Pope Francis and the possible German schism

Archbishop Aquila

As he was approaching his death, Jesus prayed that the Church would be one, that it would be unified. Looking back in history and at the present times of tumult within society and the Church, it is vitally important that we remember our unity comes from remaining in relationship with the Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit, not from adopting the values of the world.

Speaking to God the Father, Jesus said in John 17, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” We are those who believe in Jesus through the word of the Apostles, as generations of Christians born before us have. The unity of the Church is not just for our own sake, it’s also for the world, so that it will believe that the Father sent Jesus.

Those who read Catholic-related news know that Pope Francis recently spoke about the danger of schism within the Church. He told a reporter that he prays that a schism doesn’t happen, but he also acknowledged that one is possible. “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom,” the Pope said, adding, “I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.” Human freedom has been the cause of schisms throughout the history of the Church, and before the Church, among the people of Israel. Yet, as we know from Christ’s words, it is essential for believers to remain united.

Unfortunately, recent developments in the Church in Germany, led by Cardinal Marx and most of the German bishops, risk damaging the unity of the Church universal. These bishops and a sizeable group of lay people plan to hold a synod that takes binding votes on whether to change doctrinal matters like the ordination of women, blessings of same-sex unions and sexuality-related topics. In his June letter to the German Catholics, Pope Francis warned, “Every time an ecclesial community tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.” This is because in schisms there is a failure to listen to the voice of God and the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit, who always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.

It is disappointing that the German bishops have pledged in recent days to forge ahead with their plans, despite the intervention of Pope Francis and a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet that called their proposal “not ecclesiologically valid.”

The antidote to this potential wound to the Body of Christ is seeking union with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, who are the source of the Church’s unity. Those who remain in love with each person of the Trinity, do not seek out their own path. For this reason, the Catechism teaches:

“The Church is one because of her source: ‘the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.’ The Church is one because of her founder: for ‘the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, … restoring the unity of all in one people and one body.’ The Church is one because of her ‘soul:’ ‘It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity’” (CCC, #813).

One only need look at the history of those Protestant communities that are constantly splitting from each other over doctrine to see the impact of replacing the faith with societally acceptable beliefs.

Jesus teaches us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…” (Jn 15: 5-6). One can easily observe in history that changing teaching to remain in step with the modern morality does not fill churches. Only encountering Jesus Christ, remaining faithful to him no matter what the cost, and staying attached to the vine bears fruit and fills churches.

A perfect demonstration of how love for the Holy Trinity yields unity comes from the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. When he experienced the cold, love-shattering existence of Auschwitz concentration camp, the Nazi creed held that Jews, some Protestants and the Church must be dismantled to make way for the values of the Reich. But instead of withering in these conditions, St. Maximilian was a conduit of love, a branch who stayed connected to the vine of Jesus. He was on fire with love for Christ and his Church, which he often reminded others “has nothing to do with sweet tears and sentiments but is a matter of a free will which holds fast to love even despite our aversion and hesitancy.”

For the Church to remain united, we must all strive to love and remain connected to Jesus Christ and his teachings and not those of the world. We must put our faith in Jesus Christ and be confident that he is faithful to his promises. Look at how often in the Gospels Jesus compliments the faith of the person he has healed. Contrast this with when the apostles showed little faith as they were tossed about in their boat by a raging storm. Jesus did not urge them to have less faith but rather to stop cowering in fear and cease worrying. A strong faith, confident in Jesus and his power and authority, brings about the strength to live the Gospel. It is truly the work of God, as Jesus reminds us, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

Photo: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: The bullies and that book 

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Immediately after news broke on January 12 that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written a book on the crisis of the priesthood in the 21st-century Church, online hysteria erupted — which rather underscored the prudence of a New Year’s resolution I had recommended to concerned Catholics in a January 1 column: “Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere.”  

The extraordinary venom spewed at the pope emeritus and the cardinal by more than a few commentators did not advance the Church’s discussion of the reform of the priesthood one jot or tittle. It actually retarded that urgent discussion, diverting attention from some urgent issues (including the deep roots of the abuse crisis and the meaning of clerical celibacy) by treating a serious book as if it were a partisan political tract.  

Yet the cacophony over the Benedict/Sarah book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, did serve two useful purposes: it spoke volumes about the character of the venomous, and it clarified some of the dynamics roiling the Church as the pontificate of Pope Francis approaches its seventh anniversary on March 13. 

The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty — and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time;” another wizard from the left field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.” Neither man has the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality? 

The attack on Cardinal Sarah was equally vicious and just as ill-informed. I have had the honor of knowing the Guinean cardinal for several years and, like anyone who has spent significant time with him, I have found him a man of profound holiness: a truly converted disciple of Jesus Christ whose ministry flows from his radical fidelity to the Lord. Despite the caricatures perpetrated by those who evidently fear his present and future influence in the Church, Cardinal Sarah has also struck me as a man of Christian joy, still amazed at the grace of God that has been at work in his life, and therefore able to laugh (in that robust way that only Africans can) at the human foibles of the moment. Cardinal Sarah was not laughing, however, at the claim that he had lied about the origin and nature of From the Depths of Our Hearts and his righteous, if controlled, anger confirmed what those who actually know him understand: this is an honest man.  

These calumnies against Benedict and Sarah were amplified by another absurd charge: that by discharging their minds and consciences on what is necessary for an authentic reform of the priesthood, the pope emeritus and the cardinal were somehow interfering with Pope Francis’s “discernment” after the Amazonian synod of this past October. So it has now come down (and I do mean down) to this: the partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.  

These are not the tactics of advocates convinced that they have won the substantive argument and are likely to continue winning. These are the tactics of those who, fearful that time is running out, imagine that their only recourse is to resort to bullying.  

There is nothing of churchmanship in this, nor is there anything of Christian charity. The reform of the priesthood is essential for the evangelizing mission of the Church. Those who dismissed a serious proposal for such reform, in large part by vilifying its authors, branded themselves as less interested in reforming the priesthood of the New Covenant than in ecclesiastical power-games. 

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano