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This week: German bishops rush in, where Americans fear to tread

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 27, 2019

Pope Francis asked them not to do it. Two top Vatican officials told them they would be violating canon law if they did it. But this week the German bishops decided to do it anyway. And some people say that the threat of schism comes from America?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference, told his colleagues that the Pope had not given him any “stop sign” last week, when they met to discuss the German plans for a “binding synodal assembly.” But if there was no red light, there were plenty of flashing amber signals. Cardinal Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, had warned the German hierarchy that their plan was “not ecclesiologically valid.” Cardinal Ouellet had relied on a detailed analysis by Archbishop Filippo Iannone, the Vatican’s top canon lawyer. When the German bishops gathered to vote on the plan for their assembly, the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Nicola Eterovic, urged them to take another look at the letter Pope Francis had written in June, cautioning against the plan. That letter, the papal representative said, “deserves special attention,” bearing in mind that reflects a rare level of concern; it is the first papal letter addressed specifically to the German hierarchy since before World War II.

A dozen German bishops voted against the assembly plan, which will have them taking “binding” votes on controversial Church teachings. (Fifty-one bishops voted to approve the plan.) A few members of the minority were outspoken in their opposition. Cardinal Rainier Woelki of Cologne, having failed to convince his colleagues to heed the Pope’s “fatherly advice,” made a pointed reference to the steady exodus of German Catholics, suggesting that rather than proposing changes in the teachings of the universal Church, the German Church should concentrate on “re-evangelizing itself.” Archbishop Rudolph Voderholzer of Regensburg announced that he had voted against the plan, and although he would reluctantly attend the assembly, which begins with Advent, he reserves the right “to quit altogether after the initial experience.” But again, he is in the minority; most German bishops ignored the clear messages from the Vatican.

Have you heard any American Catholic—let alone a bishop—suggest such outright defiance of orders from Rome? I haven’t. As I reminded readers here last week, when the Vatican asked the American bishops to table their plans for last November, the US bishops promptly acceded to the request. Yet the drumbeat goes on, from a cadre of the Pope’s most avid fans, that it is American Catholics who pose the risk of schism. If you compare the statements by these online agitators you may notice that they are remarkably similar—suggesting that someone is writing the “talking points” for a campaign against conservative American Catholics.

Sadly, Pope Francis has shown himself susceptible to that campaign, and his negative attitude toward the United States showed again this week, when Civilta Cattolica posted the transcript of a talk the Pope had given to Jesuits during his visit to Mozambique earlier this month. The Pontiff made a point of recommending an article that had been published in Civilta in 2017, about what the authors—Father Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa—called the “ecumenism of hated” among American conservatives.” The Spadaro-Figueroa article was (as I said at the time), an “ignorant, intemperate assault on American conservatism,” which betrayed the authors’ utter lack of understanding of the American religious and political scene, as well as their stubborn refusal to engage with those whose opinions they condemned.

Then, immediately after recommending that wretched article, Pope Francis went on to tell the Jesuits in Mozambique a story, to underline his distaste for conservatives—this time in Africa:

Today I felt a certain bitterness after a meeting with young people. A woman approached me with a young man and a young woman. I was told they were part of a slightly fundamentalist movement. She said to me in perfect Spanish: “Your Holiness, I am from South Africa. This boy was a Hindu and converted to Catholicism. This girl was Anglican and converted to Catholicism.” But she told me in a triumphant way, as though she was showing off a hunting trophy. I felt uncomfortable and said to her, “Madam, evangelization yes, proselytism no.”

Isn’t it astonishing that the Bishop of Rome would react negatively to reports about young people embracing the faith? Was there any evidence at all that she had won these converts through pressure? Is Pope Francis really so hostile to a “slightly fundamentalist” approach that he could not rejoice with this woman who brought two people into the Church?

Well, there isn’t much proselytism going on in Germany these days, it seems. Nor much evangelization, either. And although in his June letter the Pope advised the German bishops to devote their assembly to plans for evangelization—advice they ignored—it is now the German prelates who appear set to exercise an outsized influence on the October meeting of the Synod for the Amazon. But we’ll have plenty of time to cover that story in coming weeks.

Before this week ends, however, let me call attention to a couple of other noteworthy stories involving two influential prelates:

  • Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, told the National Catholic Register: “I believe we are at a turning point in the history of the Church.” Looking forward to the Amazon Synod, Cardinal Sarah said that he is “shocked and outraged that the spiritual distress of the poor in the Amazon is being used as a pretext to support projects that are typical of bourgeois and worldly Christianity.” Cardinal Sarah never fails to focus on the urgent spiritual needs of the Church, and I’m excited that his new book, The Day Is Now Far Spent, has just landed on my desk.
  • Cardinal William Levada, the retired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), died in Rome on Wednesday night, at the age of 83. A native Californian, Cardinal Levada had served as Archbishop of Portland, Oregon, and then of San Francisco before he was named by Pope Benedict to the CDF post in 2005. His tenure there was relatively quiet—unlike that of his predecessor, Cardinal Ratzinger—but it is worth noticing that no other American prelate has ever risen to such a high post at the Vatican.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cory - Sep. 29, 2019 10:47 AM ET USA

    What is perhaps needed is for the exorcism of the German prelates.