Change threatens some bishops

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

The Bishops’ Conference of the Nordic Countries recently wrote an open letter to the German Bishops’ Conference to voice concerns over the Synodal Path now underway in Germany.

They ‘“let rip” at the Germans.

The Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland Church leaders’ letter is an excellent example of one group of bishops seeing the synodal process as another country’s “problem.”

The Synodal Path “must be seen against the backdrop of the concrete situation in Germany”, the Scandinavian bishops argue, because it gives the reason for the “felt demand/need for change”.

How else could this be?

Should the German bishops reply to their episcopal confreres about the problems in the Nordic countries?

The Scandinavian bishops want to put themselves on the map and distance themselves from the “German problem”.

Their letter begins in a condescending manner that continues throughout as if they bring a depth of learning and insight that is lacking in the German Church.

At the outset, they acknowledge their historical reliance on Germany from the Post-Reformation period, neatly forgetting their much earlier reliance on Germanic Christians.

They also acknowledge their financial dependence on the German Church, which they continue to enjoy.

An attempt to avoid the real challenges and issues

The “immense challenges” facing the Church, according to the Scandinavian bishops, are global and “overpowering” — challenges they wish to “negotiate” or “approach” in faithfulness to Christ.

“Avoid” might have been a more accurate sentiment. The implication of negotiating rather than confronting or addressing is clear, and it sets the overall tone of the bishops’ letter.

Although they see the “felt demand for change” in Germany as the hub of the German problem, the issues raised by the Synodal Path are not “purely” or exclusively German.

The Scandinavians acknowledge that the issues raised by the Germans are “overpowering, global challenges for the Church”, but as the bishops of the Nordic countries, they take issue with them. They only acknowledge ecclesial sexual abuse as a matter of justice and a Christian imperative.

The implication is that the other issues of priestly life-forms, such as celibacy and formation, the place of women in the Church (ordination and governance), and a broader understanding of sexuality are not matters of justice or Christian imperative for them.

The Scandinavians address sexual abuse with the now hackneyed episcopal condemnations.

They address this issue from the point of justice and Christian imperative because it is the “safe” issue. Safe, because everyone agrees that something should be done, and every bishop wants to be seen to be doing something.

The primary reason for their condemnation is not the ecclesial sin committed against believers but their concern for the continuing believability of the Church.

“Dangerous topics”

Again, they put the institution and the structures that created the sin first. But later in their letter, they seem to want to protect the same structures.

The other issues such as clerical life and formation, women in the Church and teaching on sexuality are treated differently, probably because they demand proactive change rather than reactive apologies.

The problem with these issues — for the Scandinavians — is they touch on the immutability of teaching and, at the same time, reflect the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. They are “dangerous topics” that should be avoided.

Consequently, the search for answers to these issues needs to be pulled aside and reviewed by the unchangeable elements.

Clearly, the Nordic bishops have not found a dogmatic or Zeitgeist objection to ecclesial sexual abuse.

Given this context, they conclude that the “direction, methodology and content” of the Synodal Path are worrisome.

They accuse the Germans of being driven by “process thinking” and the desire for structural Church change without clearly outlining Prozessdenken and why structural change is problematic.

As a result, both process thinking and structural change are presented negatively because they reduce reform in the Church to a project.

Implicit is the notion that reform is neither structural nor human by design when applied to the Church.

The argument is that Church does change differently from every other human institution. Where the Church becomes an object of human change, it is no longer the subject of God’s salvific will.

“Process thinking” and a richer theological debate

Process-thinking is an end-to-end process, that is non-hierarchical in its structure.

According to the Nordic bishops, non-hierarchical thinking threatens the non-changeable sources of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, and must therefore be eliminated.

The danger of process-thinking is that it can break down sacred theological silos and open discrete theological categories to investigation and scrutiny.

But on the positive side, process-thinking can enable a richer theological debate, better theology and Church structures, thus optimizing Church life.

Concretely, this means having laypeople sitting beside bishops making decisions in a fundamental “equality of equals.”

Some would argue that this is a model of the early Church, while others would disagree.

By contrast, the Scandinavian bishops appear to want to disempower the image or metaphor of the People of God. They write that this is “only one of the images with which the living Tradition describes the Church”.

That’s true, but it is a crucial image or metaphor of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

A Church with passive members

The Scandinavian bishops suggest three other images should be used to describe the Church

  • Corpus mysterium
  • Bride of Christ and
  • Mediatrix of graces.

These are more passive and receptive than they are active and dynamic.

The curious metaphor of the Church as the “mediatrix of graces” is a reference I have not found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

They might be meaning that the Church “is like a sacrament” (CCC 775) and “as a sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument” (CCC 776). If so, their theology is unclear and needs greater precision.

Having not paid sufficient attention to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the bishops have missed other vital images of the Church that Pope Francis has used explicitly and implicitly.

These include the Church as sheepfold and Christ as the shepherd; the Church as God’s farm or field and God the heavenly farmer; the Church as building; the Church as Pilgrim People; and the Church as Body, for whom the “one mediator is Christ” (Lumen Gentium 6-8).

I believe the Scandinavians are correct to say that the Church “cannot be merely defined by the visible community”.

But neither can it be defined without it.

For some, addressing the day’s issues might be a capitulation to the current Zeitgeist. Still, for others, this is “reading the signs of the times”.

The type of Catholic the Scandinavian bishops appeal to—and want the German bishops to hear—are those who sit quietly in their parishes with a strong sense of sacramental mystery.

These people “carry and set” the life of parishes and communities. They are not people who engage in questionnaires and debates, the bishops say, to defend them.

There is a “quietest” element to this type of person and a sense that the person who keeps his or her head firmly in the snow is the true type of Catholic.

Radical conversion and a radical image of God

But are these the people with whom Pope Francis wants us to communicate? His message is more outward-focused, asking us to engage with the sheep who have left the farm.

Consequently, the reference to Lumen Gentium 9 is double-edged.

How does the Church, in Christ’s name, “approach the world and be its sure hope and source of salvation” if it does not also engage with the questions and push-back of the people of this age? Is it sufficient to live the ad intra life of the Church in peace and serenity by ignoring the ad extra “mess” we call human society?

The Scandinavian bishops then return to the “German problem” and the crisis of the German Church and its potential for renewal.

Condescendingly, they remember the dead saints, the past German theologians, and the humble and obscure German missionaries as examples of the life-giving patrimony of rich blessing for the Church in Germany.

Although they write of the need for radical conversion, they seem to want to avoid radical conversion that isn’t spiritualised.

They misunderstand that the image of the People of God is a radical image of God, not of the people!

In this image, God is not the property of the people, but the people are the chosen of God.

Regarding the mission of the Church, the Scandinavians have forgotten that the Church — the People of God — are called to be salt and light for the world through living immersed in the world.

People sitting safely at home not participating in the life of the Church cannot be the synodal image of Scandinavian Catholicism the bishops wish to promote, can they?

The Scandinavian bishops should send another letter apologizing to the German Church.

They could explain why they are so frightened of facing the world’s reality and why they want to hide from key contemporary questions.

Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity. (Te Hepara Pai, 2021).

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston, Special, Synodality1.

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