Will the Holy Spirit go home? Tsunami inside the church

View From My Window

by M G Radhakrishnan

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Even as India’s central government unabashedly opposes same-sex marriages and Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference wants to ban a play that criticises the Church’s treatment of nuns, the world seems to be marching ahead, leaving the dinosaurs behind.

Is Kerala, home to India’s largest Christian community (six of the 20 million population), of which 61% are Catholics, aware of the new tsunami sweeping the global Roman Catholic Church (RCC)? It has risen from Germany, the epicentre of Martin Luther’s original Reformation that split the Church five centuries ago. Last week, the German Catholic Synodal Path, led by bishops and attended by representatives of the laity and religious scholars, overwhelmingly voted against the Vatican’s long-held views on a spate of sensitive issues. It called for blessing same-sex marriages, which the Vatican forbade in 2019, supported ordaining women as deacons (assistants to priests), gender diversity, rights of sexual minorities, and appealed the Vatican to re-examine the mandatory celibacy for the priests.

The German Synod would send its resolutions to be considered by the Global Synod scheduled at the Vatican in October. Most interesting to watch at the Global Synod would be the stand of the 86-year-old Pope Francis, who is completing his 10th year as the pontiff, on these radical suggestions given his famously contradictory views on many of them. Notwithstanding his sympathy for gay and other sexual minorities, Pope Francis has openly opposed many of the resolutions presented in the four-year-long German Synod while it was in progress.

Georg Baetzing (L), Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference and Cardinal Reinhard Marx (R) talk during the final day of the "Synadoler Weg" Catholic Reform Movement Congress in Frankfurt | Getty Images

The Synod, which was underway from 2019 in Frankfurt ended on March 15 and was attended by more than 200 bishops, led by Bishop Georg Batzing, the vocal President of the German Bishops Conference. Bishops from Italy, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Australia, Tanzania, Peru, the Philippines, etc too attended. Among the 197 delegates, more than 90% favoured the radical resolutions. Of the 58 bishops, 38 voted in favour, seven against, and 13 abstained on the issue of blessing same-sex marriages. Only 10 of the 58 bishops opposed the sacramental ordination of women deacons. The Synod also called to permit women to preach at Mass and bless remarriage of divorcees. Though the steps are revolutionary, many women delegates attending the Synod were disappointed that the conclave didn’t go full steam for the reforms. "The patriarchy in the Church should be destroyed", reportedly thundered Gregor Podshun, head of the Heterodoxical Federation of German Youth. Only a few German Bishops who are close to the Pope voted against the resolutions. It is reported that had it been secret ballot, even they too would have voted favourably.

Expectedly, the powerful conservative lobby in the Vatican has reacted forcefully. They have condemned the resolutions as spreading confusion and would cause a schism in the Catholic church. Though Pope Francis has not yet spoken, his Secretary General, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the second highest official at the Vatican, said that the German Synodal resolutions did not correspond to the Catholic doctrine. More than 100 conservative international bishops (mainly from North America) have warned in a long letter that the German resolutions would undermine the Church's and the Pope's authority. Instead of “listening to the Holy Spirit and Gospel, the Synod “displayed submission and obedience to the world and ideologies,” it said.

Hardly has the Vatican seen before such an open war between the two rival camps of bishops. Clearly, the RCC, caught as it is in the winds of time and history, is inching toward one of the bitterest internal conflicts in history. This is all the more interesting because the Church is now headed by Pope Francis, considered the most radical pontiff ever. Many apparent contradictions in Pope Francis’s positions are likely to be exposed soon.

Francis was the first pontiff in 2020 who supported same-sex civil unions. He expressed his views on a documentary film saying homosexual people were also god's children and had a right to be in a family. He called for new civil laws to regularise their civil unions. He wanted the Church to accept same-sex unions (even blessed a gay couple in 2015) and LGBT+ community. He said being gay or of a different sexual orientation was no sin. The LGBT+ magazine “The Advocate'' even selected Francis as the Person of the Year. This January too, he spoke against criminalising homosexuality. Even the Synodal Path was called following the directive by Pope Francis to have similar conclaves in all countries to discuss ideas for reforms. In 2019, Pope Francis was also the first to admit the rampant sexual abuses of children by the clergy, including the sexual slavery of nuns. But Francis could not prevent the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith from foreboding same-sex marriages in 2019.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from inside the Apostolic library at the Vatican | AP

This January, Francis strongly expressed his displeasure of the German Synod. “While the dialogue in the Church is good, the German experience doesn’t help. When ideology gets involved in Church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit”, he told Associated Press. He called for slow and patient ways to reform rather than jumping into them. Despite his pro-women views, Francis unambiguously opposed their ordination as priests. “Priesthood reserved for men is a question that cannot be discussed,” he said in 2013.

The German Church is not the first to make radical recommendations. Many national churches, including Argentina or Belgium, have called for blessing same-sex marriages, etc. But the Vatican largely ignored them. However, it is difficult to brush away the German Synod easily. The reason is the financial might of the German Church, one of the wealthiest within the Global Church, thanks to the Church Tax in their country. The “financially strong and theologically liberal” German Church’s revenue last year was 6.7 billion Euros compared to the Vatican’s annual budget of 300 million Euros. The German Church is an economic power capable of supporting various activities of the global church in many parts of the world.

However, the German Church’s impressive radical postures are not only based on its strengths but also on its weaknesses and also its realisation of the changing times. Though known as a Protestant country (where Protestantism was born through Luther), Catholics dominate the population, numbering 23.6 million against 21.9 million Protestants. But, according to DW News, the major German media network, more than 3 million members left the German Catholic Church in the last decade. Barely 10% of Catholics attend church on Sundays, and weddings in churches fell by 8% between 2010-15. Recruitment of priests has hit a plateau.

Besides modernism, the shocking sexual abuses indulged by the clergy also have repelled the faithful from the Church. According to a study commissioned by the German Bishops Conference, as many as 1670 clergymen had committed sexual abuse of 3677 minors -mostly boys- between 1946-2014. The German Synod Path was convened primarily to address the allegations of sexual abuse involving priests.

Obviously, the German Church understands that a new reformation to move with the changing times is imperative for its survival. Five centuries ago, the Reformation that rose from Germany delivered the Catholic Church from ignorance, superstition, and spiritual darkness. Can the new German reformation do it again?

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