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April 27, 2015 ( — In a recent lengthy interview with the German Catholic journal Herder Korrespondenz in an issue especially dedicated to the theme of Pope Francis, the renowned and arguably most prominent Catholic philosopher in Germany, Professor Robert Spaemann, a long-time friend of Pope Benedict, has gone public with a strong criticism of Pope Francis that is being discussed nation-wide.

At the beginning of this interview-discussion that included also another German Catholic philosopher, Professor Hans Joas, Spaemann in a calm and differentiated way first acknowledged Pope Francis' strengths and especially what he calls his “traditional piety”: “He speaks like a Latin-American bishop who is fully rooted in the piety of his people.” Spaemann continues:

“On the other side, in my view, his cult of spontaneity is not helping. In the Vatican, some people are already sighing: 'Today, he has already again another different idea from yesterday.' One does not fully get rid of the impression of chaos. And it is irritating how he prepares the Synod. It is the intention that two parties meet at the synod which the Pope wants to lead into a dialogue whereby he himself plays the role of a moderator. In the same time, however, he takes sides already in advance by favoring the position of Cardinal Walter Kasper, he has excluded the John Paul II Institute for Studies on the Family from the pre-Synod consultations and tries with the help of explicit pressure to influence those consultations.”

Spaemann then also criticized Pope Francis for dismissing personnel who have been close to Pope Benedict XVI: “Pope Francis always stresses his close bond with Pope Benedict. In certain ways that certainly also exists. But I wonder why he throws so many people out of the Vatican who had been called in by Benedict.”

The 87-year old Spaemann who had taught at important universities such as the University of Heidelberg and the University of Munich, also criticized Pope Francis for his way of electing new cardinals:

“Take the recent elections of new cardinals. There have now entered into the government of the whole Church completely unknown bishops who at times only have 15,000 Catholics in their dioceses. Bishops with larger dioceses, however, were passed by, even though one must have seen in them a certain extraordinary quality when they were chosen to be archbishops. Why are they then not called to the top? I ask myself, what will be the result in the end – next to a fleeting symbolic gesture? The upcoming Synod will especially have to show what the Holy Father intends.”

The progressive Professor Hans Joas, Spaemann's counterpart in this interview, largely supported Pope Francis, and even goes so far as to defend extramarital sexual commerce as such. But even he agreed with Spaemann in some of his criticism concerning the previous and the upcoming Synod on Marriage and the Family:

“The greater danger is, however – and here we agree – that, through this dynamic that he [Pope Francis] fosters, he could break loose massive conflicts and the bad centrifugal forces could put in danger the Church as a whole. The analogy to Mikhail Gorbachev comes to mind – with all its differences: There comes a reformer from above and the changes make the whole edifice sway. That has to be avoided at all cost.”

When Spaemann was then asked how he responded to the fact that the first words of the newly elected Pope Francis on the balcony were, “Buona sera [good evening],” Spaemann responded: “'O God, does this need to be?' I said.”

Spaemann's sharply critical view of Pope Francis becomes even clearer after he was asked about the possible future results of this papacy. In his critique, Spaemann refers to the teaching of the Gospels as his decisively formative guide:

“It can be that Francis' way is perceived as a new start – or as a failure. I always try to find a standard with which to measure by reading the Gospels and the Letters of the Apostles. St. Paul says that there will come teachers who say things that sound beautiful for the ears and the people will follow them. But you, says St. Paul to Timothy, shall not be confounded. Pass on the treasure that you have received, in an unfalsified and unshortened manner.”

Spaemann especially insists in this interview that one should not separate doctrine from practice. When asked about Pope Francis' warning against a Christendom of ideas and his favoring a Christendom of deeds, the philosopher replies:

“I find this formulation awkward. Both have to come together. Francis divides the two areas of the Church – theology and practice. And wants to keep them separate. The theologians shall do their work, but the shepherds shall not pay much attention to them. It seems to me that he does not read much, and does not care much about theology. However, in my view both have to be brought together. The theology becomes bloodless and abstract, when the pastoral experience does not flow into it. But vice versa, the pastoral care also becomes empty and does not know what it shall teach if it does not have a theological foundation.”

