PASSAU, Germany — A public dispute has broken out between Germany’s top lay Catholic organization and a German bishop, after the organization issued a statement calling for a raft of new pastoral practices, which the bishop and other critics say are opposed to Church doctrine.
The Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (Central Committee of the German Catholics, or ZdK) issued a statement Sunday calling for the admittance of civilly remarried divorcees to holy Communion, acceptance of all forms of cohabitation, the blessing of same-sex couples and the reconsideration of the Church’s teaching on contraception.
The organization is heavily financed by the German bishops and overseen spiritually by Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.
The ZdK’s appeals were contained in a document called “Between Teaching and Building Bridges With the Living World — Family and Church in the Modern World.” The statement, unanimously agreed upon at the organization’s general assembly in Würzburg in early May, was written in anticipation of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October.
The document states that nonmarital forms of lived partnerships “make a great contribution” to social cohesion and have to be “treated justly.” It goes on to say that “values” are found in other forms of communal living, which “have to be honored, even if they are not to be found in the form of the sacramental marriage.”
“We think here of enduring partnerships [cohabitation], civil marriages, as well as civilly registered partnerships [i.e., homosexual unions],” the ZdK states. The document also calls for a “re-evaluation of the methods of artificial contraception” because of a “great discrepancy between the papal magisterium and the personal conscientious decisions in the daily life of most faithful Catholics.”
The organization further calls for “blessings of same-sex partnerships, new partnerships of divorcees and for important life-changing decisions within families.” It says liturgical forms should be developed for such couples and asks that the Church recognizes the “pastoral change that Pope Francis has called for, both as an encouragement and as a chance for the bishops’ conferences to develop pastoral paths concerning marriage and the family that are appropriate and theologically responsible.”
But the document met some stiff resistance from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, who said on his Facebook page the document was “incomprehensible.” If enacted, what the ZdK is proposing would mark a “dramatic change of much that has been valid concerning marriage and sexuality” based on holy Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium, he said.
Bishop Oster, 49, added that, through Revelation, the Church has always taught that “lived sexual practice has its only legitimate place within a marriage between a man and a woman, both of whom are open to the procreation of life and both of whom have made a bond that lasts until the death of one of the spouses.”
“This bond is called a sacrament and is strengthened with the help of God’s explicit promise to be the third party in this bond between the two,” he reminded. “He is the one who binds this relationship, who sanctifies it, makes it indissoluble and who is also again and again the source of salvation for them.”
Bishop Oster’s stance places him at odds with other members of the German bishops’ conference, who appear to favor some of the things the ZdK is proposing. The bishop criticized the ZdK’s emphasis on blessing same-sex couples because of the “values” they show and stressed the Bible’s teaching that any sexual relations outside of marriage are either fornication or adultery and have “very dramatic consequences for those engaging in them.”
He added that if blessings of such unions were allowed, would people supporting them only limit them to couples and not three or more people of the same sex? “Why not also bless these relationships?” he said facetiously. “They would nevertheless have lived ‘values’ within them.”
Bishop Oster said the ZdK omitted the “biblical image of man and the biblical understanding of Revelation” and that he found the lay organization’s unanimous desire to go along such a path “very troubling.”
He added that he did not see any statement from Pope Francis coming “remotely close” to what the ZdK was proposing and said the group was “instrumentalizing” the Holy Father for its own ends. Many Catholics, he said, “no longer feel represented by the ZdK today.” He closed by asking if it can really be the organization’s goal to confuse the faithful.
The ZdK responded to Bishop Oster, saying on May 12 that it wasn’t proposing a new understanding of marriage but was trying to “bridge a gap” between the magisterium and “experienced reality.” ZdK’s secretary general, Stefan Vesper, said it was not meant as an attack on Church teaching, but had to be read in the context of the entire statement. He said those who wish to implement these new pastoral practices are not “turning away” from the teaching of the Church, but, rather, towards it.
