A delegation of German bishops will meet Thursday with heads of Vatican departments to discuss their proposal to admit to Holy Communion the Protestant spouses of Catholics, under certain circumstances.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich favors the idea, with a majority of German bishops backing him. Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne considers the idea contrary to the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist and so opposes it, along with a half-dozen other German bishops. Rome will now attempt to sort it out.
The meeting highlights one of the most counterintuitive aspects of this pontificate — the emphasis given to German priorities and personnel. There can be no doubt that Pope Francis has a preferential option for the poor, that he desires a “poor Church for the poor.” He is also, in biography and pastoral approach, a man of the “peripheries.”
Yet at the very heart of his pontificate are the priorities and personnel of the most worldly local Church on earth, wealthy due to the German church tax. It is hemorrhaging people, closing parishes and absorbed in internal Church matters.
It is not just money that makes the institutional Church in Germany worldly. It is the attitude it takes toward money.
In 2012, the German bishops decreed that anyone who opted out of paying the church tax would be barred from the sacraments and not be able to have a Catholic wedding or funeral. It’s a far cry from Pope Francis decrying those parish priests who insist on fees that make it difficult for parishioners to have baptisms or weddings.
Indeed, the current proposal of the German bishops would mean that a Protestant wife of a Catholic husband might be able to receive Holy Communion, but the husband himself would not if he had opted out of paying the church tax.
Thursday’s meeting, though, is just the latest example of a pontificate that is more oriented toward German perspectives than that even of Benedict XVI. And it has been so from the conclave in which Pope Francis was elected.
- During the conclave of 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was reading a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper on mercy. Pope Francis then highlighted that book at his first Angelus address, taking the unusual step of praising Cardinal Kasper publicly. He has repeatedly done so since.
- In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the program for his pontificate published in November 2013, Pope Francis introduced a quadrilateral of principles for social development: Time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the part. Those principles are taken from the German theologian Father Romano Guardini. Father Bergoglio had outlined a doctoral dissertation on Father Guardini but did not complete it.
- Early in the pontificate, the “council of cardinals” was established as the principal advisory body for the Holy Father. Cardinal Marx was chosen to represent Europe.
- In 2014, major financial reforms were introduced, including a Council for the Economy that would be the supreme authority for all economic matters in the Vatican. Cardinal Marx was appointed chairman of that council.
- Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) and all the turmoil over the two family synods that preceded it is the extension to the whole Church of the “Kasper proposal” made in the early 1990s by Cardinal Kasper and other German bishops to admit divorced-and-civilly-remarried couples to the sacraments.
- If Amoris Laetitia had its origin with Cardinal Kasper, after its publication, the Holy Father entrusted its authentic interpretation to another German-speaking prelate, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. That was an unusual step, as usually the authentic interpretation of papal documents is given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and its prefect.
- That very prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, led the opposition to Cardinal Schönborn’s interpretation, demonstrating that in many ways this was an intramural German dispute being imposed on the entire Church. After a year of not toeing the Schönborn line on Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Mueller was dismissed from office by Pope Francis.
- When serious questions were raised about the teaching of Amoris Laetitia, they found expression in the dubia of the four cardinals, two of which were German — Cardinals Joachim Meisner (who died nearly a year ago) and Walter Brandmüller.
- In January 2017, Pope Francis demanded the resignation of the head of the Knights of Malta and suspended the 900-year-old lay religious order’s ordinary governance. The upshot was that the leadership of the Knights of Malta was placed into German hands, in a maneuver not unrelated to a dispute over tens of millions of euros.
- In September 2017, the Holy Father issued new regulations for liturgical translations that gave more authority to national bishops’ conferences. The immediate effect will be that the German and Italian bishops’ conferences, who had simply refused to implement translation decisions taken under Pope Benedict, will now be rewarded for their intransigence. Indeed, the richest countries will benefit most from the new rules, as liturgical translations are massively expensive in terms of money and personnel.
- In March 2018, the “lettergate” fiasco that led to the partial resignation of the Vatican’s communications chief, Msgr. Dario Viganó, was about the decision to include in a series of booklets on the theology of Pope Francis a well-known German theologian who had been a long and vocal critic of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It was the inclusion of that organizer of “anti-papal initiatives” that led Benedict to refuse to endorse the project.
Forty years ago, the French journalist André Frossard wrote about the first days of Pope John Paul II, “This pope does not come from Poland. He comes from Galilee.”
One might say, five years in, that Pope Francis, undoubtedly Latin American, also comes from Germany.