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 German Bishops' Conference

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May 6, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The German Bishops’ Conference has issued an interesting document criticizing the degree to which their predecessors failed to oppose Hitler’s programs of mass murder and his unjust aggression in starting the Second World War. 

It is a complex historical issue, and a fairly long document. But while open to criticism, it makes an important point: that in that situation, the argument of prudence led in the wrong direction. This was a moment when heroism was a duty. The bishops declare:

Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear ‘no’, and most of them bolstered the (German nation’s) will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war. The bishops may not have shared the Nazis’ justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succor both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose.

It was understandable for the bishops to follow the lead of the Holy See, in the Concordat of 1933. It was understandable for them to want to preserve their ability to administer the Sacraments freely. It was even understandable, if not admirable, for them not to want to fall foul of a ruthless regime untrammeled by the rule of law. The “cooperation” the bishops gave the Nazis was “material”: they never intended any wrongful action. But even this material cooperation was serious and had serious consequences. The suggestion that Hitler was a legitimate leader, and that therefore he should be given the benefit of the doubt about the justness of his laws and policies, smoothed the way for his crimes. In 1933, Catholics had not come under Hitler’s spell, for the most part: they could have made a difference. The bishops chose not to encourage resistance.

It is easy, however, to repent of other people’s sins. If this acknowledgement of past complicity is to have any meaning, it must inform action in the present, when they cannot claim to fear the kind of reprisals the Gestapo would have visited on their predecessors. I am reminded of a more recent example of episcopal cooperation with evil in Germany: as LifeSite reported back in 1999:

German law requires that prior to obtaining an abortion women must seek counsel at an approved counselling centre and produce a certificate as proof of having received help. Many dioceses in Germany operated such centres noting that they were encouraging women to carry their children to term and accept the assistance offered them. However, providing the certificate implicated the Church in assisting women to obtain abortions.

This policy of the German bishops was doggedly defended against repeated condemnations by the Vatican, and particularly by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yes, the idea was never to encourage abortion: quite the opposite. But official involvement in the process, and the giving of a document that opened the door, legally, to an abortion, was wrong because it made the counsellors part of the process. They were morally involved.

The German bishops seem still to have not learned this lesson, however. In their application of Pope Francis’ confusing document Amoris Laetitia, they endorsed a policy of allowing divorced or separated Catholics in “second unions” to receive Holy Communion without repenting of their adultery or undertaking to discontinue it. This is not, again, to intend the commission of sin, but it is ‘material’ involvement with it: encouraging, endorsing, and publicly supporting it. It is striking that defenders of the German bishops’ approach often say that the couples first marriage might possibly have been invalid, but the only difference this makes is to change the category of the sin from adultery to fornication, still carried on in a public manner by the couple living as if man and wife.

This, however, seems not to be enough for the German Bishops’ Conference. We now hear of their “Synodal Path.” Their “working document” proposes not just turning a blind eye to sexual sins, but actually encouraging them:

Family planning, even by means of artificial contraception, is not a hostile act, but supports the right of a couple to make a responsible joint decision on the number of children, the intervals between births and the concrete means of family planning.


Homosexual acts also realize positive meaningful values, insofar as they are an expression of friendship, reliability, loyalty and support in life.

Here we finally move from material cooperation to “formal” cooperation: were these ideas to be endorsed by the German bishops, they would actually be willing Catholics to commit grave sins. Much more clearly than in the case with cooperation with Hitler, the bishops would have these sins on their own consciences.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.