Maike Hickson

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Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich

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German cardinals, bishops, priests reject Cdl. Marx’s agenda to revisit celibacy, sexual morality

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April 26, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Several German cardinals, bishops, and priests have now independently come out strongly against some of the so-called reform ideas as presented by the German Bishops' Conference under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, especially with regard to the loosening of priestly celibacy and "need for change" of sexual morality. 

Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Paul Josef Cordes, as well as the German-speaking Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti, have defended priestly celibacy. Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer said he considers it to be a “squandering of time and energy” to discuss topics such as “power” and “participation.” Bishop Vitus Huonder, of the German-speaking area of Switzerland, says that “nothing good” can come from a German “synodal path” that wishes to “change everything.” A priestly group has stated that any betrayal of Our Lord should be rejected.

Over Easter, there has come from German-speaking clergymen many encouraging statements, all of which more or less directly respond to the reform agenda as proposed by Cardinal Marx on March 14, 2019, at the end of the German bishops' March 11-14 spring assembly. That reform agenda had been agreed upon by most German bishops during the last thirty minutes of that four-day meeting. But in spite of Marx' assurances that the agenda was accepted unanimously, there were, however, some bishops who abstained from voting. There is now, nonetheless, to take place in Germany a professed “synodal path” with discussions on reforming priestly celibacy and sexual morality along with discussions on the question of clerical power.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, had already made a statement shortly after this spring assembly, in which he said that the Church cannot accept “changes of her teaching when they contradict the spirit of the Gospels.” For Germany, he said that he sees only one alternative: “either the de-secularization of the Church or the de-Christianization of the world.”

On April 18, Cardinals Brandmüller, Cordes, and Bishop Eleganti responded in the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost to the spreading idea of loosening the obligatory celibacy for priests. 

Cordes first presents a beautiful description of the blessings that come with priestly celibacy – especially a “personal togetherness, unlimited fulfillment, eternal happiness” as promised by God to those who choose to serve Him as celibate priests. This promise, the German curial prelate writes, “sustains the celibate. It enables him to wait. And his own sacrifice also gives to his fellow Christians hope for the future.”  

In a “chagrined final remark” Cardinal Cordes then explains that it was Cardinal Marx's proposal to discuss the idea of whether or not celibacy at all has to be part of the priestly life which then provoked his own reflections as laid down in his essay. “The president [Marx] used the abuse crisis as the occasion for his proposal,” Cordes adds, thus evoking the “impression that there exists a link between pedophilia and celibacy. But this is pure speculation.” For Cardinal Cordes, the abuse crisis is “unsuitable” as an occasion for such a debate, since such a link is “unproven” in light of available studies.

Cardinal Cordes suggested that Cardinal Marx should have turned to those movements in the Church that have given the Church in the recent past many priests who do preserve and live out celibacy. “No,” he adds, “the cardinal chooses the ZdK [Central Committee of German Catholics], whose president, Thomas Sternberg, already has demanded – for quite some time – that it [celibacy] should 'be loosened.'”

Cardinal Marx' claim that celibacy should not be abolished is called a “protective assertion” by Cordes. “For, has not this whole maneuver been initiated in order to undermine it [celibacy]?” he asks. “It saddens me how their protagonists [of the German dioceses] make use of sophistical tricks in order to launch, with the help of a negative hermeneutics, an 'open' discussion.”

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller (one of the dubia signers), on his part, first presented an overview of the struggles for maintaining and establishing celibacy among clergy down the centuries. He made it clear that a weakened practice of priestly celibacy was connected with a poorer image that society had of the mission and role of the priest in general. (As a piece of side information, he states that St. Boniface, when facing a lax clergy in Germany in the 8th century, imposed imprisonment and whipping for those who violated priestly celibacy.) The German cardinal summed up his view, stating: “the more a society regarded the priest as a man who, by virtue of his holy ordination, stands in the person of Christ and proclaims the Gospels and leads the community of believers as the good shepherd with authority, who celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the altar 'in persona Christi' and administers the Sacraments, the more it became understandable and logical that he also would follow Jesus Christ and thus imitate his Master's way of life.”

Turning to recent history, Cardinal Brandmüller said he now sees that there is a weakened understanding of the priesthood, starting with the 1970s. He said that now the priest is being regarded “mostly as a manager of a parish, as social worker with a certain psychological, spiritual competence” who oversees “social, and perhaps cultural institutions.” For that, the German prelate explained, “one does not need celibacy,” a thing that is now being regarded as “a burden.”

Thus, he explained, this discussion about celibacy is a “consequence of the fact that the understanding of the Catholic priesthood once more has entered into a crisis.” He sees how some proposed new insights from “sociology, psychoanalysis, group dynamics, and self-awareness groups, and similar nonsense” have now entered the seminaries instead of implementing the Second Vatican Council's decrees on priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, and on priestly formation, Optatam totius

Looking at today's state of theological departments and seminaries in light of these 50-year-old decrees, Brandmüller wrote, “one can only attest a failure of the Council on a broad front.” It is “no question,” he added, “that this development has had a negative effect upon the attitude toward celibacy.”

