Looking ahead at the Amazon Synod, Bishop Bode hints at married priests

bode_purpur_240In a recent interview for a documentary broadcast on Monday in Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück seemed rather ahead of events. The documentary discussed the future of the Church when there is a shortage of priests, and Bishop Bode spoke about the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, scheduled for next year. One of the expectations for that Synod is that it will discuss the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood, as the shortage of priests is also a problem in the Amazon, where settlements are often few and far between, and faithful sometimes have to make do with one Mass per year. Ordaining married men would, the supporters of the idea, say, alleviate that problem, as it makes more men available for ordination. If there will actually be more men presenting themselves at seminaries remains a good question, though.

What that idea in mind, Bishop Bode said that, if the Synod would decide in favour of ordaining married men, the German bishops would also ask for that option to be implemented in Germany. “If it is possible in principle,” he explained, “it should also be in situations where the need is different.”

The Catholic Church maintains that priests should live celibate lives. That is obviously incompatible with marriage, although married priests do exist in the Catholic Church. Usually these are former Protestant ministers who converted and later became priests. These are exceptions which take into account the specific situation of these men. The Church is not going to say they are no longer beholden to the obligations of marriage when she recognises the validity of their vocations to the priesthood. She takes marriage serious enough to prevent that. In such cases the Church is able to allow a dispensation from the law on celibacy, since it is not a divine law. Currently, she does so on a case-by-case basis, so there is no general law allowing dispensation from the obligation of priests to live celibate lives.

What Bishop Bode is hoping the Synod on the Amazon will allow is exactly such a general law, and he is not wrong when he says that if it can be done for a diocese in Brazil, it should also for one in Germany. But will it truly solve the problem? Maybe the bishop knows of throngs of married men wishing they could be priests, but I somehow doubt it. I think that the shortage of priests is tied to the shortage of active faithful and the lacking visibility of the Church. Bishops are struggling to counter these trends by merging parishes and giving parish priests responsibility for wide swathes of territory, but that is merely fighting the symptoms. The heart of the problem lies in clear teaching, visible charity and honest devotion. In the end, men must be attracted to the priesthood because of these, and not by the problems that will arise if they do not come.

 


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Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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Rome has spoken (maybe) – two of the seven bishops explain themselves [Updated]

At the time of my writing this there is no official word from Rome yet, but strong rumours started to surface yesterday that Rome has issued a decision in favour of the seven German bishops who had serious doubts about the proposed pastoral guide concerning Communion for non-Catholics, that the German Bishops’ Conference had voted for in February. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rumours say, has studied the matter and the final decision is explicitly endorsed by the Holy Father. The official statement may become public, but it appears that the question was deemed important enough to lead to an unusual swift decision, made all the more significant by papal involvement.

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210While the letter by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Schick and Bishops Zdarsa, Hanke, Ipolt, Voderholzer and Oster received much attention in the media, the signatories themselves treated it as a normal matter of correspondence. Cardinal Woelki, who was visiting Ukraine when the news broke, expressed his surprise at the hype and the talk about dissent. Presenting the questions about intercommunion to Rome was not so much a matter of going against his fellow bishops, but rather came from the importance of the matter: “With several bishops, we were convinced that it would be good to universally coordinate the solution that we have discussed and established here, with an eye on the unity of the Church and the common ground with the other particular churches.” Cardinal Woelki is not so much opposed to the proposals from the conference, to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion with their partner on a case-by-case basis, but does not think it is a decision that should be made by the German bishops alone.

osterThe most extensive explanation for signing the letter comes from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. In an article published in the diocesan magazine and on his personal website, he emphasises that the debates within the bishops’ conference have always been fraternal and respectful. He then goes on to explain his reason for signing the letter to Rome.

“The Eucharist is so central to us Catholics, that it expresses the basis of our entire understanding of faith and church. Someone who is able to say “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, says yes to the communion with the Pope and the bishops and with the saints that it implies. He says yes to the special priesthood, the prayer to the mother of the Lord and for the dead – to name just those points which distinguish us, for example in the understanding of what a church is, from our Evangelical brothers. In essence our being Church is expressed in its most dense and concrete way in the Eucharist.”

