The crisis in the Catholic Church in Germany declared itself 45 years ago with the “Königsteiner Erklärung,” a declaration of the bishops regarding Humanae Vitae in 1968. Therein they toned down the Church’s teaching, leaving it up to the conscience of individuals to decide whether to use contraception or not. The Austrian bishops did the same in the “Mariatroster Erklärung.” In 2008 therefore, Cardinal Schönborn, the head of the Austrian bishops’ conference, spoke about this as the “sin of the European episcopate.” These declarations have set the tone for the decades to come, and the faithful have in consequence become increasingly Protestant and heterodox in spirit.
A few days ago, a document from the archdiocese of Freiburg was leaked. The scandal was even greater than it should have been, since it first sounded like an official pronouncement. However, what came to light is bad enough. Zollitsch, who is head of the German bishops’ conference and archbishop of this diocese, which is the second-largest in Germany, explained that this paper had been issued without his permission, and was an unfinished working-paper for the diocesan pastoral conference, meant to discuss the improvement of the pastoral care for the divorced-remarried. The paper allows Catholics who are divorced and remarried to have access to the sacraments without repentance involving a change of life-style. All they need to do is have a few pastoral conversations, i.e. speak with a priest about the faith and the reasons their marriage broke down, in order to be allowed to receive communion again. The sacraments which are open to them in the list are communion, confession, confirmation, and the sacrament of the sick. Furthermore, they are allowed to be elected into a parish-council, an office from which they had been barred so far. Finally, they are offered a benediction for their second marriage, if they so wish. In order to distinguish it from their first marriage, which is still considered valid in the eyes of the Church, it is given less prominence; the ceremony is therefore not to be held the day of their civil wedding (in Germany, because of the separation of Church and State, the civil wedding has to precede the religious wedding anyway).
Zollitsch tried to smooth the troubled waters by sending out a letter to his fellow-bishops in Germany by explaining that this paper was leaked, but then stated that it nonetheless gives “provisional impulses” and is a “good contribution” to the discussion; he is thereby enforcing an already present nationalizing trend of the Church in Germany diverging from Rome.
One may well wonder how an archbishop of such prominence can propose ways of action (which are also going to be suggested at the episcopal conference) which can in no way be reconciled with the doctrine of the Church. This reveals what German Catholics have known for many years, namely that from the top down there has been a trend moving away from some of the “harder” truths of the faith in order to surrender to the Zeitgeist.
That the divorced remarried are in dire need of better pastoral care is clear. Pope Francis has called for this, and this concern will be addressed during the synod for the pastoral care of the family in Rome in October 2014. This needs to start with a better marriage-preparation, helping the faithful understand the nature of the sacrament and the seriousness of the step which they are undertaking. But how much spiritual help do the divorced and remarried actually get? How many dioceses offer support groups for the divorced to help them live their celibate life following Christ (thus helping them avoid the temptation of a remarriage)? How many offer to speak about their broken marriage and help (reconciliation, or an annulment, if there is a chance of it not having been a valid sacramental marriage, for example)? How many make known John Paul II’s wonderful invitation in Familiaris Consortio: “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life.” How often is it made clear to them that they are very welcome to come to mass, even if they cannot receive communion (and why they cannot receive the Eucharist)? (As a response to the events in Freiburg, the auxiliary bishop of Salzburg, Andreas Laun, clarified the position of the Church, showing why it is no way lacking in mercy.) Are they encouraged to keep that longing for the Eucharist alive which might hopefully give them the strength one day to set things right—be it by leaving their second (invalid) union or by living chastely together while they are raising their children? Some may want to turn back to the church once their spouse has died; but if the relationship with the Church hasn’t been kept alive, then they are less motivated to return.