The more the priesthood is being regarded as the means with which Christ Himself “in His Church continues His work of redemption until the end of times,” Cardinal Brandmüller stated, “the more naturally a priest will also assume for himself the way of life from his Master, Jesus Christ.”

Supporting the statements of these two German cardinals, the German-speaking Swiss Auxiliary Bishop Marian Eleganti of Chur stated in his own commentary that “in the current debate on celibacy, a secular logic is dominating which, as such, cannot penetrate to the essence of the matter.” Today, problems are being mainly discussed in “socio-psychological and political terms,” even though, “in reality, persons, not systems are failing.” And persons are, as such, morally “responsible,” Eleganti explained, because “they could have also acted differently – morally.” Just as no one is forced to steal, he added, no one is forced to abuse someone sexually. If there are groups which are more prone to certain forms of conduct, it is not the priesthood, since most sexual abuse takes place in civil society, outside of the priesthood. “This fact,” the Swiss bishop added, “forbids the claim that the abolishment of celibacy would solve the abuse problem.”

Stressing the supernatural aspects of celibacy – namely, that a priest is wedded to Christ Himself and to His Church – Eleganti said that celibacy is not merely a law but the “inner side of the priesthood.” In a very moving way, he described how, as a young man, he had to sacrifice his love for a woman for the sake of his greater love for Christ. “After this challenge, I was not anymore the same,” the prelate explained, and he already at the time realized that one should not regard celibacy merely as a law, but as a deep and free choice for the sake of Jesus Christ, putting Him first in one's life. “This sacrifice,” he explained, “places the celibate in a much different, inner relationship and bond with Jesus and His Church, in a manner that is not known to the married.” But “both are called to become saints,” Eleganti added. He states that the Latin-Rite Church has so far maintained celibacy, “and, hopefully, she will keep it that way.”

In a recent April 17 interview with Die Tagespost, Vitus Huonder – the main bishop of Chur – also commented on the German bishops and their newly chosen “synodal path” on questions such as celibacy and sexual morality. For him, to preserve “unity” is the main focus of any discussion on the “substance of the faith.” “It cannot be different in Poland from that in Germany,” he explained, and with regard to discussions about Pope Francis' post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. More specifically touching upon Germany's “synodal path,” Huonder commented: “A 'synodal path' can be good if it is about consultations, but when one thinks that, in the frame of such a process, one has to change everything that the Church has so far done, nothing good can come from it. I find this really very disconcerting.” He concluded with the words: “I hope that the German bishops are aware of their responsibility for the Faith.” As a retiring bishop, his counsel to his successor is “absolutely to hold onto the truth.”

The German Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg mentioned in his Holy Thursday homily on April 18, more indirectly, the current debate in Germany. “The fruitfulness and the credibility of the Church depend upon the togetherness of the different offices and vocations,” he explained, adding that “the debates within the Church which now concentrate on the questions of 'power' and 'participation', are fruitless and are a squandering of time and energy.” That very time and energy, he added, “we so much need for the real tasks of missionizing and evangelizing.” 

Voderholzer especially lamented the reduction of the Catholic Church to a “worldly political entity,” as if “in the Church, it is like in a political party or in a parliament” where people try to dominate a discussion.

For the Bavarian bishop, however, much more important is the loyal “Christian witness.” Here, the appreciation both of marriage, as well as of celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom” are important. Today's rejection of both “stem from the same distorted relationship to God the Creator and a conception of life which declares a selfish maximization of pleasure and a supposed self-realization as the highest goals in life.”

Last, but certainly not least, the German priestly group of Paderborn, Communio veritatis, which not long ago had called upon Cardinal Marx to resign because of his abusing his spiritual office, published on Holy Thursday its own piercing statement on the deep devotion for the Most Blessed Sacrament and a rejection of the betrayal of Judas. “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” the priests wrote, “is the indispensable core of the Church and the source of her life. How much she is in need of true witnesses who adore the Eucharistic Mysterium in love and in loyalty to the Apostolic teaching, and proclaim it with zeal and courage!” The priests recounted how Pope John Paul II, still in his illness, always insisted upon kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

They also described the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, commenting: “We therefore never want to follow the steps of him who [on Holy Thursday] goes out into the night of the periphery (see John 13:30). He who in a treacherous fashion presented himself to be the friend of the poor (see John 12:5-6) shows on Holy Thursday what is truly in his heart: the poison of treason. As a dishonest ideologue of a false Messianism with an earthly 'liberation', he closed himself off from Divine Truth, and he thus becomes the henchman of Satan (see John 13:2).”

For these priests, the Church right now “experiences the Pasch mystery of Christ,” the confrontation of “faith and disbelief, Gospels and anti-Gospels,” as Pope John Paul II once said. 

In the face of such dangers, the German priests said that we “want to consecrate ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of the Mother of Priests,” also, in order “loyally to fulfill the Will of the Father,” in the words of Pope Benedict XVI. In the past, Communio veritatis has openly criticized its own Archdiocese of Paderborn for allowing some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion without the need to convert to the Catholic Faith.

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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.