The proposal from the German bishops includes the idea that a non-Catholic with a strong desire to receive the Eucharist, and after confirming the Catholic understanding of it, can do so. They claim that this is one of the exceptions in which a non-Catholic can receive, normally in an emergency and danger of death. But Bishop Oster rightly states that a person with the desire to receive with his or her spouse is not automatically in danger of death and “has time and opportunity to enter into the Church, as he or she already shares the same understanding of Church and Eucharist.” The bishop wants to know if this desire is indeed a serious necessity or even danger which would allow a non-Catholic to receive Communion.

The proposal also creates some strange ecumenical discrepancies:

“At the same time the proposal states that the Catholic spouse can not join in the Evangelical Last Supper, since the understanding of this Last Supper is so clearly different. This means that, according to the logic of the proposal the Evangelical partner can receive both Eucharist and Last Supper, but the Catholic can not. The Evangelical partner is trusted to somehow uphold both understandings of faith, but not the Catholic, since they do not go together. I think it is very difficult to communicate this!”

Bishop Oster also no romantic notions of how such a change would be generally received by the faithful:

“Experience with past regulations show us that what are depicted as singular cases here, will be perceived by the general public as a broad permission, in the sense of: “Now the others can finally come to Communion with us.”

The first reactions support this reading, the bishop says, and that may lead to a trivialisation of the Eucharist. “After all, we rightly call the Eucharist “the most holy”, and how we treat it is, in my opinion, very important.”

The bishop of Passau ends his article with a second reminder that, despite what some media claim, there is no schism among the German bishops, and nor will there be.

“I am fully convinced that the bishops who think differently also want what is best for the Church and ecumenism. For us signatories the unity of the bishops’ conference, as well as progress in ecumenism, is also important. But we wonder if the path chosen can be taken in this way – and very much want to receive a deeper explanation.”

EDIT (19-4): The German Bishops’ Conference released a statement today in which it declares that any reports about a decision against the pastoral document from the bishops about intercommunion are false. The Holy Father has, however, issued an invitation to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the conference, to discuss the issue in Rome. Cardinal Marx has gladly welcomed this invitation. Who will take part in this discussion remains to be seen.

Photo credit: [1] Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

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Bishops refuse to stand up against Pope, and with good reason

Earlier this week, a group of 20 Dutch Catholics wrote a letter to the bishops of the Netherlands, asking them to take a position against the course on which Pope Francis is taking the Church. It made international headlines (such as on sensationalist LifeSiteNews).

The letter lists a number of cases which prove their point, although some are rather far-fetched (they seem to see the Holy See’s acknowledgment of the existence of people such as feminists, Protestant, Muslims and homosexuals (let alone meeting them) as tantamount to supporting their ideas and opinions). The majority of points are related to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and that footnote in Amoris laetitia. All of their points, the writers say, can be summarised under the headers of Modernism and Protestantism. In this papacy, they see a resurgence of 1960s ideas which were buried under previous Popes.

The letters asks three things from the bishops, that they express themselves:

  1. In favour of an integral upholding of Humanae vitae;
  2. In favour of teaching and practice regarding reception of Holy Communion by validly married people in a new relationship;
  3. In favour of upholding the moral teachings regarding homosexual relationships;
  4. In favour of upholding the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, following the example of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium); especially in favour of upholding the teachings regarding the supremacy of God’s Law above the subjective conscience.

They also ask the bishops to join the request for clarification, the dubia, presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner.

The signatories of the petition feel supported by comments made in recent months and years by Cardinal Wim Eijk, who has repeatedly argued that Pope Francis should clear up the confusion caused by different interpretations of Amoris laetitia.

The four points mentioned above are misleading in that they assume that the bishops are currently not upholding these teachings. As current Church teaching stands, the bishops are upholding it, and while it is true that other bishops’ conferences are interpreting papal documents and statements differently, that does not change anything about the doctrine regarding human sexuality, reception of the sacraments and the relationships with people of other faiths.

