ROME – Back in the mid-1980s, rebel Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff was the enfant terrible of Latin America’s liberation theology movement, and he had a couple of celebrated run-ins with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar under St. John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI.
At one point, Ratzinger jokingly said of Boff that his problem was that he’d “read too much German theology.”
Boff was indignant, insisting that the origins of liberation theology were in the experience of the Latin American poor, especially the comunidades de base, or base communities, and the movement was therefore autochthonous rather a colonial import.
Yet Ratzinger undeniably had a point, because Boff spent 1965-70, meaning the immediate post-Vatican II years, at the University of Munich in Germany studying under Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, an intellectual hero of the progressive reform forces at the council. There Boff also came under the influence of another German Catholic theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, whose “political theology” in some ways was a precursor to the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America.
Perhaps the take-away is that just as no man is an island, no movement in Catholicism is ever purely local. The Catholic Church is universal, so ideas developed in one place inevitably have an impact elsewhere – even if those impulses are always refracted through a given place’s experiences and priorities before they take root.
Flash forward more than thirty years later to the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and one could pretty much make Ratzinger’s joke all over again.
Consider four prelates in the synod who’ve spoken in favor of the ordination of the viri probati, meaning tested married men: Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, the synod’s relator, or chairman; retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu, Brazil; Bishop Carlo Verzeletti of Castanhal, Brazil; and Bishop Eugenio Coter of Pando, Brazil.
One way of summing it up is that four Brazilians are in favor of married priests. Another way of saying it, however, is that three Europeans and an ethnic German are in favor of married priests, since Hummes is the son of German parents and studied in Switzerland, Kräutler was born in Austria, and Verzeletti and Coter are Italians from Brescia and Bergamo respectively; both are in Lombardy, a former province of the Austrian empire still influenced by the Teutonic mindset.
In fact, because the Amazon is still considered mission territory, it’s inevitable that clergy and religious from various parts of the world play major roles and have an impact on its discussions. Given that Brazil contains the lion’s share of the Amazon, and given the strong German imprint in Brazil, inevitably that means German-language Catholicism has an especially strong impact on Catholic life there too.
In other words, one might say that just as the Rhine flowed into the Tiber at Vatican II, in the words of the title to Ralph Wiltgen’s controversial history, so today the Rhine is also flowing into the Amazon.
The irony is compounded by the fact that the Amazon synod opened against the backdrop of controversy over a “synodal way” approved by the German bishops, involving a roundtable between the bishops and the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics, or ZdK, the country’s largest lay organization, slated to begin the first day of Advent. Its first plenary session is scheduled for the end of January 2020.
Those plans have been controversial because of the topics slated for discussion, which include power and authority in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood, including mandatory celibacy; and the role of women. Conservative critics fear progressive positions will prevail, while the Vatican has insisted that because those matters involve the universal church they can’t be decided at the local level.
In truth, all those topics have been important in German Catholicism at least since Vatican II, and now one of them – priestly celibacy – is also an issue for the Amazon, with bishops and other figures who are either themselves German, or influenced by the German church, playing important roles.
It’s interesting that to date, arguably the single most important intra-ecclesiastical decision made by Pope Francis has been the cautious opening to Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church in his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, following two Synods of Bishops on the family in which the German contribution was decisive – perhaps especially that of retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, now 86, who first floated the idea back in 1993 as the diocesan bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.
Now Francis may be poised to make what some would take as an equally momentous decision, in favor of permitting a wider use of married priests in the Latin rite church, and once again Germans are in the vanguard. It’s worth recalling in that regard that when Francis discussed the idea of married priests on his way back from a trip to Panama in January, he cited a book by retired Bishop Fritz Lobinger, a 90-year-old German who spent his career as a missionary in South Africa.
Logically speaking, of course, the origins of an idea are unrelated to its intrinsic merits. Advocates of a married priesthood in the Amazon adduce arguments both theological and practical, and it really doesn’t matter what part of the world those advocates come from, or are influenced by, in terms of assessing how cogent their case is.
However, there’s no denying the irony that history’s first pope from Latin America, who’s currently presiding over a synod on the Amazon – which might suggest a break from the European debates and controversies that have long dominated the Church – is nevertheless smack dab in the middle of them, both in the old world and the new.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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