In the golden age of the Catholic episcopate—the days of great Church Fathers like Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo in the early and mid-first millennium—bishops were not infrequently in contact with each other, encouraging, consulting, and, when necessary, correcting. The practice of episcopal fraternal correction has withered over time, not least in the decades since the Second Vatican Council. And that’s strange. For Vatican II taught that the world’s bishops form a body or “college” that, with and under the Bishop of Rome, shares full authority within the Church. Somehow, though, the practice of episcopal “collegiality” came to resemble the unwritten etiquette within Evelyn Waugh’s fictitious London club, Bellamy’s, where one simply didn’t criticize another member, no matter how disturbing, even bizarre, his behavior.
Whatever else German Catholicism’s multi-year “Synodal Path” has accomplished thus far, it has changed that dynamic dramatically.
The bishops of Poland and Scandinavia recently sent letters of fraternal concern and correction to the German episcopate, questioning the German Synodal Path’s deconstruction of settled truths of Catholic faith and practice. Then, on Tuesday of Holy Week, a group of more than seventy English-speaking bishops from the United States, Canada, and Africa publicly released “A Fraternal Open Letter to Our Brother Bishops in Germany.” Stressing that the seven issues they flagged were not their only concerns with the German Synodal Path’s work to date, the Anglophone bishops’ letter nonetheless identified the key points at which the German Church seemed to be careening toward what can only be called apostasy.
First, by “failing to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel,” the Synodal Path was undermining the credibility of Scripture, the teaching authority of the Church (including that of Pope Francis), and the Catholic understanding of the human person.
Second, the documents and discussions of the Synodal Path seem dominated by secular ideologies, including gender theory, rather than being framed by Scripture and tradition—which, the Anglophone bishops reminded their German brethren, Vatican II declared “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” that is binding on the Church over time, irrespective of the prevailing public culture.
Third, the Synodal Path persistently reduces freedom to personal autonomy—the dumbed down freedom of “I did it my way”—and confuses conscience with personal preference. Yet as the Anglophone bishops put it, a truly Christian conscience “remains subject to the truth about human nature and the norms of righteous living revealed by God and taught by Christ’s Church.” There is no freedom without truth, they wrote, “and Jesus is the truth who sets us free.”
In the fourth place, the Synodal Path’s documents and discussions seem devoid of that joy of the gospel that Pope Francis has stressed as “essential to Christian life.” How can there be serious Church renewal and reform, the English-speaking bishops asked, if the joy of the new life in Christ is absent? Is it possible for a soured, self-referential Church, obsessed with real and imagined failures, to evangelize?…
The full text of the “Fraternal Open Letter” is available here.
The above comes from an April 20 posting by George Weigel on First Things.