Via their spokesperson, the Dutch bishops responded as follows:

“This week, the bishops have sent a joint response to the signatories of the petition.

The bishops let it be known that, while the issues addressed are important, they will speak about them directly with the Holy Father when they wish to do so, and not with the signatories of the petition.”

Of course, it was never very likely for the bishops to sign on to the dubia in any public way. Which is not to say that they automatically disagree with any of them. As mentioned above, Cardinal Eijk has rightly been critical about the different interpretations allowed by Amoris laetitia and the lack of any kind of clarification from the Pope. But, and I think they are right in this, the bishops seem to be of the opinion that no doctrine has changed since Pope Francis was elected, and they have acted accordingly, at least as a conference.

But the signatories of the petition write from a position which is not only highly critical of Pope Francis, but also from a world view which is wont to see conspiracies everywhere (with the traditional teachings of the Church as the main target of these conspiracies). This is a problem with a significant part of more conservative Catholic groups. They see enemies everywhere, and non-Catholics are especially suspect. This colours their views on ecumenism and relations with other faiths, as well as on people who do not live according to the ideals of the Church. So, while the petition is correct about the need for clarity, it presumes too much when it asks that the Church essentially stops talking to people with different outlooks (at least until they confess and convert). This negates the need for the bishops to agree to the petition, as they have already asserted that doctrine hasn’t changed, clarity is desirable in the case of Amoris laetitia, and cordial relations with non-Catholics are necessary and do not necessarily constitute any agreement with them.


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“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


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For Hildesheim, the new bishop comes from Rome

csm_Heiner_Wilmer_2_9bf3e15c8cWhat’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:

“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.

There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.

On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.

On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.

But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”

The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.

Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in  1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.

Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”

Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:

“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.

[…]

Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”

From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.

“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”

Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.

The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.

With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.


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Breakaways – seven German bishops go against the conference’s grain

In Catholic social media, the German episcopate is frequently represented as a singular monolith, and a liberal one at that. Following their recent decision to explore ways in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholics can receive Holy Communion together with their partner, cracks start to appear in that image. Although the decision, which I wrote about here, was made after a two-thirds majority of the German bishops voted in favour of it, seven bishops have expressed their concerns to the Vatican.

sevenbishops

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, and Bishops Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Stefan Oster of Passau (above) have signed a letter in which they asked the Holy See to clarify the extent to which a bishops’ conference can decide on the accessibility of Holy Communion. They wonder if the decision is not contrary to the doctrine of the faith and the unity of the Church, and claim that the bishops exceed their limits of competence when they say that non-Catholic spouses can receive Communion, albeit under certain circumstances (a formulation that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has denounced as mere lip service). The letter was sent to Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, responded with a letter to all German bishops – a decision motivated by the fact that the letter concerns a decision made by the entire conference and was sent to the Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio. In his response, he emphasises that no decision has been made to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion, but that there is a working document which may still be amended or changed. The cardinal also reminds the authors that bishops’ conferences and individual bishops have the right, according to canon law, to determine when Holy Communion can be given licitly to non-Catholics.

It is a rare event for members of a bishops’ conference to go beyond their elected president and appeal directly to the Vatican, especially in the case of a majority decision. But on the other hand, it is the ordinary, not the bishops’ conference, who has final say about and responsibility over what happens in his diocese. The concerns of the seven bishops is directly related to their duties as shepherds of their diocesan flocks, and deserves to be taken seriously. Will there be an answer forthcoming from the Holy See? It is not unlikely, even in a time when honest concerns about matters of doctrine have remained unanswered. But unlike the dubia cardinals, the seven German bishops are not appealing to the Pope, but to two curial departments. And it is especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s duty to clarify matters of doctrine and, in this case, to delineate the limits of freedom of bishops’ conference. In that sense, this may be something of a test case in the relationships between bishops and conferences, as well as conferences and the larger world Church.

Photo credit: [2] dapd/sjl


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