Today, on 6 March 2017, the German Bishops’ Conference began its own spring General Assembly in Bensberg (Bergisch Gladbach), Germany. Sixty-six German bishops are now coming together for four days in order to discuss such themes as migration, the priesthood, and ecumenism. At today’s opening press conference, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, presented the topics to be discussed at this episcopal meeting. He also mentioned that he had recently met with Pope Francis and that he gave to him personally the new pastoral guidelines for Germany in light of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, first published by the German Bishops on 1 February 2017. As we have already reported, the German pastoral guidelines now allow access to the Sacraments for the “remarried” divorcees in certain individual cases and after a somewhat unclear period of discernment.
Cardinal Marx said the following at today’s press conference, in the context of his 6 February visit to Pope Francis in Rome, together ecumenically with the Chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm:
I gave to the pope the text which we have made with regard to Amoris Laetitia, and he has received it with joy; I was able to speak with him 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; and [he] is very positive about this and he received it very positively that we as the German Bishops’ Conference have written such a text.
At the time of this meeting with Pope Francis in Rome on 6 February, the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had already three days earlier supportively published an article about the German pastoral guidelines, on 3 February. As we then reported, the pope’s newspaper, however, did not explicitly mention the quite liberalizing words of those German guidelines, according to which “one also must respect a [individual] decision in favor of the reception of the Sacraments.”
As Edward Pentin reported on 7 February, Cardinal Marx said to him in Rome at the time of his visit with the pope that “he ‘cannot understand’ why there should be different interpretations of Amoris Laetitia to the one favored by the German bishops [inasmuch] as he believes that the line taken by the pope in the apostolic exhortation is ‘very clear.’” Pentin continues, saying:
In brief comments to the Register February 6 in Rome after accompanying an ecumenical delegation to the apostolic palace to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishop of Munich dismissed concerns about lack of clarity in the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family.
“I think, in our conference, there was unanimity,” he said. “Some bishops were asking [questions], but I think there is a clear position and the line of the Pope is very clear.” […]
German Church sources, however, say there wasn’t strict unanimity, and possibly the cardinal meant something else by the word “unanimity” as German has the two similar words for it: einhellig and einstimmig. They say that, on good authority, several bishops had “serious reservations” about the guidelines.
One of the German bishops raising questions about the new German guidelines is Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg. Right after the publication of the new pastoral guidelines, he gave an interview. As we then reported:
This bishop [Bishop Zdarsa] is unmistakably and openly confused himself, and cannot publicly even clearly answer the question as to whether the “remarried” divorcees may now receive Holy Communion in Germany. He insists that now, one might even need a further clarification of that German document! “Here we are now again in such a need that someone else has to come and interpret for us the [German episcopal] document,” [my emphasis] the bishop himself says, after being asked specifically about the question of the “remarried” divorcees and whether “everybody can now do things as he wishes.”
Zdarsa sees, moreover, that there is now even more of a need for an “attentive pastoral care” for those with marriage troubles. He sees that “we [bishops] now have given such an immense responsibility [to the local pastors] that not everybody can handle it and endure it in the same measure.” The German prelate then asks a piercing question: if a pastor does not even have the time for a thorough preparation of the youth and of future married couples, “how much less time, strength and patience” will that same priest have in order to enter into this desirably thorough process of discernment, “as the pope now demands it”? In this context, Bishop Zdarsa fears that thus there will be “premature decisions” (“Schnellschüsse”), “or that there will be other [grave] causes of conflict which cannot yet be adequately foreseen.” [my emphasis]
In order to be able to find out whether all of the German bishops do indeed support these new pastoral guidelines, I contacted the Bishop of Passau, Stefan Oster a few days ago. I explicitly asked him, whether he himself voted in favor of the document. As of now, I have not received his answer.
It will be important to see whether there will now be a further discussion about this new German document concerning marriage during the current assembly of the German bishops, because there are several important questions and answers that are still unclear. For example, it seems now that even laymen can be officially responsible for the “path of discernment” with regard to the “remarried” divorcees. The German guidelines also seem to indicate that the individual conscience of the faithful has to be decisive finally with regard to the possible and permitted access to the Sacraments. This kind of liberalizing and laxer approach would also further foster subjectivism in the realm of Catholic morality.
In the larger context of the pope’s support of those episcopal documents which favor access to the Sacraments for the “remarried” divorcees, it is important to remember Pope Francis’s supportive letter to the Argentine Bishops of the region of Buenos Aires; the new pastoral guidelines coming out of his own Diocese of Rome; as well as the Maltese episcopal guidelines which have been published by L’Osservatore Romano itself. It seems that, now, we can even more clearly add the German pastoral guidelines to the list of those tendentiously heterodox documents that have effectively received the pope’s support.
As a counterpoint to these discouraging developments, the German theologian, Dr. Markus Büning, now reports on the German website Katholisches.info that the Archbishop of Vaduz in Liechtenstein, Wolfgang Haas, has published his own 11 February Pastoral Letter in which he defends the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage. In his own Letter, Archbishop Haas quotes Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (84):
The Church affirms, however, her praxis which is based on Holy Scripture, not to admit the remarried divorcees to the Eucharistic Meal. They may not be admitted, because their state in life and their conditions of life are in an objective contradiction to the bond of love between Christ and the Church which the Eucharist makes visible and present to us.
Archbishop Haas re-affirms this teaching, also with that pope’s own words that “the reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance which opens up the way to the Sacrament of the Eucharist” can only be given to those who repent and who have the firm intention to live a life “which is not any more in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.” The prelate adds to these quotes from Familiaris Consortio: “We all are bound by this Church teaching and order.” Archbishop Haas goes even so far as to say that when now “the indissolubility of marriage is being put into doubt” and “when adultery is now supposed to be not any more in each case a grave [mortal] sin, then such an approach is directed directly against the Salvific Will of God.” [my emphasis]
Moreover, as is the case now with Rigoberto Corredor Bermúdez, the Latin American Bishop of Pereira (in Colombia), who just issued, on 1 March, a clear confirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, it is to be hoped that more and more bishops will now come forth into the public with similarly bolstering statements, thereby affirming Christ’s teaching and showing that they are not willing to follow Pope Francis’ indirect methods and his often ambiguously promoted new pastoral approach.