Why does one hardly ever hear about a celibate life as a real option for the divorced? This is a hard road to tread and a difficult cross to bear; in the eyes of the world it seems impossible. Hence the witness of those who are on this journey is so important. Good pastoral care should include the stories of people who have walked this path, even though it was painful. The strength for this can only be gathered through a life of prayer. Fortunately, there are groups like this in the United States and in France, for example. The continuous plea to God for help out of a situation where one foresees much suffering for oneself and others if one leaves a second marriage will not go unheard. The prayer which acknowledges one’s own brokenness touches God’s heart most; it is the way par excellence of St Thérèse of Lisieux. The man in the temple who says “have mercy on me, a poor sinner” prays from his heart, while the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not a sinner is not praying at all. Of course, God wants us to follow His commandments; without this, we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven. But we can only do so by the grace of God. Hence the help one offers to the divorced and remarried needs to be a spiritual one, expressing itself as well through genuine human warmth and support; simply reiterating the teachings of the Church is not enough, and this is what Pope Francis meant in his statements in his interview with Spadaro, if I understand him correctly. Similarly, the prolife movement grasped many years ago that it was not enough to say that abortion was wrong; women in crisis pregnancy situations needed to be offered concrete help, and thus various elaborate forms of assistance were developed. Similarly, those who are divorced need concrete help, rather than a simple reminder about the teachings of the Church.
It is true that if one looks at the website of the diocese of Freiburg, one can find evidence, here, here, and here, that conferences are offered for those going through a separation or a divorce, or on how to build up a good marriage in the first place. I don’t know what people are told during these conferences or during private counseling in the diocese, but the working-paper does not bode well. Why not offer people a heroic choice? Christ did the same. He did not tell the Samaritan woman to leave her “husband”; instead, he confronted her with the truth which was that she had gone through a string of relationships which had broken down. But he only did so in the context of offering her the spring of life, namely Himself (John 4). Only He can make us bear the loneliness this entails. Only He can give us the grace to make these heroic choices which feel like death, but ultimately give life. My guess is that each one of us is confronted with a heroic choice at some point in our lives. Most of us don’t have to shed blood for our faith, but many have to give up something they would have wanted tremendously, or at least a fake consolation to make up for its absence. Those who’d like to be married, but don’t find a spouse are called to celibacy, as are those in religious life, or those with same-sex-attractions; this is a daily cross they must embrace if they wish to follow Christ. Those married might meet somebody whom they find tremendously attractive, but they cannot give in to that attraction if they want to remain true to their marriage-vows and Christ. Or this heroic choice might be situated in another domain, like refusing to make an unethical choice and therefore never getting the promotion they would have desired; or refusing to try IVF, though this means remaining childless.
Having been raised in Germany, I have heard for years priests in various parishes preach that “the official Church in Rome says this” (“die Amtskirche”), while they say the contrary on matters such as premarital sex, contraception, divorce (and sometimes not even making the distinction between doctrine and their own heterodox beliefs). When John Paul II did not want ecclesial institutions to be involved in the abortion-business (in Germany, every woman wanting an abortion has to have a counseling-session, for which she gets a certificate; this certificate becomes her ticket to an abortion, and the counselors thus become material cooperators, de facto signing the death-warrant for the child), it was a long tug of war between the German bishops and Rome before they agreed. Some members of official voice of the Catholic laity (Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken) founded a counter-group, Donum Vitae, which is still involved in the counseling forbidden by Rome, and the Zentralkomitee has generally adopted an agenda contrary to Catholic teaching concerning women’s ordination, divorce and remarriage, and contraception.
Will there be a new schism in the German Church? Some say it has de facto already happened a long time ago without having been openly declared. That it won’t take much to occur is certain, for the German Church is to a great extent already Protestant in doctrine and spirit. Benedict XVI was keenly aware of the direction the German Church was taking, and Pope Francis, we can assume, knows the situation well from his studies there. Let us pray that the worst can be avoided.
Author’s note: To be precise, Zollitsch (pictured above) is since mid-September apostolic administrator of the diocese until a replacement can be found, since he is now officially retired as archbishop of Freiburg.