Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, spoke with EWTN TV German-language program director Martin Rothweiler Feb. 13 about the Church in Germany and the worldwide abuse crises.
The German cardinal is committed to keeping God alive in the modern world and preserving Church teaching on Communion and other doctrinal matters, including sexual morality and the dignity of human life. He also finds hope in the witness of young Catholics.
Cardinal Woelki is known for leading a coalition of seven bishops in writing a March 22, 2018, letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity asking whether the question of Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in interdenominational marriages can be decided on the level of a national bishops’ conference, or if “a decision of the Universal Church” is required in the matter. The letter was in response to some German bishops’ push for interfaith Communion, which Pope Francis rejected.
Your Eminence, the Catholic Church is experiencing turbulent times. What would you say are the particular challenges the Church in Germany is currently facing?
I think that one of the fundamental challenges is to keep alive the question of God in our society as a whole. More and more people are convinced that they can live their lives rather well without God. Right there is where the Church has a very important task to play: in making clear that God does exist and that God is, in fact, the very origin of everything. The question of God, to me, therefore, is one of the fundamental challenges we need to tackle.
What issues do Catholics in Germany deeply care about?
Without a doubt, the abuse crisis, which has hit us very hard here, as it did in the United States. There has been a massive loss of trust, both within and outside of the Church. The challenge now is how this trust can be restored; and, above all, how the wider context of abuse can be dealt with responsibly. I believe that this is another fundamental challenge we are facing.
There is a major public debate in Germany about Article 219a of the criminal code, which prohibits advertising for abortion service providers. How do you assess the attitude of people in Germany toward issues such as abortion and euthanasia? After all, these are pro-life issues that are particularly close to the heart of the Church, as of the Holy Father.
Unfortunately, public concern over pro-life issues in broader society appears to have waned over time; at least that is my impression — so much so that concerns about the question of normalizing the procurement of abortion in [the] future are well justified. Thank God this has now once again been averted; also as regards any discussion of Article 219. It continues to be the case that abortion is, of course, a criminal offense [here in Germany]. And it is absurd to claim that one should be allowed to advertise for [a] criminal offense. That is why I am truly grateful that a compromise has once again been reached. As it stands, lists of doctors and clinics that provide abortion can be viewed at the German Medical Association, but the ban on advertising for the provision of abortion services persists.
It goes without saying that we Catholics can never agree to this. Life is under God’s protection from the beginning. And it is protected from beginning to [natural] end, until the last breath. Thank God, when it comes to euthanasia, asking for voluntary assisted suicide is not possible in Germany — as is now increasingly possible in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in Switzerland. Thank God we still have regulations in place in Germany that do not permit this.
In Germany — and not only in Germany — there is much debate about Church reforms. There is talk of conflicts, even as far as the doctrine of the faith is concerned. How do you perceive the Church’s situation?
Yes, the current situation in Germany is indeed difficult. And there does seem to be a dispute about the overall direction [of the Church], which was certainly also triggered by the abuse scandal. There are now those voices who argue it is time to cast aside everything we have hitherto held on to — to abandon “old times.” I think that is a very dangerous concept. We are part of a great Tradition. The Church also stands for truths that transcend time. And it is not our task to now go and invent a new Church by ourselves. The Church is not just “leverage” that we have been handed to exercise [as we see fit]. Rather, it is our task as bishops to preserve the faith of the Church, as it has come down to us from the apostles, and to say and proclaim it afresh in our times and also to preserve it for generations to come, and to express it for them in such a way that they too can encounter Christ as their salvation.
Moreover, it must simply be said that the Church has never been renewed by being less, but by being more [than the culture around it]. St. Paul the Apostle very clearly says “but we” Christians, not “us Christians too.”
We must once again realize that, as Christians, we must foster something of an alternative culture, which has to align itself solely with the standards of the Gospel and the will of Jesus Christ. And that is not less, but always more. And that is not achieved by abolishing celibacy. It is not achieved by now demanding that women be admitted to the ministries. And it is also not achieved by saying that we must have a new sexual morality. No, the Gospel is and continues to be the touchstone. It is the faith of the Church that continues to be the touchstone, just as it was presented to us by John Paul II in his Catechism. And the challenge is precisely to witness and proclaim this timeless faith now in such a way that it becomes understandable and comprehensible to the people of today. This is a challenge that we must face up to, rather than retreating from it.
What gives you hope for the Church in Germany?
First of all, what fills me with hope, of course, is that Christ exists and remains and continues to be the Lord of the Church and that his Holy Spirit is promised and granted to us. And I am convinced that he will also lead us through these times. Of course, we must open ourselves to him so that God’s Spirit can also work within us and guide us. And we mustn’t start playing Holy Spirit ourselves now. The Church — as bishops, we are subject to the word of God; and, like all the people and bishops before us, we must give witness to and proclaim this word of God. In other words, Christ exists, Christ remains, and he is present. He is Lord of the Church. Just as he has led his Church through difficult times in the past, so he will lead us through these present times.
And my hope is buoyed again and again when I encounter young people who have let themselves be ignited by the faith of the Church. And it is the young people who seek precisely this “more” of the Christian faith, who have a home in the Church, who have a home in the Eucharist, who live though the Eucharist and through adoration, and who live in the knowledge that their lives are touched by Christ. That is something that encourages me, because these young people — as I experience them — live authentically and with conviction. And they simply give me hope in their witness.