First published in the Catholic Herald.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK), has explained what he wants the German Synodal Path to achieve. “We are Catholic,” he said at a news conference. “But we want to be Catholic in a different way.”
It may be that Bishop Bätzing has not come across the old German proverb “du kannst nicht ein bisschen schwanger sein“ – “you can’t be a little bit pregnant“. And that is a shame because there is a theological equivalent, which is that “you can’t be a little bit Protestant“.
“Being Catholic in a different way” is of course a euphemism. We use euphemisms when we want to say something that we know will be unacceptable; so we dress it up in a way that will soften the impact.
Bishop Bätzing wants the ordination of women to the priesthood. In the face of criticism from the Vatican, which has said, as St John Paul II did, that the matter is closed, Bätzing said that reform issues are not “closed because the church in Germany wants to and must provide answers to the questions being asked by the faithful,” he insisted.
“As far as the ordination of women is concerned, for example, (the Vatican’s) view is very clear, that the question is closed. But the question exists and it has to elaborated and discussed,” the bishop said. “All these questions are on the table and all attempts [to] cancel them will not have success.”
Bishop Bätzing then, like Martin Luther, wants to be a little bit Protestant. But as Luther found, initially to his surprise, you can’t be a little bit Protestant.
In the face of the theology that lies behind the different forms of ministry, there are two different theologies of what priesthood is and two different Christian anthropologies. Bishop Bätzing has changed his mind and wants the Protestant version.
The problem is that when he says that the German church is aware that these questions exist and that that the Church must provide answers to the faithful, it has not occurred to him that his duty as a bishop is to teach the Catholic faith and provide Catholic answers.
It would be very interesting to pursue the question as to how that has come about, but that is not the present task.
But all the outcomes that the Synodal process is intended to facilitate challenge the settled teaching of the Catholic Church.
It’s not as though the Church has not been here before in some respects? Montanism, which started in the late 2nd century, wanted women priests. Montanus was accompanied by two prophetic women Prisca and Maximilla, whose trademark was ecstatic prophesy. They claimed “the spirit” was moving them. This charismatic and heterodox movement split the church and caused substantial difficulties. Tertullian thought that Montanus began authentically, but gradually lost the plot, or succumbed to different spirits.
Discernment is not an easy business and there is a hint of laziness and perhaps even self-indulgence lying behind Bishop Bätzing words. He wants to give a certain part of the German laity, highly secularised and deeply influenced by feminism and libertarian sexual culture, the answers they want to hear.
But this is Protestantism. It is fuelled by being rooted in whatever passing spirit of the age thrusts itself into the minds of the sub-catechised and semi-converted. It rejects the teaching and the mind of the Catholic Church. One reason why so many protestants have become Catholic is that having been raised in a culture of Enlightenment rationalism, birthed in the sixteenth century and still running hot and fast today, they read the sub-apostolic fathers and discovered how the apostles built a Church that reflected the mind of Christ.
And as St Paul often reminded his converts, it was this immersion in the mind of Christ rather than the spirit of the age that was the mark of the true Church – one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Bishop Bätzing wants to provide a certain German audience with answers that will destroy that. But everyone agrees that continuing to insist on providing answers that will change centuries of Catholic teaching will lead to schism and will fracture what was “one”. Same sex unions are not and never have been hol. Procuring abortions in the name of feminist rights is not and has never been holy. Wanting to be Catholic in a different way is not being Catholic; and everything the synodal process proposes would be anti-apostolic.
How is this the work of the Holy Spirit, congruent with the mind of Christ expressed consistently over the millennia?
It might be answered by the German bishops that there is precedent in the early Church for their approach. There was a disciple who when faced with the demands, teaching and wisdom of Jesus wanted to be Catholic, but in a different way. The problem is – and it ought to cause bishop Bätzing to get back on his knees if that is where he does his theology – is that it was Judas Iscariot.