The German Church is in a dire state. Threatened by burgeoning apostasy and heresy within its own ranks, orthodox Catholics around the world look with a wary eye to the nation that gave us Martin Luther and the Protestant “Reformation”. The original title of Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s essential account of the ecclesiastical revolution that took place at the Second Vatican Council told us who the principal influences were: The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. In the 21st century, Catholics are once again remarking at the prominent roles played by controversial German prelates like Cardinals Kasper and Marx — at request of no less a figure than Pope Francis — at the recent Synod on the Family.
And yet, it would be a false understanding to believe that the German Church is homogenous in its views. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller said last year that anyone who wishes to change the Church’s teaching on marriage — “even if he wears the Roman purple” — is a heretic. The famous German Professor Robert Spaemann called Pope Francis’s leadership “chaotic” and “irritating.” The German secular journal Cicero published a strong report by Rome Vaticanist Guiseppe Rusconi describing the many points of critique against Pope Francis circulating within the Curia. Additionally, the German journal FOCUS recently published an Open Letter to Pope Francis – written by a former high-ranking member of the Roman Curia – which includes a fraternal rebuke of the pontiff’s authoritarian ways in dealing with opposition, as well as his disdain for the traditions of the Church.
In the following, I would like to present three additional voices of critique — those of a priest and two journalists — coming from Germany, my beloved homeland. I will do so by translating larger sections of the texts without additional commentary. In this way, it is my hope that these authors can speak for themselves.
The first of the three sources is a noteworthy priest: Prelate Heinrich Wachter of Regensburg. He has known Pope Benedict XVI for many years and has had many private meetings with him. He lives near and is personally close to the brother of Benedict, Father Georg Ratzinger. He is also well-acquainted with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who was formerly the bishop of Regensburg. Wachter is an outspoken man who, when he heard of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, publicly stated: “One could cry. Now all those won who for so long did not wish well for him!” In his eyes, it was the various intrigues against Benedict which led to his resignation.
On January 14, 2016, Prelate Wachter spoke up against Pope Francis:
Question: Prelate Wachter, what is for you the greatest difference between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis?
Wachter: There exist powerful differences. In a general way one can say: Francis acts differently in each aspect. This is certainly not his intention – one does not have to interpret it against him – but in many things, the way he acts stultifies his predecessor. With regard to certain ways of conduct, he fundamentally positions himself differently from our Benedict. But, compared to him, Francis is not at all informed theologically. He talks unbelievably much, but barely makes a clear statement. Even Cardinal [Joachim] Meisner said about him that his statements are always very problematic.
Question: Where does this come from?
Wachter: Francis decides spontaneously, according to his feelings – which then the people who are always calling for changes in the Catholic Church interpret in a way favorable to their own ideas. This has escalated very much.
Question: What is the effect within the Church?
Wachter: Cardinal Brandmüller already accused his colleague, Cardinal [Walter] Kasper of heresy. That alone says it already all. Many people in Germany have the feeling: Finally, something is changing, for example, with regard to the remarried divorcees.
Question: In your eyes, are there now clear lines?
Wachter: Exactly not! It was already doubtful why one conducted a questionnaire before the Synod [on the family]. As if the whole world did not know how the attitude of the people is regarding these issues. For that, one does not need a questionnaire! After all, the bishops were in contact with the people already.
Question: Is this populism?
Wachter: Yes, that is how I see it. But this led to Rome’s having a dialogue with the bishops. But, this went quietly up in smoke. It completely failed, because it did not bring that which is desired by those people who want the changes. This continued with the two synods: two times, one did not find an agreement.
Question: And now, the pope has to draw a conclusion?
Wachter: Yes, but he delays it! That is the dangerous side in him that in the end, he does not make any decision. Even though it is to be welcomed that he raises everything and talks about everything and that he is thereby very popular, he leaves open too many possibilities of interpretation.
