An open letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Your Eminence:

I noted with interest your recent announcement of a “binding synodal process” during which the Church in Germany will discuss the celibacy of the Latin-rite Catholic priesthood, the Church’s sexual ethic and clericalism, these being “issues” put on the table by the crisis of clerical sexual abuse.

Perhaps the following questions will help sharpen your discussions.

1) How can the “synodal process” of a local Church produce “binding” results on matters affecting the entire Catholic Church? The Anglican Communion tried this and is now in terminal disarray; the local Anglican churches that took the path of cultural accommodation are comatose. Is this the model you and your fellow-bishops favor?

2) What does the celibacy of priests in the Latin-rite have to do with the sexual abuse crisis? Celibacy has no more to do with sexual abuse than marriage has to do with spousal abuse. Empirical studies indicate that most sexual abuse of the young takes place within (typically broken) families; Protestant denominations with a married clergy also suffer from the scourge of sexual abuse; and in any event, marriage is not a crime-prevention program. Is it cynical to imagine that the abuse crisis is now being weaponized to mount an assault on clerical celibacy, what with other artillery having failed to dislodge this ancient Catholic tradition?

3) According to a Catholic News Agency report, you suggested that “the significance of sexuality to personhood has not yet received sufficient attention from the Church.” Really? Has St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body not been translated into German? Perhaps it has, but it may be too long and complex to have been properly absorbed by German-speaking Catholics. Permit me then, to draw your attention to pp. 347-358 of Zeuge der Hoffnung (Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2002) the German translation of Witness to Hope, the first volume of my John Paul II biography. There, you and your colleagues will find a summary of the Theology of the Body, including its richly personalistic explanation of the Church’s ethic of human love and its biblically-rooted understanding of celibacy undertaken for the Kingdom of God.

4) You also note that your fellow-bishops “feel…unable to speak on questions of present-day sexual behavior.” That was certainly not the case at the Synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018, where German bishops felt quite able to speak frequently to these questions, albeit in a way that typically mirrored today’s politically-correct fashions. And I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just when the German episcopate last spoke to “present-day sexual behavior” in a way that promoted the Church’s ethic of human love as life-affirming and ordered to human happiness and fulfillment, at least in the years since its massive dissent from Humanae Vitae (Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the ethics of family planning)? But that, as I understand Pope Francis, is what he is calling us all to do: Witness to, preach, and teach the “Yes” that undergirds everything to which the Church must, in fidelity to both revelation and reason, say “No.”

5) The CNA report also noted that your “synodal process” (which, in a nice tip of the miter to Hegel, you described as a “synodal progression”) would involve consultations with the Central Committee of German Catholics. My dear Cardinal Marx, this is rather like President Trump consulting with Fox News or Speaker Pelosi consulting with the editors of the New York Times. If you’ll pardon the reference to Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca, even we blundering Americans know that the ZdK, the Zentralkomitee der Deutschen Katholiken, is the schwerpunkt, the spearhead that clears the ground to the far left so that the German bishops can position themselves as the “moderate” or “centrist” force in the German Church. You know, and I know, and everyone else should know that consultations with the ZdK will produce nothing but further attacks on celibacy, further affirmations of current sexual fads, and further deprecations of Humane Vitae (based, in part, on the ZdK’s evident ignorance of the Theology of the Body and German hostility to John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the renovation of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor).

Your Eminence, the German Church — the Catholicism of my ancestors — is dying. It will not be revitalized by becoming a simulacrum of moribund liberal Protestantism.

I wish you a fruitful Lent and a joyful Easter.

Featured image by Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

COMING UP: A tale of two Georges   

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When a pope is elected, the cardinals who have just chosen him make their way to the Hall of Benedictions atop the narthex of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a challenging journey for some: In 2005, the frail, 79-year old Cardinal William Baum was carried out of the Sistine Chapel, through the basilica, and up to the Hall of Benedictions by his conclavist-secretary, Msgr. Bart Smith, doing a fair imitation of Aeneas toting Anchises out of Troy as sculpted by Gianlorenzo Bernini.

As the new pontiff is presented, the cardinals appear at the windows flanking the central loggia of the basilica; there, they receive the first papal blessing with the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. On March 13, 2013, two cardinals remained behind for a few moments, alone in a window after Pope Francis retired for the night. They seemed pensive, these experienced, thoughtful, and prayerful men, both of whom had worked hard to reform troubled dioceses. The Church had just experienced an unprecedented form of papal abdication; the conclave had resolved itself quickly in favor of a candidate unfamiliar to many electors; what was coming next?

One of those men was the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, who died in 2015. The other was his friend and ally, Cardinal George Pell, then the archbishop of Sydney, later the Vatican’s chief financial officer. Some years before, Cardinal George had shocked the priests of Chicago by suggesting, almost offhandedly, that while he would die in his bed, his successor would die in jail and that man’s successor would be executed in the public square – after which the martyr’s successor would, as the Church had done so often in the past, help pick up the fragments of a broken civilization and start again. It seems unlikely that, on the night of March 13, 2013, Cardinal George imagined that his hypothetical scenario would be dramatically accelerated, the only difference being that the friend beside him would be the one in jail. And Cardinal Pell would be in prison, not for the defense of life or religious freedom, but because of a wickedly perverse conviction on uncorroborated charges of sexual abuse that a jury had been shown could not possibly have happened.

There are, as sociologist Peter Rossi used to say, many ironies in the fire.

We may hope and we should pray – intensely – that Cardinal Pell’s conviction is reversed on appeal. If it is not, the innocent cardinal will become a prison evangelist and a witness to Christ behind bars. Australian justice, on the other hand will have suffered a devastating blow from which it will take a long time to recover. And reasonable people will wonder whether it is safe to do business or travel in a country where a fever-swamp media and secularist bigots have the capacity to distort the legal process into a grotesque parody of democratic maturity.

But even if the appeal is successful – as it should be on any rational grounds, and if the words “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean anything in Australian courts – the assault on the Church and its leaders will continue. The issue of clerical sexual abuse has been weaponized. And that weapon is being used, not to deal with abominable sins and crimes that cry out to heaven, but to settle all sorts of other scores, ecclesiastical, political, and, in Pell’s case, financial, given the corrupt practices the cardinal was exposing.

The acceleration of Cardinal George’s prediction of cardinals-in-jail should also give pause to those who blame the abuse crisis on “clericalism.” Clericalism – the evil misuse of the respect those in Holy Orders rightly enjoy because of their sacred office – facilitates abuse; it doesn’t cause it. Like the charge of abuse, the “clericalism” trope has been weaponized by the Church’s enemies, to the point where it is becoming difficult for any Catholic cleric charged with misconduct to receive a fair hearing or a fair trial. The vicious public atmosphere on display in Australia whenever the words “George Pell” are spoken is not improved by senior churchmen, in Rome and elsewhere, blaming abuse on “clericalism.”

From his present station in the Communion of Saints, I have no doubt that Francis George is interceding for George Pell, and for the vindication of justice by the judges who will hear the Australian cardinal’s appeal – even as the American cardinal regrets how prescient he was.

Featured image by Mauricio Artieda | Catholic News Agency