Vesper added that the faithful had been asked by the Pope to give their opinions ahead of the synod, and these “must be perceived” to be part of the synod’s deliberations. Critics, however, point out that the number surveyed was only 1,000-2,000 people — so few that the German bishops’ conference preferred not to reveal the exact numbers questioned. They also argue that such responses should refer only to the catechized faithful rather than the laity in general.
‘True Meaning of Marriage’
Prominent German Church commentator Mathias von Gersdorff noted that the ZdK’s initial statement failed to mention the “true meaning of marriage” and that the organization has shown that it fails to adhere to the magisterium, preferring to propagate ideas more common to television soap operas.
“No one needs a Catholic Church that falls to this level,” he said. “No one needs a ‘Central Committee of German Catholics’ that is no longer Catholic.”
Von Gersdorff also called the ZdK’s response to Bishop Oster “a joke,” adding that it merely “repeated its own points,” and the bishop’s arguments were not engaged.
Further comment on the ZdK statement came in a May 13 article penned by Felix Neumann, editor of Katholisch.de, the official Internet news site of the German bishops’ conference that is heavily financed by the church tax. Noting that Bishop Fürst did not veto the statement, he said the ZdK’s document was “not a provocation” and called the homosexual lifestyle a “matter of conscience.”
Neumann added that Tradition is “hollow, formal and unfeeling” and that any scandal lies not over same-sex unions per se, but “that it is still necessary to demand respect and appreciation for love.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the Register May 13 that he had “no comment” in response to the ZdK’s statement, nor to the recent decision by Germany’s bishops to amend the Church’s labor law to allow “remarried” divorcees and those in homosexual relationships to work in Church institutions.
“I think it is a matter for the episcopate,” he said. German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also declined to comment.
Despite the gravity of the potential consequences on the universal Church, the reasons for the Vatican’s public silence are not immediately clear. Subsidiarity and a decentralized system of authority is probably a primary reason, yet some critics speculate that hesitation may be related to fear of jeopardizing revenues from a wealthy German Church, as well as some sympathy for the pastoral innovations favored by many in the German Church.
On May 15, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, issued a statement saying “several claims” made in the ZdK statement were “theologically unacceptable.” He added that the blessing of same-sex unions and civilly remarried couples, and the “unreserved acceptance” of cohabiting same-sex couples, was contrary to “the teaching and Tradition of the Church.” Both issues “require further theological clarification, not hasty, bold claims,” Cardinal Marx said, adding that “theological debate and an inner-ecclesial dialogue are not promoted that way.”
Poles Apart: Cardinal Marx Rebuffed
However, Cardinal Marx’s May 15 intervention did not establish that he has abandoned his own promotion of changes to the Church’s pastoral practices with respect to some of the same issues.
The Register has learned via well-informed, high-level sources that Cardinal Marx was recently rebuffed by Polish bishops when he proposed that the two episcopates meet in Berlin to strive for a consensus on revising the Church’s approach to marriage. The Polish bishops have been firm about their continued support for Church teaching.
Well-informed sources say that Cardinal Marx made the proposal in early May, during lunch with Polish bishops at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. The cardinal is understood to be anxious to win all-important Polish support ahead of the October synod.
Observers say this is another attempt by the German hierarchy aimed at increasing the pressure for change at the synod and carried out by bypassing the Vatican and, in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This would be consistent with comments from Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, a close adviser to Pope Francis, who said in a recent interview that the Curia “is not an essential structure” and that the Pope need only rely on himself and the “College of Bishops” to serve the people.
And yet the will of many in the German episcopate seems to be to continue the trajectory of imposing its vision on the rest of the Church in a way that many believe to be both heretical and arrogant.
It’s also an approach that has long been rejected by key German Churchmen.
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Cardinal Josef Frings, then archbishop of Cologne, said, after praising the Church’s heroism in resisting Nazism, “Our German people must listen to the word of God and must pass voluntarily on the way of conversion! That arrogance [of thinking] that we are a master race which other nations must serve has to disappear from every strata of society.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.