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Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich

HILDESHEIM, Germany, March 4, 2015 ( – Remarks last month by one of Pope Francis’ closest advisors has observers wondering if the German bishops are signaling their readiness for a de facto schism over Church teaching on sexual morality.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the German Catholic bishops’ conference and a member of Pope Francis’ so-called Council of Nine, told reporters that they would chart their own course on the question of allowing Communion for those in “irregular” sexual unions.

“We are not a subsidiary of Rome,” he said. “The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we should do in Germany.”

“Each Episcopal Conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture, and has to proclaim the Gospel as their very own office,” Marx continued. “We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have here to undertake in this place marriage and family ministry.”

Marx was speaking at a press conference at the bishops’ Spring General Assembly, and said that the German Church expects “new approaches” to be found at the upcoming Synod in October to “help ensure that doors are opened” for those who are in what is usually termed “irregular unions.” He said that the conference would be producing another paper on the subject in the coming weeks.

In January, Cardinal Marx gave an interview with the liberal US magazine America, indicating that it is not only on the issue of the divorced and civilly remarried that the German Church is currently deliberating. Asked whether the Catholic Church would ever endorse homosexual unions, the cardinal responded, “I have also previously mentioned the question of accompanying people, to see what people are doing in their lives and in their personal situation,” and added that the desire for “life-long fidelity is right and good.”

“The Church says that a gay relationship is not on the same level as a relationship between a man and a woman. That is clear,” he continued. “But when they are faithful, when they are engaged for the poor, when they are working, it is not possible to say, ‘Everything you do, because you are a homosexual, is negative.’”

This is not the first time the German hierarchy has indicated that they will ignore instruction from Rome. In 2013, the German episcopate issued “guidelines” that said the choice to receive Communion must be left up to the individual based on his or her own subjective criteria.

In response, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, said that “under no circumstances” can a second, civil marriage “be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible.”

Cardinal Müller has repeatedly instructed the German hierarchy that all Catholics are bound by the same immutable moral law, without exception, and each time has been rebuffed. Allowing the divorced and remarried to receive the Sacraments “would cause confusion among the faithful about the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage,” Müller has written. In response, the former head of the German conference, Robert Zollitsch, was quoted saying, “a prefect is not the pope,” implying that Müller’s opinion is irrelevant if Pope Francis does not back him.

Cardinal Marx has been one of the strongest supporters of the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper that while the Church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble will remain unchanged, it should simply be ignored in favor of a new regime of “mercy” and “forgiveness.” This is to be effected without the Church’s customary requirement of a determination to reject and turn away from the sin in question.

In 2013, Cardinal Kasper gave an interview explaining his position, for which he has been campaigning for decades: “Christians who want to live by faith with the Church, who acknowledge that they have made ​​mistakes by the breaking of the first marriage, which they also regret – for them it should be a way back fully to participate in Christian and ecclesial life.”

“What is possible with God, namely, forgiveness, should help to achieve this even in the Church,” he said. Later, at the Consistory of Cardinals in February last year, he laid out his plan to create a “penitential process” by which the Church could simply ignore the person’s ongoing situation.

Since the words of Christ in the Gospel clearly say that divorce is an impossibility, and that a “second marriage” is in reality adultery, the Church has taught that persons in such situations are barred from reception of Holy Communion, which is held to be the actual physical body and blood of Christ. Until Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion, which reportedly outraged several of those present at the 2014 Consistory, the Church has always taught that sorrow for sin must be accompanied by repentance – a determination to give up the sin – before absolution can be granted and the person be freed to return to the reception of Communion.

The split between the German bishops and the universal Church on matters of morality long predates their push for changing the practice on Communion. Since at least 1995, Pope John Paul II was pressing them to give up their participation in a government program that allowed women to have abortions. It was not until 2002 that they finally complied with the papal demand to get out of the abortion business and it was not until 2006 that the conference formally denounced the government program.

The German conference had to be forced to give up the ownership of a publishing company Weltbild, known for selling at least 2,500 different titles of pornography. More recently, Bishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau announced that the conference would be revising its rules requiring employees to live according to the moral teaching of the Church, in order to preserve the Church’s “credibility” with the public. Due to the tax system in Germany, the Catholic Church is the country’s second-largest employer, and one of the richest national Catholic hierarchies in the world, despite continually falling Mass attendance rates.

All of this has for years prompted commentators to predict that the Catholic Church in Germany is on an inevitable trajectory to schism, a formal split from the rest of the Catholic Church, like the one in the same country in the early 16th century that resulted in the Protestant Reformation. Marie Meaney wrote in 2013 in Crisis Magazine that the divide dates all the way back to 1968 and the German episcopal rejection of the Church’s teaching on contraception in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

“Will there be a new schism in the German Church? Some say it has de facto already happened a long time ago without having been openly declared. That it won’t take much to occur is certain, for the German Church is to a great extent already Protestant in doctrine and spirit,” Meaney wrote.