Question: Concerning Benedict, people said that he retired because he failed with the Curia. Francis places here two poles: On the one hand, the new Council of Cardinals – of which Cardinal [Reinhard] Marx of Munich is a member – on the other hand, Cardinal [Gerhard] Müller who becomes his counterpart. A competition?
Wachter: It always existed. When Müller was bishop of Regensburg, Marx was already his opponent. But, one is not sure on whose side the pope is truly standing. It was indeed strange that Francis invited Cardinal [Walter] Kasper again for a discussion. And Cardinal Marx is pleased with the decentralization of the Church which is coming from Francis. He attracts the bishops of the world with more independence and thereby avoids having to make decisions himself.
Question: Which ones would there be?
Wachter: He would have to say what his position really is with regard to the divorced remarried, to the homo-marriages and all these problems. The great risk with him is that everybody instrumentalizes him for his own purposes. One example just now was ecumenism. There he goes and visits the Evangelical community in Rome and gives them a chalice as a gift. What is this about? What shall they do with a chalice? Of course, Mrs. [Margot] Kässmann [former Evangelical Bishop of Germany] interpreted this [gift] in a way that he [Francis] is in favor of intercommunion. In a negligent way, he permits that, consequently, for example, the Central Committee of German Catholics [ZdK, German lay organization] appropriates such things. This is also the disease we are dealing with.
Question: Did the power of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decrease under [Cardinal] Gerhard Ludwig [Müller]?
Wachter: A dangerous situation has developed due to the fact that parts of the episcopacy believe that Pope Francis does not stand behind him. The pope has limited all positions [within the Curia] to five years, and one has to fear that Müller is in his office only for three more years. And yet, it is the Prefect for the Faith whose office is above the pope, because he controls whether the pope is Catholic any more at all.
The second source of criticism is Markus Günther, a well-known German journalist who writes, among many other newspapers, for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Last year, he wrote a strong critique of Pope Francis. In January of 2016, he wrote another analysis of the pontificate of Pope Francis, which was published it in the German Catholic journal Vatikan Magazin:
The Pope Full of Riddles: Whoever thinks to understand Francis overestimates himself – or he underestimates Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Often, there is a strong discrepancy between the written documents and oral statements of Pope Francis, because only in rare cases does he present the texts of the speeches which have been prepared for him by the offices of the Curia. But even then, when one hears Francis in his original tone, when he speaks without filters and without restraint, there can be found again and again different, at times contrary, ways of interpretation. […] After nearly three years in the office of Peter, the pope gives us riddles again and again. He who talks like this has to expect a strong resistance. Because many people – priests, bishops, cardinals, but also simple faithful and unconcerned TV watchers around the world – are strongly convinced to have understood the pope correctly and they often present the aptly applicable original quotes for their own interpretation. […]
First of all, there is the observation that this pope especially wants to be a pastor. […] The pope [however] is also the head of the Roman Curia; he constantly has to make personnel decisions, to present and explain – being in the highest magisterial office – the Church’s teaching; being a kind of head of state, he has to be diplomatic; as the celebrant of the Roman Liturgy, he has to be a model and an inspiration; as the last instance of authority, he has to solve conflicts within the Church and discipline employees. Up to today, Francis has not yet assumed – or only unwillingly assumed – many of these roles. His strong mistrust toward the Curia is an additional obstacle so that he flees even more into the pastoral and public role which secures him success and affirmation. […]
A second observation: Francis is close to being an evangelical pope. […] Like all priests who have been formed by evangelical influences [in their surrounding culture, such as in Southern America], Francis has to face the challenge to present the uniquely Catholic elements and to explain their special value; everything evangelical always runs the danger to seek a relationship with God outside of the Church founded by Christ, as it were in a form of a private solo run; and everything evangelical finds itself in a relationship of tension with the sacraments which, after all, can only be understood in a Catholic way. Francis does not always succeed in attempting the balance between an evangelical approach and a distinctly Catholic one. Besides [the Sacrament of] Confession, he barely speaks of the sacraments, and he seems to lack – especially with regard to the Holy Eucharist – a passionate attachment to the Sacraments. The symbolic action of the public washing of feet seems to be closer to his heart than the Sacramental Sacrifice at the altar.
