Cardinal Paul Cordes’ Lament: The Church in Germany Is Infected by a ‘Theological Virus’

The president emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum says the positions of the bishops on their ‘Synodal Path’ are ‘untenable.’

Cardinal Paul Cordes.
Cardinal Paul Cordes. (photo: Bohumil Petrik / CNA)

VATICAN CITY — What are the underlying causes of the growing chasm between the majority of Germany’s Catholic bishops and the magisterium? 

German Cardinal Paul Cordes told the Register in an email interview that the Church in Germany is being secularized by a “theological virus” that “infects the Truth of the faith” but that he believed schism was unlikely.  

The president emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum said that God “does not give new theological messages to the Church by means of historical events or earthly needs.” And that any observations of the “signs of the times” must be interpreted “in the light of the eternal Word of God” rather than the other way around. 

Cardinal Cordes, 86, also referred to comments Pope Emeritus Benedict made last year in the context of the German Church, that “only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the right way.”


Your Eminence, do you think German Catholic dioceses are on their way toward schism?

May God prevent the Catholic dioceses in Germany separating from the universal Church. “Schism” would mean that they formally refuse subordination to the Pope or communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him (cf. CIC Canon 751). It seems to me rather unlikely that this will happen. 

Among ordained pastors responsible for doctrine and discipline, I see an increasing skepticism toward the “Synodal Path” that has begun. Some have already given their opinions publicly; others have so far only expressed their reservations privately. The untenable nature of these positions that are contrary to the communio ecclesiarum [ecclesial communion] will become increasingly clear in the forthcoming discussion of this “path.” Some bishops will then be better able to see through the clever mechanisms set up by its protagonists and defend themselves against them. And the prayer of many concerned Catholics will encourage them to defend Catholic truth. 

The threat to faith in the German local Churches is less clear and rarely formal; it is subtle. It has its roots in the “spirit of the times,” which the Church, as a modern accomplishment, is said to have finally opened herself up to. “Secularism,” then, determines thinking and acting. It is not only evident in Germany. As a theological virus, it infects the Truth of the faith. It creates a modern hermeneutic for classical concepts of salvation and fills them with secular-empirical thinking. 


Can you give some examples?

Social romanticism makes the Eucharistic re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice of the cross a meal for publicans and sinners to which everyone is invited.

Jesus’ counsel of virginity for the sake of the Gospel is biologically and psychologically untenable as a condition for ordination to the priesthood.

The binding of preaching authority and Church leadership to the sacrament of ordination is stupid ecclesiastical self-harm and organizational nonsense when there are so many qualified laymen. 

The denial of the ordained priesthood to women falls under the category of discrimination, which has meanwhile everywhere else been recognized as scandalous.

Biblically-based sexual morality (for example, on marriage or homosexuality) generalizes time-related and imperfect data and must urgently be opened to empirical findings.

The teaching competence of the national bishops' conferences must be freed from being fettered by the solipsistic individual authority of the bishop and by Vatican centralism (advanced at a meeting of the Catholic Faculty in Münster in May 2019). 


How are those behind the Synodal Path going about achieving these secularist goals? 

Apparently, the organizers of the “Synodal Path” think they can do without 2,000 years of the Church’s pursuit of the Lord’s will. His great deeds in our history are easily thrown overboard. 

And what is worse: they choose solutions according to innerworldly categories. Once the thinking of the synodal organizers leans towards theological concepts and approaches, it arrives, at best, at a certain ecclesio-centricity. Thus it becomes possible to call problem areas and moral sticking points in the Church “signs of the times,” to which we can apply the words of Jesus from Luke 12:54-57. (“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”) Thus their solution erroneously receives the consecration of the Redeemer himself, because in the Lord’s words, these signs did not mean new revelations, but the acceptance of Him as Savior. The Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II (Dei Verbum) says everything necessary about supposedly new centers of God’ message: “The Christian order of salvation, namely the new and eternal covenant, is unassailable, and no new public revelation can be expected before the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory” (4).

God’s word of salvation therefore knows no additions that could be added by people on the basis of new life experiences. It remains limited to the once-given holy Scripture, interpreted by the Church’s teaching, from which alone the Catholic faith is sustained. 


How should Catholics interpret the “signs of the times”?

God does not give new theological messages to the Church by means of historical events or earthly needs. A Christian must observe world events and investigate the “signs of the times.” But such observations are made only to interpret them in the light of the eternal Word of God. They are to draw attention to his definitive proclamation of the truth. But this actualization does not in any way mean that history as such becomes the mediator of revelation or salvation. It cannot. “Whether profane or Church history, their events do not in themselves bring us any increase in supernatural revelation; they remain ‘ambiguous’ and as if ‘in expectation,’ and they themselves must be illuminated for us by the light that comes from the Gospel” — as the great theologian Henri de Lubac wrote (The Sources of Revelation, German: Einsiedeln 2001, 147f.). 


Has the “Synodal Path” made any progress in that regard?

Obviously, the “Synodal Path” has not yet made any progress toward God as the Redeemer of evil and sin. Sociological-structural improvements seem to be sufficient for a new beginning of the Church. The Savior himself, and his work of salvation, remain unnamed, because they are not considered. Unfortunately, in the midst of the Church, “God-forgetfulness” is blatant, which Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has been lamenting about for years. 

The Vatican can only respond to such secularization of divine revelation and Church doctrine with unsparing clarity. Its warnings issued so far have been mostly limited to remaining within the perspective of the “path.” Thus they have been mainly based on the pastoral practices that it develops. These interventions have certainly already had an effect. But only the alarm call that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issuedwhen he thought of Catholics in Germany in 2019 is of help in the context of this sad path of disorientation. Pope Benedict does not think much of trying to cure only symptoms of decline. He questions the intellectual, historical and theological causes of the misery that is eroding churches. Thanks to his sound theological knowledge and his alert situational view of society, he offers salutary warnings and shares pastoral solutions. And finally, he brings all his varied reflections to a very simple point that cannot be emphasized loud enough today: “Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the right way. ... Our being not redeemed is a consequence of our inability to love God. Learning to love God is therefore the path of human redemption.”

This interview was translated from the original German.