The German bishops are offering us a new kind of Christianity despite their claim that no change is being proposed other than in pastoral approach and language. A new pastoral approach would be commendable if applied as Pope Francis intends, to accompany the broken, wounded and lost into the field hospital that is the Church. However, this is not the intention of the German bishops. It is easy to disguise a substantial change to the meaning of marriage by calling it simply a pastoral innovation. The recent confidential day of studies organized by Cardinal Marx, Bishops Markus Büchel and Georges Pointier, heads of the German, Swiss and French bishops conferences respectively, at the Gregorian University in Rome on May 25, 2015, points in that direction as have other statements over the last few years.
It is unclear whether the other bishops from these countries knew of this meeting, titled “Reflections on a Biblical hermeneutics of Jesus’ words regarding divorce.” The initial impression that it was endorsed and attended by high-ranking curial officials has somewhat dissipated when it became known that only two had been present: the undersecretary of the Papal Council for Legal Texts, Markus Graulich, and the Jesuit Bernd Hagenkorn, leader of the German section of Radio Vatican. Furthermore, Italian commentators were wondering why the representatives of four major German newspapers were invited, but from Italy only a journalist from the anti-clerical La Repubblica. Cardinal Marx, it seems, is already preparing a way out for the Church in Germany, as the bishops had regarding Humanae Vitae, leaving it up to the “conscience of the individual” to decide as they then stated in their “Königsteiner Erklärung” in 1968. Their objective, it would seem, is to do what they have done for nearly 50 years: act independently of Rome’s authority and teaching without causing a schism. However, an unofficial schism (which already exists) has its advantages: remain popular by giving people what they want, while enjoying the prestige that comes from being representatives of a major world religion.
A new “theology of love” was defended by the problematic moral theologian, Eberhard Schockenhoff, and joined by like-minded contemporaries in Germany and elsewhere whose ideas directly challenged, it would seem, those contained in Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” Schockenhoff’s ideas can easily be interpreted in very destructive ways. If bodily acts are irrelevant in matters of love, as he suggests, then anything goes: fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, etc. Yet bodily acts carry great significance, as the spouse of an adulterer can attest. Neither the married couple nor the adulterous third party can take this faithless act lightly in the name of love. It is a grave wound inflicted on marriage, on the innocent spouse and on the souls of the adulterers. Yes, love can heal, but not by pretending that the offense did not matter. What the divorced and remarried do is therefore significant, and the Church needs to maintain its clarity on these issues while reaching out to them in new ways. Otherwise, the temptation is great for the couple to think that all is well. Allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion and an official blessing will seem like an approval of their continued adultery—as long as the original marriage is considered valid.
This meeting at the Gregorian University is all the more worrying, since it has been preceded by a number of statements and papers, not least Cardinal Kasper’s famous intervention at the preparatory meeting for the synod in February 2014. Last December, the German bishops’ conference came out with some confused pastoral directives regarding the divorced and remarried, trying to cover their heterodox nature with ambiguous formulations. After the plenary session of the German bishops’ conference in February of this year, Cardinal Marx said at a press conference that the German bishops were not affiliates of Rome, but were autonomous in terms of their pastoral care. This is an interesting new appropriation of the meaning of pastoral, for it includes some doctrinal changes, despite what he may claim.
However, Marx’s outrageous statements were challenged by the German cardinal Paul Cordes in an incisive, and at times, ironical letter to the editor of Die Tagespost, an orthodox Catholic newspaper. Cardinal Cordes, as president emeritus of the pontifical council Cor Unum, spoke with authority. Marx highlighted the need to meet the expectations of Catholics regarding the debate over the divorced and remarried. But if one looks at the number of people attending mass, leaving the church, failing to believe in some of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, one can hardly identify any successes of German episcopal leadership, wrote Cordes. This is just another sign of the incredible blindness of the German hierarchy. Other than being exemplary in its help to the poor all over the world, the positive fruits of German faith are hard to find. Rather than admitting that the direction over the last 40 years has been a failure, the bishops have decided instead to throw not only the baby out with the bathwater, but the bathtub as well, making renewal that much more difficult.
