Gänswein’s mark of Cain, and what it teaches about Catholic renewal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 19, 2016

In a recent interview, Archbishop Georg Gänswain said many Germans view him as having the “mark of Cain” because of his loyalty to Pope Benedict and his service to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He therefore believes it is highly unlikely that he would ever be installed as a bishop in Germany.

In 2016 I find this statement remarkable, but it would have been completely unremarkable in 1970 or 1980, or perhaps even in 1990. Effective pontifical resistance to the twentieth century crisis of secularization in the Church did not emerge until about 1985. It continued through the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a period long enough to make substantial improvements to the hierarchies in a number of countries—certainly in the United States. This improvement was accelerated by the sex abuse scandal, which stemmed from serious episcopal neglect concentrated in the years between 1965 and 1985.

A similar mark of Cain would have been (falsely) discerned by a great many American bishops twenty-five years ago, but far fewer bishops are wearing anti-Roman glasses today—because far fewer bishops in the United States today are culture bound. For reasons that I have insufficient knowledge to explain, progress has not been as steady in some other regions of the secularized West. Germany and Austria are apparently noteworthy for their lack of comparable episcopal progress—although we did at least witness some sharp clashes among German bishops over the Kasper Proposal at the time of the Synods on the Family.

So what I find remarkable about Archbishop Gänswein’s comments is that they were made not thirty years ago, but within the last few days. This is an indictment of the pervasiveness of secularization in Europe, and of the ineffectiveness of papal leadership in those countries in which the episcopate has not yet been coaxed or blasted out of a 1960s infatuation with the world.

The Depth of the Crisis

The problems in Germany, as everyone knows by now, are inextricably linked to the prosperity of the German Church based on revenues from the national Church tax. The entire method of financial support for the Church in Germany is calculated to tempt bishops to keep people happy, and therefore to avoid alienating huge numbers of residual Catholics who have fallen into highly secular and substantially immoral lifestyles. In the United States, there has been a steady pressure on the episcopate from a strong lay minority, but this has been slower to develop in Germany (though I have it on good authority that it is developing).

But I believe this “mark of Cain” complex in the German Church (and not only there)—which, like any psychological complex points not to a reality but to an inner illness—also illustrates how pervasive secularization is throughout the Church, how difficult it is to combat secularization merely through administrative measures even over many years, and how important it is for Catholics in each sector to grow in holiness and spark countless renewals from within. To a considerable extent, national episcopates (much like modern colleges and universities) are closed systems. They clone and promote others like them. Even with pontifical approval required for a position, the range of candidates is typically limited, and the appointment of someone who is far outside the norm carries a real risk of rebellion.

We see something very similar, for example, in certain religious orders, including the Jesuits and the many universities they effectively control. Here authentic renewal has proceeded at a pace somewhere between stagnant and glacial. There is no easy way to break the system of checks, balances and controls that are designed to maintain the status quo. At some point, it would appear, the Jesuits will have to undergo their own interior revolution. Then and only then will they be able to make the hard decisions necessary to restore their educational traditions in Christ.

Conversion from Within

Within the limits of the current situation, I have always been an advocate of rolling a rather larger number of undeserving heads. This process began very slowly in John Paul II’s pontificate, proceeded far more rapidly under Benedict XVI, and then—as far as I can tell—ground to a halt under Pope Francis who, to the repeated consternation of no few bishops around the world, by his own admission likes to stir things up, in effect sounding an uncertain trumpet. The purpose of rolling episcopal heads is, in that fine French phrase, pour encourager les autres. But it seems safe to presume that, for as long as Francis is pope, “les autres” will remain confused.

This removes the focus once again from papal administration and returns it to collective renewal among perspicacious bishops, particular religious communities, groups of priests and deacons, new foundations and movements, apostolic societies, Catholic professional organizations, prayer groups, and other lay and clerical associations. It is interesting to see, for example, how many cardinals and bishops have spoken out firmly on matters of faith in the wake of the current pope’s tendency to promote uncertainty. There is tremendous energy flowing into the universal Church right now from the African Church, which has an increasingly powerful voice backed by missionary priests sent throughout the world. Organizations run by the laity lead the evangelization effort in the United States (and I am sure in some other regions).

The good news in all this is that the different individuals and groups who seek a true renewal at every level are no longer as isolated as they were when this battle began in the 1960s. There are enough authentically Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity now that almost anyone who wishes to do so can find encouragement and constructive guidance from both equals and hierarchical superiors. (With respect to superiors, this can still be difficult for good priests with bad bishops. Sometimes priests can find solace only in a few of their brethren. This is a reminder both of the need to pray for priests and of the gratitude we owe to many fine priests who have continued to serve faithfully while being outcasts in their own dioceses.) But in general, we no longer face the severe isolation of thirty to fifty years ago.

For the future, the key is that we must now shake ourselves out of any sort of paralyzing admiration of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Our current situation is a reminder that our holiness depends first and foremost on our willingness to strive for union with Christ. If the new generation of deeply committed Catholics puts as much energy into expanding Catholic renewal as the last generation did into surviving the direct hostility of so much of the Church, things will begin to move with ever-increasing speed. The lesson of the crisis of Faith in the mid-twentieth century is that Catholic renewal is not the job of the hierarchy alone. It is everyone’s job. It is our job.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Jul. 25, 2016 2:54 AM ET USA

    Very insightful. Thank you. Regarding the German Church, they (and we) could benefit by becoming familiar with the works of some wonderful Catholic thinkers now becoming available in English: people like Alfred Delp SJ, Peter Wusst, Joseph Pieper, Kardinal von Galen and Alois Dempf. I encourage readers to look into these names; there is much inspiration to be had in studying their ideas.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 21, 2016 7:24 AM ET USA

    The refrain of the Desert Fathers echoes even today in our age of secularism: Flee, be silent and pray! Most priests cannot flee or be silent. But there can be no discussion of renewal within the priesthood or hierarchy of the church without a return to the priority of prayer. Priestly piety is central to renewal of the priesthood. This has been perhaps the most striking and yet least prioritized problem area in priestly formation and in priestly life for generations yet it's fundamental.

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jul. 19, 2016 9:37 PM ET USA

    "Our current situation is a reminder that our holiness depends first and foremost on our willingness to strive for union with Christ." and with that statement you've nailed it. We, the baptized faithful, by reason of that Sacrament and its enduring character, bear the Holy Spirit into this age by way of each one's specific flesh that we will blaze the Fire of Divine Love across the horizon of history -- Now is the time and wherever we are it the place. Is that simple or what!