
The 20th century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich wrote a famous book called ‘The Courage to Be’. This examined the epidemic of anxiety among western man that results from a widespread sense of loss of meaning to life. According to Tillich, spiritual anxiety is one of the most intense forms of anxiety because it is a fear response to a perceived threat to our whole being. I suspect that many faithful are experiencing a profound spiritual anxiety in response to the forthcoming Synod because we judge it a threat to our whole being as Catholics.
A Time of Great Anxiety caused by False and Disturbing Opinions
In his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Blessed Paul VI wrote about the ‘pastoral anxiety’ that he experienced as a consequence of the many ‘false and disturbing opinions’ in the Church about the Blessed Sacrament and the ‘Real Presence’. Pope Paul VI took this sense of anxiety so seriously he dedicated an encyclical to challenging its causes in the Church.
During the mid 20th century other leading Christians also took the problem of anxiety in the Church seriously. The theologian Hans urs Von Balthazar even wrote a theology of anxiety in his book ‘The Christian and Anxiety’. Von Balthazar cautions that we should avoid two extremes in our response to such ecclesial anxiety. We should avoid the ‘false decadence’ of those ‘prophets of doom’ whose ‘melancholy and radicalism’ leads them to announce ‘the immediate and total demise of everything that is of lasting importance in the Church today.’ We must also avoid the ‘false escapism’ of those ‘who ignore the anxiety and bewilderment of the age’ and ‘blithely carry on a serene theology of irrelevance.’
In order to avoid the two extremes of alarmism and escapism, I’m convinced that the way to deal with the current anxiety is to calmly assess the nature of the threat, trusting in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Anxiety Caused by Disobedient German Bishops
My heart goes out to the faithful Catholics of Germany who are enduring a time of great spiritual anxiety due to the public threats made to the Church and Faith by so many of their own bishops. In the last issue of Catholic Voice, Matthias von Gersdorf wrote about many German bishops either actively supporting, or passively tolerating, ‘a very well prepared network’ that ‘has been set up in Germany to destroy essential tenets of the Church Magisterium’.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference and a member of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, recently gave a press conference that exacerbated the sense of anxiety about the October Synod. Speaking on behalf of Germany’s bishops, Cardinal Marx told reporters that he expected the Synod to deliver ‘new approaches’ to the Church’s doctrine on Holy Communion for the divorced and re-married and sexual morality. He confided that there ‘is a certain expectation in Germany’ regarding the outcome of the Synod. Cardinal Marx warned that if these expectations were not met, or were not met at the desired speed, the German Church would go its own way:
“We are not a subsidiary of Rome. The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we should do in Germany. Each Episcopal Conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture, and has to proclaim the Gospel as their very own office. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have here to undertake in this place marriage and family ministry.”
German Bishops reject the Universal Authority of the Holy See
This is just the latest example of German bishops rejecting the authority of Holy See over the Universal Church. In January 2014 Archbishop Zollitsch, the Archbishop Emeritus of Freiburg, dismissed Archbishop Müller's demand, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that Freiburg withdraw its pastoral document recommending that divorced and re-married Catholics receive Holy Communion. He told Die Welt:
“That is the judgement of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Müller’s position corresponds with the Tradition he represents. But the majority of people who have approached us were positive about the proposal...the Prefect is not the Pope.”
Just to be clear, Archbishop Zollitsch is rejecting Cardinal Müller’s and the CDF’s jurisdiction over the Universal Church, as legally established in Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution, Pastor Bonus:
‘The duty proper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: for this reason everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.’ (Art.48).
One of the reasons why these bishops have the audacity to so readily dismiss the authority of the Synod of Bishops and the CDF is because they have a track record for disobedience. The German Bishops’ Conference defiantly undermined Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae with their Königstein Declaration which erroneously stated that couples were free to follow their consciences in the choice of contraception, thereby not only misrepresenting Humanae Vitae but also repudiating the authority of an Ecumenical Council, expressed in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 51:
‘Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards… sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.’ (GS 51).
The decisions of an Ecumenical Council, confirmed by a successor of St Peter, have the highest binding authority over the universal Church. So if the German Bishops’ Conference are prepared to ignore the decision of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, confirmed by Pope Paul VI, it is likely that the German bishops will have no qualms about going their own way if the 2015 Synod and Pope Francis don’t meet the ‘certain expectation in Germany’.
Anxiety caused by Bishops abandoning the Regula Fidei
It appears to me that the German Bishops’ Conference are gambling that their declaration of independence from Rome will frighten the other bishops, and the Holy See, into accepting a compromise doctrine about marriage in order to preserve the ‘appearance’ of unity.
We might expect this type of brutal, high-stakes brinkmanship from ruthless politicians and business men, but not from the successors to the Apostles. How have Catholic clergymen become the worst type of politicians and business men?
I think this quote from St Augustine, which Blessed Paul VI uses in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, provides one of the best clues to how this disastrous state of affairs in the German Church has come about:
‘Once the integrity of the faith has been safeguarded, then it is time to guard the proper way of expressing it, lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things. St. Augustine gives a stern warning about this when he takes up the matter of the different ways of speaking that are employed by the philosophers on the one hand and that ought to be used by Christians on the other. "The philosophers," he says, "use words freely, and they have no fear of offending religious listeners in dealing with subjects that are difficult to understand. But we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule, so that a lack of restraint in speech on our part may not give rise to some irreverent opinion about the things represented by the words.''’
It could be argued that some of the German bishops, and their allies, have forgotten that discourse and behaviour in the Church is governed by the Regula Fidei, the Rule of Faith, that St. Augustine refers to in the phrase ‘we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule’.
The Rule of Faith is the truths of Faith as proclaimed by the prophets and apostles, handed on through Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, as St Irenaeus puts it, ‘We have the truth itself as a rule’ (Adversus haereses). The First Vatican Council defines the Rule of Faith as that ‘meaning that Holy Mother the Church has once declared, is to be retained forever, and no pretext of deeper understanding ever justifies any deviation from that meaning.’ Blessed Paul VI expresses very well the essence of the Rule of Faith:
‘And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labour of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge.’ (Mysterium Fidei, 24).
If only the German bishops adhered to this understanding of the importance of the Regula Fidei to the life of the Church, they would have saved us all from this unnecessary and harmful anxiety.