A third observation: Francis wants to reform the Church. It is not always due to a misunderstanding of his quotes that the impression is given that he wants to change the papacy and the Church, pastoral practice and Catholic teaching in decisive aspects. […] Rather, the Argentinian’s intentions of reform are not an invention of the media but, instead, reality. That there arise uncertainties and contradictions is due to the fact that Francis meets with resistance and then that he moves ahead in a strategic way. The strong opposition of Cardinal Raymond Burke is certainly no accident. Even less accidental is the disempowerment of Burke by Francis. The letter of the 13 cardinals who warned Francis not to soften the theology of marriage is not a misunderstanding but mirrors the insight of these cardinals that Francis indeed plans far-reaching changes. The fact that someone like the archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan (who, unlike Cardinal Burke, is not at all part of the conservative wing of the Church) is among them shows that this concern reaches far into the middle of the Church. The cardinals know how seriously Francis takes his intentions of reform. When visiting the Lutheran community in Rome, Francis effectively opened up the reception of Holy Communion to spouses of a mixed marriage, even if he then in a coy way looked over to the cardinals who were present, smiled and added: “More I cannot say.” To a woman who is in a second marriage and who complained about a priest refusing her Holy Communion, Francis said without hesitation, when speaking with her on the phone, that she should simply try it with another priest.
There are many problematic sides of the reform plans of the pope: He does not make clear enough what he exactly wants, but leaves much in the dark – as in the case of the Synod on the Family. It is also problematic that one gets again and again the impression that the pope is not very attentive to Catholic teaching and that he likes to overlook things. Those, however, who still take the Catechism and Doctrine seriously, now turn out to be literally more Catholic than the pope. That is the reason why the enormous popularity of the pope has had such little resonance within the Church. On the contrary: often, the pope and the Church now appear to be opposing forces.
The third source is Julius Müller-Meiningen, a German Rome correspondent who writes for many German newspapers, among them Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Even though he clearly shows that his sympathies lie with Church progressives, Müller-Meiningen is a well-informed and fair reporter who not long ago wrote a beautiful article about Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book God or Nothing. I will quote here two of his recent articles dealing with Pope Francis’ recent visit to Mexico:
A Pope With Positions (Papst mit Position); 19 February, 2016:
[…] Francis has barely ever taken stronger positions than during his trip to Mexico, where he paid more attention than before to the weak, the excluded, and the forgotten people. This is of importance especially with regard to the electoral campaign in the U.S. […] Francis acted in Mexico, only a stone’s throw away from the U.S.A., as a kind of Bernie Sanders of the Catholic Church.
The gestures and words of the pope were clearly of a political leftist orientation. With his trip to the seemingly insurmountable border between Mexico and the U.S.A., Francis called for a more human treatment of migrants. His critique of capitalism and the call for an harmonious treatment of nature according to the model of the indigenous population, expressed in the Southern-American state of Chiapas, have made again blatantly clear where Francis stands: on the far left of the political center. Whether one likes it or not – Francis takes positions.
Judgments and Misjudgments (Urteile und Fehlurteile); 20 February, 2016:
[…] Rarely has the public perception of a pontificate been more at odds with the essence of that specific pontificate as in the case of Francis. This pope who has put mercy at the center of his mission makes harsh judgments, among them, not seldomly, misjudgments. Memorable in this context is his interference with the U.S. electoral campaign. He said verbatim that he does not interfere, only to then contradict himself in the next half-sentence in condemning Donald Trump – the populist right-wing candidate of the Republicans: “I only say that this man is not a Christian.” This sentence, packed well with qualifying clauses which sound mild, was of an unusually aggressive nature, whatever one might think about Trump himself. […]
Whatever impression one is left of German Catholicism — a part of the Church that is clearly in trouble — these opposing voices demonstrate that not all is lost, and that the fight for the soul of the Church in Germany goes on.