ROME – At venues such as the National War College in Washington, future leaders in politics, intelligence and the military are challenged to ponder the strategic implications of various hypothetical, but still real-world, scenarios: What if Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? What if China invades Taiwan? What if Israel bombs nuclear facilities in Iran?
Though no one can predict the future, the idea is to look at plausible future developments and to consider what the best strategic response would be, before the crisis is actually upon us.
The Catholic Church has no real equivalent of a War College, but it probably should, as it too faces a complex and shifting set of global challenges. As an illustration of the kind of exercise such a program in Ecclesiastical Strategic Studies might offer, let’s take a scenario that doesn’t seem that far-fetched right now: A formal schism in Germany, driven by its controversial “synodal path.”
What would it mean, should at least some portion of the German church actually break ties with Rome, adopting a new leadership model based upon the idea of a “synodal council” in which bishops and laity jointly make decisions?
First of all, and from a strictly strategic point of view, it might not matter much in terms of Catholicism’s human capital. Nominally there are around 22 million Catholics in Germany today, but with a Mass attendance rate of just 14 percent, there are only 3.1 million German Catholics who participate regularly in the life of the church.
For a church with a global following of 1.3 billion, three million may not quite be a rounding error, but it’s close.
Nor is Germany contributing a great deal in terms of personnel. According to a report published by the German bishops’ conference on Jan. 25, there are presently just 48 candidates for the priesthood in all of the country’s 27 dioceses. India, which has roughly the same Catholic population, produces around ten times that number of new priests every year.
On the other hand, the loss of Germany, or some chunk of it, would be a real blow to Catholicism’s finances.
Carsten Frerk, a journalist and author who’s made a career out of studying ecclesiastical finances in Germany, estimates the total wealth of the country’s dioceses at around $460 billion, of which he believes $150 billion is capital and the rest real estate and other property. German Catholicism benefits from the country’s church tax system, in which a small percentage of income tax payments are directed to the church to which a German taxpayer belongs.
In 2021, German Catholicism netted $7 billion from the church tax. Among other things, those resources have allowed the Catholic Church to become Germany’s second largest employer behind the state, with a total payroll of some 800,000 employees. The church tax also allows the German church to make sizeable contributions to Catholicism across the developing world, through foundations such as Misereor and Adveniat.
In addition, the Vatican’s annual expenses come to roughly $1.1 billion, according to the most recent financial report, which are covered through three main sources of revenue: investments and financial activity, earnings from real estate holdings, and contributions from Catholic dioceses. Each year the United States and Germany run neck-and-neck in terms of which country contributes the most, with each representing around a quarter of the Vatican’s diocesan income.
Should Germany walk away, the lack of its contributions could, therefore, create a roughly $90 million annual shortfall for the Vatican.
Where things get truly interesting is the political impact of a German schism. Seemingly, the most probable net effect would be to drive Catholicism to the right.
For one thing, Germany has been a strong source of support for the progressive reforms associated with the Francis papacy, from an opening to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to lay empowerment, outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics and points beyond. Although there certainly are strong conservative voices in German Catholicism, including the circles around the late Pope Benedict XVI, its center of gravity nevertheless leans left.
Moreover, should Germany break away, it likely would be read by the rest of the church as a cautionary tale about allowing liberal demands for change to get out of hand. Conservative voices who’ve been warning of just such an outcome in Germany, including some figures in the American episcopacy, would feel vindicated.
In addition, church leaders would be compelled to find other donors to make up for the financial consequences of a German schism. Given the fact that the readiest sources of funding in Catholic life tend to skew to the right, it’s reasonable to think a Vatican with its hat in hand could become more reliant on conservative personalities and institutions.
Recently, a group of conservative German Catholics known as Neuer Anfang, or “New Beginning,” who are opposed to the synodal way, actually called for a formal schism as “most straightforward solution” to “clarify the situation of the German particular Church.” It would mean “a rejection of the model of the People’s Church, and to a sharpening of the ecclesiastical profile of both parties, which [would] break down into visible options [between] which one has to decide,” they said.
Presumably, Neuer Anfang is assuming that whatever would remain of German Catholicism after such an earthquake would be primarily its most conservative elements.
If that’s the analysis, it would seem to suggest a counter-intuitive dynamic in which it’s in the interests of liberals around the Catholic world to rein in the German push for reform, while conservatives might encourage it to spin out of control.
In other words, in response to the time-honored analytical question of cui bono? or “who benefits?”, in the case of the German synodal path, this scenario suggests the correct answer might turn out to be: “Not who you think.”
Whether this analysis is correct, of course, is a matter for debate. If it’s an example of the fun and games we could have in Ecclesiastical Strategic Studies, however, sign me up!