Pope Francis and the possible German schism

Archbishop Samuel J. 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: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.