In a meeting with Pope Francis on Saturday, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, bishop of Mainz in Germany, spoke about some of the current events gripping the Church in Germany since last year. He advocated caution and expressed concern in two of these cases: the continuing ‘leave of absence’ of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his Diocese of Limburg, and the German bishops’ efforts to broaden access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried faithful without taking current Canon Law and teaching into account.
About the first topic he said, in an interview for Domradio.de:
“Francis is amazingly well and correctly informed about that. I told him that I consider the Bishop of Limburg to be a very wise, highly educated and courteous person in whom I have never noticed any sign of wasteful swank. However, the procedure [against him] was burdened with a policy of secrecy fueled by a media campaign. I am worried that if we do not reach a solution soon, the atmosphere of optimism which was triggered by the Pope’s election will be threatened. For the process encourages mistrust and a hostile mood against the church.”
Once again it seems clear that those who know Bishop Tebartz-van Elst personally do not recognise him in the image that his opponents and the media have created. Related to this, Archbishop Georg Gänswein also said that he expects that the ongoing investigation by the German Bishops’ Conference will be concluded positively for Bishop Tebartz-van Elst.
About the second topic, Cardinal Lehmann said:
“The question of receiving the sacraments is one that can’t be avoided, it must be addressed, but not in the first place. The Church must concern itself about people in broken and damaged relations – and these especially include the divorced and remarried. They have their own place in the Church. But one must accurately consider the specific situations. One can’t proclaim only mercy in all cases, justice is a part of mercy. This relationship must be reflected upon carefully.”
No one is blaming the German bishops for exploring new avenues of pastoral care for people in broken relationships, including persons who have civilly divorced and remarried. Cardinal Lehmann, while being a bit general in his comment, seems to be indicating that one sweeping reform of the whole practice of pastoral care is not something to be desired. Specific cases need to be considered well. Leaving the decision to receive the sacraments to individual person’s consciences, as the bishops are suggesting, is the opposite of that. It is very timely that the cardinal explains that mercy is far more than just being nice. Surely allowing everyone to receive the sacraments is very nice, but is it merciful? Justice, in service to the wellbeing of the faithful, is also merciful. Doing the right thing, while not necessarily pleasant at the time, is merciful in the long run.