One day before his 80th birthday, and his retirement from Curial functions that comes with it, Cardinal Joachim Meisner makes some bold and critical statements in an interview for Deutschlandfunk. The archbishop of Cologne is known to be in disagreement with most other German bishops about if, when and how divorced and remarried Catholics can be allowed to receive the sacraments. In that respect he is very much in agreement with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
He also speaks about being critical of Pope Francis, in a personal conversation no less. He says:
“During my last visit to Pope Francis I was able to speak very freely with the Holy Father about all kinds of topics. And I also told him that his proclamation in the form of interviews and short statements leaves many questions unanswered, questions which should be explained further for the uninformed. The Pope looked at me with surprise and asked me to please give him an example. And my reply was that, in his return from Rio to Rome, on the airplane, he was asked about the question of divorced and remarried people. And as the Pope said, divorced people can receive Holy Communion, remarried divorced people can not. In the Orthodox Church it is possible to marry twice. That was his statement. And then he spoke of mercy, which in my experience, which is what I told him, is only understood in this country as a substitute for all human failings. And the Pope very energetically replied that he is a son of the Catholic Church and is not saying anything but the teachings of the Church. And mercy must be identical to truth, or it doesn’t deserve the name mercy. And in addition, he emphasised that when theological questions remain, then there is the important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to formulate and explain the details. And you must always remember that this Congregation, which before the Council was chaired by the Pope himself, is still the first in the Curial order. And you can’t relate to the Prefect as a private person, just because he was once a member of the Bishops’ Conference.”
This is pretty unheard of, that a cardinal so freely discusses his disagreements with the Pope. Pope Francis’ reaction is no less interesting, of course. It shows how he wants the Curia, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the lead, to function. Not as a behemoth controlled by the Pope, but as a body assisting the Pope in his ministry. And I think that also shows us how we should all act as Catholics. We should be willing and able to explain and clarify in love, to proclaim, not just by speaking about Jesus Christ, but also by knowing and living our faith, even in the face of misunderstanding and adversity.
Cardinal Meisner was also asked about demands from certain groups that the Church should adapt to the times. Such sentiments were heard anew in the wake of the Synod of Bishops’ questionnaire. Although this was never intended as a means to ask the faithful for their opinions on Church teaching, many have used it as a chance to express theirs nonetheless.
“The Church must conform to the Word of God and not to the opinion of people. As Church we must know the opinions of people, to be able to proclaim the Word of God accordingly. But conforming, as they are asking, is not a part of the Gospel. It is amazing that the Evangelical Church has defined, with her position paper on questions of sexuality, a total alignment to the so-called spirit of the times. And what does the state of the Evangelical Church look like? As I understand, the number of people leaving it are even higher than ours. That can’t, ultimately, be because of the question of sexuality.”
Isn’t the cardinal afraid to stand alone, to become isolated, because what he says is not in accordance with what others are saying?
“I am not afraid to stand alone. During my school days in Thuringia I was the only Catholic boy, pupil. And I was always a part of everything and never allowed myself to be isolated. The mission of the ZdK (Central Committee of German Catholics) is to make the Gospel visible and have effect in the secular dimension, as it’s called, in the world. And here this group must seriously ask itself if they have remained true to their mission and vocation? You are asking if, in this context, I have no fear of being isolated? I have real concern for those people who bend their faith to themselves and who make their own faith, and who do not accept in awe what Christ Himself has entrusted to us. There is no solution there.”