In both his ad limina address and the letter, the Pope - after having praised the great achievements in Germany - clearly identifies the symptoms of the current crisis: fewer Catholics attend Sunday Mass or go to confession. The very substance of the faith among many has evaporated, and the number of priests is decreasing. He assures us of his closeness and his support for our efforts to overcome this crisis and to find new ways to do so, and he wants to encourage us.
But then he identifies a number of tendencies in the German search for solutions that cause him great concern.
The Pope's concern about a "dismemberment" of the Church
First of all, there is the concern that the church in Germany will sever ties with the universal Church and split off from the global ("Catholic") community of the Faith – the letter describes this as a "dismemberment" of the Church.
Accordingly, Pope Francis calls for "journeying together with the whole Church" (3) and refers to the "communio [community] of all particular Churches in the universal Church" (Note 7). He points out that "especially in these times of strong fragmentation and polarization, it is necessary to ensure that the Sensus Ecclesiae is actually alive in every decision taken" and that "the particular Churches live and flourish within and out of the universal Church; if they were separated from the universal Church, they would weaken, perish and die. It is therefore a necessity always to stay in active and effective communion with the whole Body of the Church" (9), "knowing that we are an essential part of a greater Body" (ibid.).
The Pope further warns - with reference to a book by Pope Benedict XVI - against the "temptation of the promoters of Gnosticism" who "have always tried to say something new and different from what the Word of God has given them. (...) What is meant by this is the one who wants to be ahead, the advanced one, who pretends to go beyond the 'ecclesial We'" (ibid.). The passage from the Second Letter to John (2 John 9) mentioned in the text is revealing here: "Any one who goes ahead, and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, has not God". The pope [adds] that there is “a temptation by the Father of Lies (…), who (…) ultimately dismembers the Body of the holy and faithful people of God” (10). In contrast to this Pope Francis presents and proposes a holistic vision of synodality.
Obviously the Holy Father has not been unaware that some of the demands of the initiators of the "synodal process" (as the "synodal way" is often also called) go beyond - or do not sufficiently take into account - the globally binding Catholic foundations of Faith. At the very least, [these demands] could jeopardize the common path and the comprehensive communion of the Church. The Pope's choice of words is unusually clear here.
The warning of a "secularized mindset"
A second topic in the papal letter concerns the temptation to strive only for a "reform of structures, organizations and administration", constituting "a kind of new Pelagianism" (5), of which Pope Francis had already warned the German bishops during their ad limina visit in 2015. Pelagianism, rejected by the Church in the fifth century, claimed that there was no need for salvation from sins through Christ, and that man was sufficiently strong and good by himself.
In 2015 the Pope in this context already pointed out the temptation of "putting our trust in administration, in the perfect apparatus". In his letter Francis warns against "secularization and a secularized attitude of mind" (5). "May God free us from a secular Church under spiritual or pastoral drapery! This suffocating worldliness is healed by tasting the pure air of the Holy Spirit, who frees us from revolving around ourselves, concealed underneath a semblance of religiosity, above a godless void" (5). (Note 13)
Rather, a "theologal perspective" is what is required: "The Gospel of Grace (...) should be the beacon and guide. Whenever an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems by itself, (...) it ended up multiplying the evils it wanted to overcome" (6). "Without 'faithfulness of the Church to her own vocation', any new structure will perish within a short period of time”. (ibid.) Therefore the Church should not simply respond to "external facts and needs", "isolated from the mystery of the Church" (ibid.).
Much of what has been happening in Germany in recent times probably looks to the Pope like the activist undertakings of a quasi-political association, a "pious non-governmental organization", as he has often described it in other contexts. And indeed, some things uttered on behalf of the Church time and again appear to demand just that - without consideration of preconditions of Faith and in contradiction to freely receiving the faithful gift of becoming.
(Story cotinues below)
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Tensions and imbalances instead of adaption
Pope Francis speaks in his letter several times of "tension" and "adaptation". He warns of “adapting [the life of the Church] to the currently prevailing logic or to that of a particular group" (5), and of establishing an "order which then puts an end to the very tensions that are inherent in our humanity and which the Gospel seeks to provoke" (ibid.). "We must not forget that there are tensions and imbalances which have the taste of the Gospel, which must be maintained because they promise new life" (ibid.). Evangelization is "not a 'retouching' which adapts the Church to the spirit of the times but makes her lose her originality and her prophetic mission" (7). Rather, it is a matter of "recognizing the signs of the times, which is not synonymous with mere adaptation to the spirit of the times (cf. Rom 12:2)" (8).
Much of what was said before the synodal process is predicated on an anxious need to not lose touch with the world’s plurality and the intention of closing the gap between the Church and the reality of life. Pope Francis dismisses this argument decisively.
Reclaiming the primacy of evangelization
Instead, "it is necessary to regain the primacy of evangelization (...) because the Church, the bearer of evangelization, begins by evangelizing herself" (7). It should be "our main concern to encounter our brothers and sisters, especially those who can be found on the thresholds of our church doors, on the streets, in prisons, in hospitals, in public squares and cities. The Lord expressed himself clearly: 'But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well' (Mt 6:33)”. (8). "It is the holiness 'from next door' (…) that protects and has always guarded the Church against every ideological, pseudo-scientific and manipulative reduction.” (ibid.)
For this the Pope demands a basic attitude of "vigilance and conversion" (12), an "attitude of withdrawal" (ibid.), and he refers to "true spiritual remedies (prayer, penance and adoration)" (ibid.). Joy should be the defining factor: "Evangelization leads us to regain the joy of the Gospel, the joy of being Christians". (7)