Maike Hickson

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Cardinal Rainer Woelki

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German cardinal: preachers have ‘failed’ when laity demand overthrow of Church’s sexual teachings

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March 28, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Rainer Woelki – the archbishop of Cologne and successor of dubia Cardinal Joachim Meisner – has commented on the recent calls for the Church to overhaul her teachings on celibacy and sexuality. He said it causes him sorrow that people are now more asking what the faithful themselves wish, rather than looking at what is God's will. For him, these are signs that “the preachers of the Faith have obviously failed.”

Writing for the German national Catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, Cardinal Woelki first stated that there are many people who honor the Catholic Church merely for her “social-ethical and charitable value.” One of the favorite sayings here is: “After all, the Church helps people in distress.”

However, for Cardinal Woelki, “it is shocking and shameful when fewer and fewer people hear — and want to hear — the salvific message itself, when they do not make use of the Sacraments and consider the Gospels as a sort of pious chat and the Creed as poetry.” 

“Obviously,” he added, “the preachers of the Faith have failed.”

"To put it in a pointed way, the alternative before us is: either the de-secularization of the Church or the de-Christianization of the world, at least in that part of the world where we Germans live," he added.

And the German prelate points to one crucial problem in the Church of today – here, of course, proposed  especially in light of the current German discussion concerning the sex abuse crisis and some possible reforms – namely: that one looks too much at “what the people want.” Here, he says, “the leading question is being placed upside down.” 

The new motto today, according to Woelki, is to recognize the “life realities” of the people as an “additional source of revelation,” which the Church supposedly now needs to accept. 

Here, Cardinal Woelki objects: “The reality is indeed a revelation, but not a divine one. Adaptation cannot be the motto, but the interpretation of this reality in the light of the Gospels.” The Church cannot, he added, accept “changes of her teaching when they contradict the spirit of the Gospels,” even if there exist high public expectations and pressures from the media.

The fact that people are leaving the Church because of her teaching “does not convince me,” said Woelki. “Christ Himself has not only received with his proclamation approval and jubilation, but also lack of understanding and rejection.” But Christ “did not adapt His teaching.” “Numbers and majorities cannot make decisions about the truth,” he added.

Cardinal Woelki's statement seems to be a direct response to the recent March 11-14 spring assembly of the German Bishops' Conference, at the end of which it was decided to start a “synodal path” in order to discuss further priestly celibacy, clerical power, and sexual morality. At that conference, one of the invited speakers – Professor Eberhard Schockenhoff – proposed abandonment of much of the Church teaching on sexuality, to include the acceptance of homosexual relations.

In opposition to such claims, Cardinal Woelki now says in his new March 27 essay that the necessity to preserve the Church's teachings in light of the Gospels does not only apply to those “great dogmas such as the Holy Trinity and the Divine Sonship,” but also the fact that God created man and woman, who are oriented toward one another in loyalty and love, “and fundamentally open to new life.”

In addition, the German prelate names celibacy and the ban on female priests as those aspects that one may not change “with the stroke of a pen.” To do so, “would mean to give the lie to the instruction which God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit gives the Church.”

“Such pusillanimity,” he adds, “does not lead us into the future.”

Furthermore, Cardinal Woelki raised concern about the constant discussion of sexuality in the framework of the Catholic Church, thus giving the impression that “the Faith is not the Church's topic, but sexuality.” As examples, he names celibacy, the question of the “remarried” divorcees, cohabitation, and homosexuality. The Church “should be careful not to confirm this impression,” he explained. 

For the German prelate, the Church's morality is mostly not about interdictions, but, rather, about a “promise of happiness,” about human sexuality, which is, when properly lived, “a source of happiness and of renewed life.” Thus, the Church's moral teaching “preserves a promise which is now often threatened to go under in today's culture of fun and entertainment: it exists, the one, great love!”

Responding to the argument – as, for example, it has been recently presented by Cardinal Marx – that people are leaving the Catholic Church because of her teaching, Cardinal Woelki points to the Protestant churches in Germany because they “have all of that [abolishment of celibacy, new assessment of homosexuality, and female ordination] which is now being demanded [in the Catholic Church]” and still faced with the same problems with regard to number of vocations, the weakening of the “practice of the faith,” and to the number of people leaving the church.

Therefore, says Woelki, “the true problems” must lie “somewhere else,” namely: in the “crisis of the Faith and of its understanding.”

Thus, this lack of a deeper understanding of the Church's teachings should “wake us Catholics up” and show us that we “are doing something wrong.”

“We are speaking too much of the Church, and too little of Christ; we look too often at ourselves and too little upon Him,” Woelki stated. He wishes to have more “growth and a new start,” but it will “only touch people and inspire them when we all remain loyal to our mission.” “Everything is entrusted to us. It has been given to us without our deserving it. Only in this spirit and in this humility, can the Church renew herself.”

Cardinal Woelki is not the only Catholic in Germany who opposes the new “synodal path” of reform as announced by Cardinal Marx.

Prominent Catholics such as Gabriele Kuby, Father Frank Unterhalt (the leader of the priestly group Communio veritatis), as well as Peter Winnemöller and Mathias von Gersdorff oppose any of these proposed changes of the Church's traditional teachings on celibacy and sexuality. Winnemöller even went so far as to ask: “Will Catholics have to follow their bishops who have the intention – or exercise it – to change the Church's teaching? It is indeed a question as to whether the episcopacy was aware of the potentially schismatic explosive power of the consequences of the current decisions.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.