Like the Church in most Western countries, the Catholic Church in Germany is in deep trouble. Last year 221,390 Germans renounced their membership in the Catholic Church, and in the past three years more than 700,000 people have exited. Other statistics are just as grim: fewer Baptisms, fewer First Communions, fewer Confirmations, fewer Catholic weddings, and fewer parishes. The only statistic rising is the number of Catholic funerals. The Catholic Church in Germany is literally dying.
In response, the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said the declining numbers reflect that “many have lost confidence” in the Church. He then proposed one possible solution: “I very much hope that the Synodal Way can make its contribution to building new trust.”
What is the Synodal Way? As the Catholic News Agency explains, “The ‘Synodal Way’ is a multi-year process bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.” In other words, it’s years of committee meetings to discuss and debate teachings that are already settled.
Trying to build trust by instituting the Synodal Way is bureaucratic shuffling at it’s finest. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s like a bad Dilbert cartoon: sales are plummeting, so let’s create a committee to discuss it endlessly without actually doing anything. All this will do is either raise hopes that the German Church will change its perennial teachings and leave people unsatisfied when it doesn’t, or it will descend into heresy and schism by actually changing them. No, the Synodal Way is more of a punchline to a bad joke than the way forward.
So what is the answer? Is there a better way than the Synodal Way? First, we need to make sure we understand what the problem is, and I think Bishop Bätzing actually touches upon it: people—including many Catholics—have lost confidence in the Church. Catholics don’t think it’s important to be Catholic anymore. At best Catholicism is like a jacket we put on for Sundays; it’s not something that permeates our life because, frankly, many are embarrassed to be associated with the Church.
And that embarrassment starts with the hierarchy. After all, the “Synodal Way” is a smokescreen for making wholesale changes in the Church’s teachings. Doctrines like an all-male priesthood or the evil of divorce are not popular with mainstream culture, so many of our Church leaders want to downplay or deny them. You won’t be invited to the best cocktail parties if you’re associated with such regressive beliefs, after all.
In other words, many Catholic bishops, particularly in Germany, want to remake the Catholic Church in the image of the Episcopal church. But how’s that working out for the Episcopalians? In 1980, there were 56,167 Episcopal Church child baptisms; in 2019, there were only 17,672—a 68% decrease. Not exactly a model worth emulating.
I would propose a better way than the Synodal Way, one that might appear counterintuitive, at least to those who have embraced the modern Catholic status quo. Instead of trying to please the surrounding culture and be more like it, go in the opposite direction. Stop trying to please the world and start trying to convert it. Specifically, the Church needs to be robust, unapologetic, and distinctive.
A robust Church is one whose members are active in the public square, proclaiming the truths of the Faith and working to influence the direction of the culture. No more apologizing or being embarrassed when the culture disagrees with us. We have been given the words of eternal life by our Lord, and we are obligated to share them with the world.
Being robust may also mean standing up to the culture and the State. So when a government bureaucrat tries to say that public Mass is non-essential, we simply ignore that ignorant buffoon and celebrate Mass publicly anyway. The Church must stop being run by lawyers who make us all slaves to worldly consequences rather than servants of eternal truths.
Quit apologizing for reality. Yes, we can and should apologize when men or women in the Church do something sinful or harmful. But we can’t apologize for teachings that are rejected by the world but are actually life-giving. So we don’t apologize for declaring that same-sex sexual activity is sinful, or that a man can’t declare himself a woman no matter how much makeup he puts on or how many surgeries he endures.
We will be called “haters” and “dangerous,” and we might face social or even legal persecution. But think about what sacrifices Catholics throughout history have made so that the Faith might be passed on to us. Are we going to drop that baton simply because we are afraid our neighbors won’t invite us over anymore? Or because we might lose our jobs?
Finally, it’s not time to blend in. If you don’t stand out, if you’re not distinctive, you’re not doing it right as a Catholic today. Another way to say this is that we must be anti-relevant. It’s a common myth that we need to be more like the non-Catholic world in order to attract people to Catholicism. So we must make our liturgies, our music, our parish buildings, and everything else as much as possible like the surrounding culture.
Your typical suburban Catholic parish barely stands out from the surrounding neighborhood and could double as an Elks Club. Yet that desire to blend in is deadly. If we are simply one choice in the marketplace of ideas—one that is little distinguished from others—then we will surely be passed over. And the exodus out of the Church reveals the error of this method.
We need to zig when the rest of the world is zagging. We need to embrace what makes Catholicism distinctive, such as beautiful and timeless liturgies, awe-inspiring architecture, and uncompromising moral stands. Yes, many will reject that message, for we live in a fallen world. But those who recognize the destructive path this world is on are yearning for an alternative, and full-throated Catholicism is it.
The future looks bleak, but there is another path forward. It’s not a bureaucratic answer—the Synodal Way—but a change of heart—a better way: the embrace of a robust, unapologetic, and distinctive Catholicism.
[Photo: Bishop Georg Bätzing (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)]