They use misleading terms like “new solutions” and “opening doors” that offer only heterodox solutions and doors open to error, leaving people with false hope. While the Church should try new ways to reach those who live lives contrary to her life-giving teachings, she must remain faithful to the gospel. The key is to meet people in their misery and show how Christian truth offers a path to happiness and redemption. To do otherwise would be like lulling the prodigal son asleep while he is feeding the pigs, instead of reminding him of the house of his Father where he is longingly awaited. Only God can give the grace to extricate someone from seemingly impossible situations that alone seem to promise some happiness. He alone can give strength, hope and a real inner joy to those who have given up on relationships grounded on lies.
Cordes’ riposte will certainly have been heard back in Germany. Happily, he is not the only sign of hope. Bishop Oster from Passau has spoken out clearly against the various moral heterodoxies suggested over the past few months, and he is not the only orthodox bishop. Cardinal Müller as head of the CDF also has a position of great importance and has corrected many misconceptions. The Pope goes to see him in his apartments frequently, while Cardinal Kasper’s star seems to be sinking. Small pockets of the German Church are spiritually vibrant, though this is hardly reflected in the hierarchy or in the official body of the laity, the Central Committee of Catholics. The faithful who pray, go on pilgrimages, attend the yearly conference “Freude am Glauben” and read the excellent faithful papers like Die Tagespost and Der Fels are signs of hope, as are the Catholic faithful thinkers who speak out. The yearly March for Life in Berlin is another inspiring endeavor.
The Church needs the prayers of the faithful, for the storm is raging in Germany. The Central Committee for the Catholic laity recently recommended giving homosexual unions a blessing in Church. Even though this proposal was condemned by the bishops, including Marx, it lays the groundwork for future changes. For the committee’s proposals make these heterodox practices seem normal and pave the way for their general acceptance. Invariably pressure will be put on the bishops to approve these practices. The president of the German Lutheran church (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, has just called for homosexual “marriage” within his church at its yearly meeting and this will shape the Christian mainstream.
When Pope Benedict came to Germany in 2011, he famously said in his speech on September 25 in Freiburg that the Church needed to shed its worldliness. His words were not heeded. Pope Francis’ statements to the same effect receive widespread praise, but whether they will be put into practice is a different question. It has been suggested that money explains the motivation of German bishops who fear losing church taxes makes them cave in to the Zeitgeist. I don’t share this perspective. The Church is rich, as is the country. Much would need to happen before it loses its income. Wanting to march lockstep with the spirit of the times, hoping thereby to make Christianity more acceptable, wanting genuinely to help yet guided by a false sense of mercy, seem to be the more likely explanations. For who wants to be a skandalon, a corner-stone over which people stumble?
Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied the death of God with empty churches as a consequence. But it didn’t take outsiders to kill God. His people and especially his apostles are perfectly capable. For by hitting marriage in its center, we kill love itself. It is absolutely central to our lives, to our salvation, to our society and for the well-being of our children. A Christianity that pretends it can do without marriage while claiming to be acting out of compassion, has taken on the trappings of Christianity while leaving us with an empty shell. This is one of the faces of the anti-Christ rearing its ugly head as it has throughout history. Our society has already fallen for it hook, line and sinker. We abort our children in the name of compassion, and kill the elderly out of mercy. We produce children for the infertile while killing the imperfect in the process. We call for mercy for the divorced and remarried, yet throw the children of the original marriage together with the abandoned spouse under the bus. This is the nasty underbelly of a false kind of compassion and mercy. By their fruits you shall know them. The signs, I think, are clear for those who are willing to see.
Let us pray to the blessed Mother, the Queen of peace, to give us the kind of humility, love of truth and true compassion it takes to overcome this crisis in the Church. Holy Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is German cardinal Reinhard Marx.