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: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images