When asked whether the loving and liberating message of Christ should stand at the center of the Church's teaching, Spaemann reminds us that Jesus Christ also warned us of the danger of the eternal loss of our souls:

“But the teaching of the catechism is unambiguous: Jesus does not only proclaim the loving God; He announces Himself to be the Judge of the living and the dead. The ones He will receive into His kingdom, the others He condemns. Therefore, the sermons of Jesus are filled with warnings. Do we want to ignore them? Does this mean to ignore the signs of the time?”

On looking back upon the papacy of Benedict XVI, Spaemann sees that Benedict gave the Church the gift of a greater spiritual freedom. He says: “There is a spiritual freedom that Benedict XVI has brought into the Church.” The German philosopher also praises Benedict XVI for having removed some grave injustices concerning the liturgy:

“He has tried to integrate into the Church the spiritual potential of those people who like to attend the old Mass. That is a great achievement. Francis sometimes turns up his nose at the friends of the old Mass. I consider this to be hurtful. […] In Buenos Aires it was of all people Bergoglio who one week after the publication of Summorum Pontificum gave a significant Church to the followers of the old Mass.”

Spaemann, as well as his colleague, Joas, both express in this interview their critique of Pope Francis' sometimes “autocratic” methods and leadership. Spaemann says:

“The pope has the unrestricted power of definition and also the full jurisdiction, something that the Orthodoxy for example completely rejects. Francis stresses that he can directly intervene in every diocese of the world. If Benedict would have said something like that, there would have been an outcry. But with Francis, the powers of the Pope are again stressed in a stronger way. And no newspaper is upset.”

And at another place, Spaemann says: “This Pope is one of the most autocratic [popes] that we have had in a long time.”

Joas adds to this criticism:

“With regard to the changes in the Vatican, I considered the public humiliation of his employees in the speech of the Pope before Christmas to be problematic. A critique of such a manner has to happen either in a non-public form or there must be the possibility of expressed disagreement. To humiliate people publicly I consider to be autocratic in a negative sense.”

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In relation to the last and to the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, Spaemann shows clearly a concern that the pope could cause a split within the Church:

“There must be a true dialogue. […] But in the end, there will be the question of the outcome. Will the split within the Church grow larger, or can something be brought closer together? The Synod serves to take everybody along, that is a good thought, if only the pope omits to be moderator and partisan at the same time.”

Toward the end of the interview, Robert Spaemann makes some strong comments about the question of the “remarried” divorcees and about the fact that dioceses in the world treat this question in very different ways. Spaemann comments:

“No, it cannot be that in the one diocese it is dealt with in another fashion than in another one. Each bishop has authority in his diocese. But a true authority, for example, of a Bishop's Conference does not exist. Therefore, unified solutions are needed. And especially, things have to fit together. I can not speak on the one hand of the indissolubility of marriage and of the sinfulness of extramarital sexual commerce, and then on the other hand give the Church's blessing to a 'new bed community'.”

Professor Spaemann insists that the Church needs to transmit the moral teaching in a new and adapted manner, but not to adapt the teaching itself:

“If a greater adaptation to the modern 'way of life' of the Church would be the way, then Protestantism which goes this way should have fewer losses than the Catholic Church, which is not the case. The approval of the true indissolubility of marriage has to be the condition for admitting someone to the Sacrament of Marriage. Only in this way can a marriage experience the happiness that binds itself with the consciousness that this bond has been written in the stars from whence nobody can call it down.”

In this context, Spaemann repeats the teaching of the Church concerning extramarital sexual commerce and refers back to the time of Jesus Christ where people were shocked about His teaching:

“The Gospels say so [that it is forbidden]. These are the words of Jesus. Then people say that it is too difficult for the people of today. Yes, it also became difficult for the people at the times of Jesus. When Jesus said that the marriage cannot be dissolved, the reaction of the Apostles was not enthusiasm; on the contrary, they were shocked and asked who then still wanted to marry. They were shocked, just the same as people are shocked today.”

With these words, the German philosopher Spaemann reminds all of us that Christ's standard is always the same and will always remain the same and that the sinful and adulterous world of the time of Christ had to obey Him, just as our own world now has to adapt itself to Him Who came to redeem us and to save us.