German Catholics fret about schism in their church

Catholicism in 8th century Germany and Catholicism in 21st century Germany are more dissimilar than similar. But there are some thought-provoking parallels between the evangelising efforts of St Boniface and the Vatican’s efforts to revitalise the German Catholic Church.

First, St Boniface. He was a man of astonishing energy and managerial ability who is revered as the Apostle of Germany. Born in Devon in Anglo-Saxon England in 675, he became a monk as a young man and headed off to convert the heathen Franks (ie, proto-Germans) across the Channel. Politically, it was a turbulent era, as the dying Merovingian dynasty in what is now western Germany disintegrated into warring kingdoms. Boniface founded numerous dioceses, monasteries, presided at synods, converted whole tribes, and disciplined unruly clergy.

In his travails, Boniface always looked to Rome to grant him jurisdiction, to confirm his authority, and to give him directions. At the end of 724, a difficult year, Pope Gregory II told him: “Let no threats frighten you, no terrors bring you down.”

In 754 he and 52 companions were slaughtered by bloodthirsty Frisians (ie, proto-Dutch). The bandits were looking for silver and gold, but in Boniface’s baggage they found mostly Bibles. One of them is still preserved, slashed by a Frisian sword.

Modern German Catholics are unlikely to meet the fate of Boniface. More to the point is the fact that Boniface spent as much time cleaning up what passed for Christianity in central Germany as he did converting pagans. According to the Vita Bonifatii the Hessian Christians were “erring in pagan rites” until Boniface freed them “from the captivity of demons”. This vague term seems to mean fornication, adultery, heresy, sacrifices to heathen gods, and other party-hearty pagan practices.  

Particularly interesting is a document attributed to him called the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, the List of Superstitions and Pagan Activities. These include admonitions which have a familiar ring for aficionados of 21st century theological controversies:

  • “On the confused doctrine and the similar meaning of ‘bishop’ and ‘priest’.”
  • “On their assumption that they can understand Holy Scripture without teachers and treatises.”
  • “On their calling the holy writers of treatises Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory ‘prattlers’.”
  • “On their claiming that the entire (Holy) Scripture should be understood historically.”

And Boniface concludes in a tub-thumping crescendo: “no Christian people in the entire world commit such monstrous iniquity against God’s Church and the monasteries or bear such grievous guilt as the people of the Franks, neither in Greece nor in Italy nor in Britain nor in Africa nor among any other Christian people.”

In the light of the weary work of the Apostle to Germany, it is interesting to read recent headlines in the media, both Catholic and mainstream, about the Catholic Church in Germany today. The following are fairly typical. “New book explores being queer in German Catholic Church”. “Liberal cardinal calls for revised Catholic teaching on gay people.” “Cardinal Marx celebrates Mass marking ‘20 years of queer worship and pastoral care’.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich recently told the media that the Catholic Church is wrong about homosexuality and has to move on. (He's actually from Luxembourg, but he studied in Germany and is the president of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union.) “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer true," he said last month. "I think it's time we make a fundamental revision of the doctrine".

In other words, a number of Catholic bishops in Germany believe that their Church is fundamentally out of sync with the modern world. It needs to adopt contemporary views on sexuality and gender.

However, Catholic teaching on these topics is unambiguous and has been clearly expressed in a number of recent documents. The definitive Catechism of the Catholic Church states that: "Under no circumstances can [homosexual acts] be approved". So, unsurprisingly, progressive German bishops are coming under fire from their colleagues.

For instance, Australian Cardinal George Pell, retired but intimidatingly energetic, recently called for Vatican authorities to intervene and correct Hollerich. While he understands the difficult situation because of declining numbers in German-speaking churches, the only possible response, he said, is to “rediscover the promises of Jesus” and to embrace more closely the “undiminished deposit of faith”, not to follow the changing dictats of contemporary secular culture.

“Not one of the Ten Commandments is optional; all are there to be followed, and by sinners,” he told K-TV, a German Catholic television agency. “We cannot have a special Australian or German version of the Ten Commandments. Nor can we follow Bertrand Russell, the English atheist philosopher who suggested the Ten Commandments might be like an exam—where only six out of ten questions need to be answered.”

Echoing the Australian cardinal’s exasperation, the Nordic Bishops' Conference – from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark -- published a stinging open letter to their colleagues in Germany. These are all countries with very sparse Catholic populations – “mission territory” in Catholic jargon – so they may be better attuned to the needs of secularised societies than German bishops running state-subsidised dioceses.

“It has ever been the case that true reforms in the Church have set out from Catholic teaching founded on divine Revelation and authentic Tradition,” they write, “to defend it, expound it, and translate it credibly into lived life — not from capitulation to the Zeitgeist. How fickle the Zeitgeist is, is something we verify on a daily basis.”

They remind German Catholics that they ought to be faithful to their long history of loyalty to traditional teachings. “With gratitude we recall the great German saints, the theologians who have enriched us wonderfully, and the throng of German missionaries sent to the ends of the earth to labour in humble obscurity.” What, one wonders, would Boniface have said about "queer worship"?

The recent turmoil in the Catholic Church is front page news in Germany. No wonder. Europeans have long memories. There are mutterings about another schism, about a Reformation 2.0, about Luther Redux. Almost 500 years have passed, and weighty doctrinal disputes and frictions with Rome are once again dividing the Church.  

Isn’t the chaos of 8th century Germany a better analogy? In Luther's time, ignorance and corruption abounded. But basically people regarded themselves as Christians, were devout, received the sacraments, and were imbued with a Christian moral sense.

Back in the time of Boniface, as now, many were unbaptised; the baptised were uncatechised; pagan moral standards pervaded society; the half-pagan Christian clergy were insubordinate and accommodated local customs; Rome was distant and irrelevant. It took a man of Boniface’s calibre to turn the situation around. And he did.

It’s unlikely that Pell and the Nordic bishops have in mind St Boniface’s excoriation of the “monstrous iniquity” of German Catholics back in the mid 8th century. But the parallel is hard to miss.


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