During their recent ad limina visit in Rome, the German bishops heard a message from Pope Francis that could have come straight from the mouths of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (here). While the bishops had not, or only grudgingly, accepted it from the latter two, they seemed enthusiastic when spoken by our current Pope. He told them they should decentralize the Church and be wary of its progressive institutionalization, something Pope Benedict called for during his famous Freiburg speech in September 25, 2011. At the time, his message was dismissed and was falsely interpreted as a call for the withholding of tax subsidies from the Church. Though one might think the latter worthy of consideration, his actual message concerned the spirit of worldliness in the Church and to what Pope Francis has called “careerism.” Pope Francis admitted it was difficult to reach people who have become worldly—and, one might add, even more so when the clergy are equally affected—and called for a new missionary spirit.
What solutions did Pope Francis offer? Not a falsely understood aggiornamento (a watered down faith to satisfy the lukewarm), which many in the Western Church have been pursuing assiduously, but by a return to the sacraments. One might have thought that he was quoting from Cardinal Cordes’s jeremiad: his public letter to the German episcopacy (published in the Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost on March 7 [here]). Cordes had spoken about the German hierarchy’s superbia given its belief that the Catholic world was looking to Germany for guidance during the synod (here and here). What reason, Cordes asked, is there for doing so given its waning Mass-attendance, lack of vocations, high number of apostasies, and the failure to frequent the sacraments? Pope Francis referred to this crisis, called for the safeguard of Catholic doctrine and for the promotion of the life of the faith by encouraging people to return to the sacraments, including confession.
I still remember priests in their homilies discouraging people from going to confession in the 1970s and ’80s during my childhood in Germany. This was no longer necessary in the following decades, since people had practically stopped going altogether. Indeed, it seemed that the only sinners taking recourse to that sacrament were daily Mass-goers, while the rest of the Church was apparently sinless! If indeed confession were promoted anew, as Pope Francis demands, then the problem would be addressed at its roots. We would become aware of our sinfulness and, therefore, of our need of a redeemer who has given us the Church and the sacraments for our salvation.
Priests play a key role in the renewal of sacramental life. Without them, as the Pope said verbatim, there can be no Eucharist. Hence, no lay-participation can replace the priest. This definitely goes against the current trend. I know, for example, a Catholic hospital in Germany, where the religious refrain from having a Mass said on a specific day of the week, even though a priest is available, because “we need to get use to the time when there will be hardly any priests left.” Catholic universities and departments of Catholic theology at secular universities need to maintain their Catholic profile, the Pope continued, in order to enter into dialogue with the world. This is a tall order given the German Catholic academic landscape. One may well wonder what kind of radical transformation it would take to accomplish this goal. But the fact that this Pope, who has the public persona of a liberal, has called for it should cause us to ponder his words. One wonders if the pope’s personality and manner will encourage the German Catholic hierarchy to be more receptive to his challenge, or will they simply fail to realize the radical nature of the message? Alternatively, will they simply pretend to assent while maintaining the status quo as they usually do?
One of the most prominent cases of disobedience involved John Paul II regarding the German Church’s approval of counselling certificates that allowed women to procure an abortion. Since 1993, one of the legal requirements in Germany for an abortion has been to attend one counselling-session. By signing this certificate, the Catholic counselling centers were cooperating in the evil of abortion, making it legally possible. For many years, John Paul II had asked the German Church to stop this practice, but it continued. Finally in 1999, the German episcopacy agreed, except for bishop Kamphaus in Limburg who was stripped of his authority over the counseling centers in his diocese in 2002 by the Pope.
The organization, Donum vitae, was founded in part by a Catholic laypeople’s movement (Zentralkommittee deutscher Katholiken) to continue the practice in clear disobedience to the Church’s teaching, yet sometimes with the implicit benediction of the bishops until their official condemnation in 2006. The new head of the lay association, Prof. Dr. Thomas Sternberg, has just spoken out against the Church’s ruling in a manner that anticipates a change of policy in the organization’s favor (here and here). This again is a sign of the way worldliness clouds minds and hardens hearts.
Yet, there are some positive signs in the German pro-life world. For the past annual March for Life in Berlin in September, Cardinal Marx sent his greetings, as well as bishop Hanke from Eichstätt, and bishop Algermissen from Fulda. Another sign of hope is the recent acquittal of the German prolifer, Klaus Günter Annen, by the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg whose freedom of speech had been curtailed by some German courts (here and here). What he said about the German legal system on leaflets he handed out in front of abortion facilities was acknowledged to be true (abortion is a crime, but de-penalized for the first 12 weeks of gestation); his comparison of abortion to the Holocaust was deemed an exercise of his freedom of expression, and his listing of abortion doctors on his website was not considered defamatory, if these doctors really do perform them and mentioned it on their websites.
This is a momentous decision opening up new possibilities for pro-lifers in Europe who have been muzzled in various ways. They will still be falsely accused of harassing women, when all they do is offer help and counseling to them outside abortion facilities. They will continue to be called fools at best, or hateful fanatics at worst. But at least, they will have more hope to reach those who need it most and who can then realize that compassion and real alternatives are available to them.
One may still question the prudence of Annen’s approach and many pro-lifers choose different words and methods when offering help to women on their way to abortion facilities. Even so, his work has achieved positive results. A spade still needs to be called a spade; killing is killing. It is an important wake-up call to say so, when one has gotten so used to a horrific injustice that it has taken on the appearance of banality
When we get used to evil because it has been legalized, is universally promoted and defended by the elite culture and its organs of propaganda, it can seem innocuous, even right. If victims are killed with little trace, if they have no voice or are simply not heard, then the scene is set for the perfect crime—perfect because it is not even recognized as a crime anymore, but as a service rendered to humanity. Those raising their voices against this injustice are looked upon as radicals, hatemongers, fools, or criminals. These dissenters make for the perfect scapegoats; and a self-righteous anger, which should be directed at the crime itself, is vented upon them instead. In this way, the perpetrators shield themselves from the evil they commit.
The clips on Planned Parenthood that have surfaced over the past months showing in gruesome ways how body parts of aborted babies are being sold, have proven to be a salutary wake-up call, shaking people out of their moral stupor. Mind you, it is not so much the selling of the body parts that should shock us as the actual killing of these children. But when evil has become habitual, it takes something new to rouse our ire. If these videos don’t cause us to act, then nothing will.
The Pope is calling not only Germany, but the whole world to a change of heart, to defend the defenseless and to recognize its own sinfulness. The assurance of God’s mercy towards the biggest sinners, forgiving even the greatest crimes against humanity, will hopefully resound throughout this year of mercy. The Divine Father truly rushes to embrace us, but we must accept him—otherwise we will be left to our own devices with the destructive potential when man becomes the measure of things rather than God. The last century has given us ample evidence as to where this leads!
Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pope Francis listens to an address by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising during the German bishops’ ad limina meeting at the Vatican, Nov. 20, 2015. (Photo Credit: L’Osservatore Romano)