What is really at issue in the current stand-off between the German Conference of Bishops and the CDF? There are, I think, three things. They are not particularly German; and they are not trivial.

The first concerns the very nature of the universal church.  Is it a confederation of regional or national churches (like the Anglican Communion); or is it a unity whose doctrine is held, semper, ubique et ab omnibus?

The second concerns the respective roles of the Pope and the diocesan bishops. Are bishops (and the Holy Father himself) a remora against doctrinal novelty, charged with safeguarding the faith handed down by their predecessors; or do they simply exercise voting rights which, by some ill-defined democratic process, allow adventitious changes to be made in faith and morals?

The third concerns the very patterns of decision- making. Liberal Catholics (and the German bishops’ conference in particular) seem to have adopted a principle – they misname it ‘Mercy’ – which runs clear contrary to reason and tradition: they hold that hard cases make good laws.

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