New German Guidelines open Pandora’s box

March 16, 2017
Source: District of the USA
Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks at the German bishops' conference.

New pastoral guidelines issued by the German Bishops’ Conference for implementing Amoris laetitia aggravate and exploit its ambiguities

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, said at a March 6 press conference that when he gave Pope Francis a copy of the guidelines, which recommend admitting some divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Communion after a process of “accompaniment”, the Pope “received it with joy” and “considers it to be right”. The Cardinal’s statements, as translated by Dr. Maike Hickson, were originally reported at OnePeterFive.

I was able to speak with [the Pope] about it, and he considers it to be right that the local Churches make their own statements once more, and that they therein draw their own pastoral conclusions.” 

The Holy Father has not yet answered the dubia presented to him by the four cardinals.

Since the 1980’s, some German bishops have repeatedly raised the question: Why not admit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Holy Communion? The controversy received a disproportionate amount of attention in the recent two-part Synod on the Family (October 2014, October 2015). Now, in 2017, taking advantage of the ambiguities of the post-synodal exhortation by Pope Francis, German bishops are making, in public, conflicting statements about the pastoral guidelines issued by their own national conference.

The crucial passage in the guidelines says that divorced-and-remarried Catholics, after a process of accompaniment and discernment, may make “a decision in conscience” to receive Holy Communion, “a decision which must be respected”. Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, when asked why the German bishops made individual conscience the standard, replied:

Because we are firmly convinced that this is the intention—according to the word as well as in the spirit—which Pope Francis himself desires and takes, and which we thus carry forth [implement] with him.”, the website of the German Bishops’ Conference, published on February 3 an interview with Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of the Diocese of Augsburg, who points out many practical difficulties with the new pastoral guidelines, complaining that “now someone else has to come and interpret the document for us.” He notes that for generations now the consciences of German Catholics have been poorly formed, that pastors are already overburdened with their responsibilities of teaching young people, and preparing married couples. How are parish priests going to help divorced Catholics go through a process of discernment “as the Pope now demands it”? Bishop Zdarsa fears that this will lead to “premature decisions” or “other causes of conflict which cannot yet be adequately foreseen.”

Schisms in the parishes

In February the popular news magazine Der Spiegel published an article entitled: “Conservative Priests Reject Initiative of German Bishops’ Conference.” It reports that representatives of the Network of Catholic Priests, Opus Dei, the Legionnaires of Christ, and other conservative groups in Germany speak now of confusion about the sacrament of marriage and “schisms in the parishes”.

Father Gero P. Weishaupt, a canon lawyer and author of books on marriage, commented on social media:

Chaos reigns now, especially among bishops. The Cardinal of Cologne [Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki] said yesterday […] that he does not rule out a schism. The Pope will not be able to avoid having to clarify the matter.”

Conscience in the internal forum

The German Bishops’ have opened Pandora’s box, and with their new pastoral guidelines they may even have thrown away the lid. Dr. Hickson reports that throughout the document “only the words ‘pastoral’ [ministry] and ‘pastoral caretaker’ (without further definition) are now being used; the word ‘pastor’ or ‘priest’ is nowhere to be found.” This raises the possibility that lay pastoral workers will take up the slack in accompanying divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

In early February also published an interview with Ute Eberl, a lay woman and pastoral care worker for the Diocese of Berlin, who comments as follows on the new German pastoral guidelines:

The advice to get in contact with a pastoral caretaker is excellent. Next to a priest, this can first also be a person to whom one is close, who accompanies someone through a separation, but then also rejoices about the new relationship. The [document], therefore, is not a way of restricting people to a new order of rules and conduct, but breathes a great liberty.”

Dr. Hickson repeatedly wrote to the press office of the German Bishops’ Conference, asking who may officially accompany “remarried” Catholics as described in Amoris Laetitia and the pastoral guidelines. She received a terse reply from Dr. Michael Fell that merely cited canon 519 in the Code of Canon Law, which describes the pastor of a parish, who in fulfilling his duties may rely on “the assistance of lay members of the Christian faithful, according to the norm of law.” There was no answer to her request for further clarification of the last phrase. She raises the question: “To what extent will laymen now have jurisdiction in the Church?”

Dr. Hickson’s question is not alarmist. The Catholic Church in Germany has seen the rise of a “parallel Magisterium” made up of academic theologians, some of them laymen, that has repeatedly challenged the divinely instituted teaching authority of the Church on crucial issues. The new German pastoral guidelines appear to be setting up a “parallel internal forum” to “guide” Catholic consciences outside of the Sacrament of Confession. 

Upside-down allegiance?

The Church is indeed living in interesting times if the German bishops are now taking the lead in obeying orders from Rome. In the February 2 issue of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), commentator Mathias von Gersdorff wrote about the new rules for the “remarried” divorcees: “All the other bishops’ conferences in the world will now have to ask themselves with which arguments they will now deny the Pope their loyalty in this question.” This sarcastic remark assumes, however, that the German bishops have in fact interpreted Amoris Laetitia correctly. Pope Francis can end the confusion very easily by answering the five dubia