The latest news from Germany does not engender confidence that the Catholic bishops have had any success in resolving the myriad problems that have plagued the Church over the past several decades. In an interview in the February issue of the Catholic Italian monthly Il Timone, Cardinal Müller said, “one cannot say there are circumstances in which adultery is not a grave sin.” The German bishops in their recently published guidelines regarding Amoris Laetitia (AL) state the opposite, quoting the Holy Father no less. Philadelphia prohibits the admission of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist, while Argentina allows it in some cases with the blessing of the Holy Father. The bishop of Malta and the bishop of Gozo leave it to the conscience of the individual while the German bishops do the same while claiming this is not wholesale admittance to the sacraments for all. If this is not a time of crisis, I don’t know what is. A closer look at recent developments in Germany may offer clarity and insight into the diverse reactions to Amoris Laetitia worldwide and how orthodox faithful can best respond.
It would be unfair to blame Germans for all that is wrong in the Church. Indeed, two of the four cardinals who signed the dubia (Meisner and Brandmüller) and one who supported it later (Cordes) are Germans. Some might have wished for a different manner of formulating the dubia, or indeed of not making them public, but these questions to the Holy Father should be seen at the very least as the expression of worry and confusion among the faithful. They, as well as the petition from the Confraternities of the Clergy in the US, Britain and Australia, and Ireland, representing over 1000 priests throughout the world, are a call for clarification.
What exactly do the German bishops say in their guidelines published February 1, 2017? Much of it is good: they demand a better preparation for the sacrament of marriage, help for married couples in difficulty and sensitive accompaniment of those whose marriage has broken down. All of this is essential, and the lack of proper pastoral care for couples over the past decades helps explain the widespread breakdown of Catholic marriages. The German couple, Norbert and Renate Martin, who have belonged to the Pontifical Council for marriage and the family (now the Dicastery for laity, family and life) for 30 years, asked in their article in the Catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, why these suggestions were not immediately adopted after John Paul II wrote Familiaris Consortio the year following the synod on the family in 1980. Furthermore, they rightly ask where the bishops will find people to provide this new pastoral support given that Church membership has been steadily declining over many decades. Their dramatic failure to reach people with the Gospel suggests that the real renewal needed is a conversion of the heart, a stripping away of worldly trappings asked for by Pope Benedict but adamantly refused by the German hierarchy.
The German bishops say that “at the end of such a process” of accompaniment and reintegration into the Church “there does not necessarily stand the reception of confession and the Eucharist.” Indeed, they explicitly deny that this should be understood as the automatic permission for everybody. Yet how realistic is this? Ultimately, as the text states, the individual must make the decision in the forum of his own conscience. We know where the suggestion of the German bishops in the Königsteiner Erklärung led, when they stated that the faithful should decide according to their own conscience whether or not to use contraception (though the current case is not identical in every respect). Here we are, 50 years later, with such a universal use of contraception that if one suggests otherwise in Germany, one is considered a fundamentalist of the worst kind.
The bishops say that laxity, as well as rigorism, should be avoided. Yet, holding on to doctrine does not imply rigorism as such. Rigorism occurs only when decisions are motivated by a judgmental spirit, with a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to help those in difficult situations. It is easy to accuse those who see these new pastoral guidelines as a weakening of the sacredness and indissolubility of marriage as pharisaical. However, self-righteousness is a danger for everyone regardless of his theological disposition. One can defend laxity in a rigorous and moralistic way, believing wrongly that this will offer protection from the charge of hypocrisy, while at the same time angrily condemn those who disagree. Unfortunately, the bishops’ guidelines themselves, as well as the practice in Germany over the past decades, have fallen into the trap of laxity, because of a false understanding of mercy.
The guidelines rightly state that the three steps of accompanying, discerning, and reintegrating the divorced and remarried are a great challenge. Yet Bishop Heiner Koch, the president of the episcopal commission on marriage and family in Germany, in his recent interview with Die Tagespost states that the priests in Germany are well trained and prepared to meet the challenge. I was surprised to read this since there is a widespread perception that priests have by and large received a confused, heterodox formation, lacking in spirituality, and understand themselves as social workers who have come to face the sad truth that they cannot help many people. For who can when relying mainly on weak human love instead of divine caritas?
Yet, the German-speaking episcopal world is not monolithic. The bishop of Augsburg, Konrad Zdarsa, said in an interview on February 3, to the Catholic TV channel KTV, that this approach meant burdening the priests with a tremendous responsibility for which many are not prepared. Furthermore, he thought the media were jumping to conclusions about supposedly admitting the divorced and remarried to the two sacraments in question. The bishop of Chur in Switzerland, Vitus Huondor, stated in a letter to his diocesan priests, that the admittance to communion could not be left to the subjective estimate of the person in question, but depended on objective criteria, namely living in fidelity to one’s first marriage vows, i.e., in chastity with one’s civilly remarried spouse.
One cannot help but think that Cardinal Müller had the Germans in mind, and was perhaps timing his recent interview in Il Timone accordingly, when he stated that AL “should be understood in light of the whole doctrine of the Church.” He certainly has interpreted it all along with Familiaris Consortio in mind, indicating that only those living chastely among the divorced and remarried were allowed to receive communion. In that same interview, he suggested that the bishops needed to read again what the last two councils have said about the role of the pope as well as the Church’s teachings on the seven sacraments. He “didn’t like that so many bishops interpret AL their own way, the way they wish to understand the teaching of the pope.” The bishops must not interpret the Holy Father but follow his clear instruction. But what to do if papal statements in AL are unclear to many?
When Müller says that nothing changes the fact that adultery is always a serious sin, he himself seems to be contradicting the pope in AL, which the German guidelines quote, namely that “not all who live in so-called ‘irregular’ situations are in a state of mortal sin” (AL 301).
One thing, however, is clear: the confusion surrounding AL has encouraged unreasonable expectations among divorced and remarried couples, while raising the possibility of conflict between parish priests and bishops who interpret AL differently.
In Germany, in any case, the thing is a done deal, as it has been for decades. Already in 1993, parts of the German bishops’ conference had wanted to support the proposal written by the bishops from the province of upper Rhenia to admit the divorced and remarried to communion, if they decided so in good conscience. This, however, was struck down by the CDF in 1994, but the practice has continued. Not many divorced and remarried couples will seek out the guidance of a priest if they are already allowed to decide on their own. The guidelines will only confirm them in their modus vivendi.
However, the discussion is anything but over within the universal Church. Which is why Müller reacted strangely when he told the Italian channel TG COM 24 that AL did not need further clarifications, an apparent response to the four cardinals who authored the dubia. Roma locuta, causa finita. But when Roma’s locuta is anything but clear, then it needs to speak again, before the causa is truly finita.