Germany: What If There Is a Schism?

February 22, 2023

What would happen if the German Catholic Church – or at least a significant part of it – formally broke the bond of Roman unity, adopting a new mode of governance and a new teaching, in order to conform to the aspirations of the Synodal Path as it unfolds across the Rhine?

Si vis pacem, para bellum. [If you want peace, prepare for war.] In a situation where the Church is being confronted with an increasingly complex set of global challenges, it is useful to reflect on the ecclesial impact of various scenarios which, while they remain hypothetical, do not completely lack plausibility: such is that of the formal schism of all or part of the Church in Germany.

From the point of view of the number of faithful, this rupture would not have great consequences: what do the 22 million German Catholics, of whom only a minority still go to Mass on Sundays, represent in view of the 1.3 billion faithful in the world?

Neither does Germany contribute in any significant way to the universal Church in terms of clergy recruitment. According to a study published by the German bishops' conference on January 25, 2023, there are currently only 48 candidates to the priesthood in the 27 dioceses of the country. By comparison, India, with roughly the same Catholic population in terms of faithful, trains about ten times as many new priests each year.

In fact – and the reader suspects this – it is primarily upon the purse of the Apostolic See that a formal schism would have the most significant impact.

Carsten Frerk, a journalist specializing in the study of Church finances in Germany, estimates the assets owned by the dioceses at around 460 billion euros, including 150 billion in capital, the rest being made up of real estate.

As most know already, German Catholicism benefits from an advantageous tax system within which part of the taxes paid by taxpayers who declare themselves to be Catholic go directly into the Church’s purse. This represented 7 billion euros in 2021.

It is a tidy sum from which the Holy See benefits in part, since about a quarter of the Vatican's income comes from the contribution of German Catholics, and another quarter from that of American Catholics. If Germany cut ties with Rome, an annual deficit of 90 million euros could expand. 

At the level of ecclesial policy, the lines would also have to move. A German schism could lead to the universal Church moving “to the right,” after seeing how much the demand for openness carried by the progressives is doomed to become uncontrollable.

Seeing in this almost a windfall effect, a group of German Catholics opposed to the Synodal Path - Neueur Anfang, “New Beginning” - believes that a schism would, all in all, have a beneficial effect, since in this case only the most conservative elements would remain in Roman unity.

Thus, the “strategy” to be adopted for Catholics takes on a counter-intuitive aspect. For conservatives, allowing the aberrations of the Synodal Path to multiply until there is a rupture would make it possible to achieve a “moving to the right” for the universal Church. Progressives, for their part, would have an interest in curbing synodal ambitions in order to avoid the swing of the pendulum they fear.

It is perhaps in the light of this analysis that we must understand the reservations made to the Synodal Path a few months ago by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a historic figure of progressivism in Germany.