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The Crisis of the German Hierarchy Comes to a Wrongheaded Head

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 05, 2014

Sadly, the German cat is now rather obviously out of the bag, at least for those who thought it was still in the bag: German bishop demands change in Church teachings on sexuality. Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier is using the recent survey in preparation for the Synod on the Family to prove that Catholic teaching on human sexuality is no longer tenable and must be changed. His position has been defended by Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, who added that the Church cannot “keep repeating prohibitions or reservations.”

The silver lining in the Ackermann-Feige cloud is the defense of Catholic doctrine by two other German bishops, Heinz Joseph Algermissen of Fulda and Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg. These men realize that pastors have failed to persuade people of the wisdom of Church teaching, but know that Catholic morality does not (and cannot) depend on popular opinion. There is an obvious battle line here, and it is good that battle has been joined. But there are two larger issues at stake which I hope will emerge decisively in the immediate future.

The first is that the effective acceleration of Catholic renewal and the New Evangelization requires zero ecclesiastical tolerance for demonstrably heterodox bishops. Yes, the modern episcopate has gotten healthier over the past twenty years as the heady Modernism and secularism of the 1970s and 1980s has waned. Yes, seriously deficient bishops are more likely to be quietly eased out of office, or at least promptly retired, than they were a generation ago. But most people alive today have not yet seen a pope act decisively to remove a heretical bishop from office.

If the news reports are accurate, Bishop Ackermann must be seriously suspected of heresy. Though he might obfuscate when put to the test, he appears to believe that several definitive Catholic doctrines are both wrong and capable of changing in contradictory ways. Thus the only people in his diocese who can benefit from his episcopal teaching authority are those who know that this authority is non-existent except when a bishop teaches in union with the pope. This is an extremely serious problem and, whether Pope Francis wants this challenge or not, he is morally obliged by his office to do whatever he can to respond to it. There is no question about what he believes; he has just praised Pope Paul VI for his courage in going against the majority to clearly teach about the beauty of marriage and the evil of contraception.

So the question arises: Is the Church now healthy enough that a pope can publicly remove a bishop from office without creating an enormous collegial rift? Collegiality is an important value for Pope Francis, as it should be, but collegiality cannot work unless the members of the college are sound. They all receive their jurisdiction from the successor of Peter.

With respect to Bishop Feige, it would be kind to characterize his defense of Ackermann as merely stupid. Assuming he is not himself a heretic, his statement that the Church cannot keep repeating prohibitions or reservations borders on the idiotic as a defense of his brother in Trier. First, it seems unlikely that parishioners in these dioceses have heard much at all about prohibitions and reservations. And second, whose fault would it be if, in these dioceses, the Catholic understanding of the person, including the meaning of human sexuality, is not presented in all its positive and ennobling splendor?

Prohibitions and reservations, my foot. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. See the passage from St. Paul that I quoted yesterday in Bought with a Price: The Gold Standard for Dealing with Pornography.

A Deeper Psychological Issue

So much for the first of the larger issues at stake, the issue of episcopal jurisdiction, and removal therefrom. There is also a deeper psychological issue involved in this quarrel over sexuality which I believe the Modernists, who are so eager to adapt Catholic teaching to cultural norms, have always gotten completely wrong. It is my contention that the vast majority of Catholics—those who retain an attachment to the Church but do not adhere to her sexual morality—really do not want the Church to cave in to their failures, to change her teaching to suit “the times”.

Think about it. When you are in that twilit world of associating with the Church, even if only celebrating your Christmases and Easters with her, while failing to reform your life according to her teachings, are you really hoping the Church will change her story and start telling you that you are fine, that you do not need to change? I know that those in teaching positions have often loved to justify putative changes in Church teaching. That is their special sin, a way of maintaining their relevance, of retaining a Catholic sinecure while being loved by the world. But is this really what the sinner in the trenches wants?

I think we would be surprised by how often this is not what the ordinary sinner wants, the poor soul with no professional stake in the game. I invite the psychologists among our readership to comment. But if we go by how things have worked out in practice in parishes and periods in which priests have pretended that the Church teaches something other than she does, I don’t think the numbers participating in parish life have increased. If you do a study, in fact, you will find that it is just the opposite. True, there is something in us that wants to escape the consequences when we sin. We all know this. For example, it frequently influences our choice of friends. But usually that something does not make us want the Church herself to approve these sins.

You may chuckle over the much-maligned subject of “Catholic guilt”. But there is something deeply right, deeply human, deeply personal about a proper guilt. Some people are happy to deny the entire moral universe to assuage their guilt, including a denial of their deepest selves, but most people are not happy doing that. Sure, we can continue in our sins even to the point of making light of them and complaining about the Church. There is nothing universe-changing about that! But what is universe-changing is for the Church to change her teaching to accommodate our sins. Most people know instinctively that this drops the bottom out of their fundamental relationship with God. That is why, whenever this happens, they leave the Church far faster, and far more completely, than before.

Now if we put both of these issues together, what we find is that there are some bishops who need to be removed from office not only because they do not believe what the Church teaches, but because they have lost a necessary understanding of what it means to be human—of what it means to be a child of God, of what it means to possess a last-ditch hope of redemption in Jesus Christ. Yes, Bishops Ackermann and Feige have deliberately brought the crisis in the German hierarchy to a head. But apparently neither man is capable of imagining how profound that crisis really is.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 08, 2014 11:08 AM ET USA

    It is true the Church is for sinners. But if the Church became sin friendly then there would no longer be a need for the church. These two bishops need to be removed and loudly. Then other weak bishops should be given notice. To accommodate weak and lax bishops in the name of collegiality is a grave disservice to the many men and women who shed their blood like the one good man did.

  • Posted by: jtlebherz3705 - Mar. 06, 2014 2:06 PM ET USA

    jg (below) took the words right out of my mouth. Except, I would have invited the two bishops for coffee and cookies immediately. This all really is getting to be too much to take. To be faithful to the church does not mean sitting idly by while this kind of garbage goes on. Pope Francis must do, or say, something.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 06, 2014 8:18 AM ET USA

    I am likely losing some of the original quotation but I will try to paraphrase. Last year Bishop Fellay made a point I found to be very interesting. With reference to the Mass and sacraments specifically (but seems to apply in this case of accommodating sin) Fellay stated words to the effect that it is very dangerous to try to make the transcendant subordinate or subject to the temporal. To the modernist it's here and now. But as Dr. Mirus points out even the sinner knows this must not be.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 05, 2014 9:35 PM ET USA

    Here is what I would like to see happen: Tomorrow, Pope Francis places a direct call to these bishops. He tells them to be at the Vatican Friday or Saturday at the latest for a chat. He meets with them, offers them a coffee and some cookies, and then in an unmistakably sincere voice tells them they have a choice: recant what they have said in a suitably abject letter (all typed up and ready) or sign another letter, all typed and ready, one of immediate resignation. An offer they can't refuse.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 05, 2014 4:39 PM ET USA

    So now that we all know where we stand, who is going to remove these two interesting people from office..., you, Jeff Mirus? Or "me" John Plick? No, it would have to be a Pope or one of his designated individuals... And please do not go on as to whether it is "politically favorable.." The Pope has made a clear public statement... If he fails to act now, his credibility could disappear.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 05, 2014 3:45 PM ET USA

    So, is the Rhine attempting to flow into the Tiber once again?

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