As Pope Francis appeals for peace in Ukraine, and for intervention in the Middle East to stop the violence of ISIS, some of his cardinals are beginning to attack one another over vexed moral questions. The Pope asks for patient prayer.
“Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.”
—Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 10:34
Within the Church, and at the interface between the Church and the world, confusion over the moral issues the Synod of Bishops will be addressing — issues of marriage, divorce, remarriage, Holy Communion, homosexuality, adopted children, children born from surrogate mothers — is setting the Church’s leaders, including cardinals, against one another.
In mid-February, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, head of the German bishops’ conference and a member of the Council of Nine Cardinals advising Pope Francis on the reform of the Roman Curia (so, someone in the Pope’s “inner circle”), speaking in Hildesheim where the German bishops had gathered, suggested that the Church in Germany might not heed the decisions of Rome if they do not agree with them in the German context. “The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany,” Marx said. “We are not just a subsidiary of Rome.” The German bishops, he said, would like to publish their own pastoral letter on marriage and family after the Synod.
Marx’s words raised eyebrows around the world, because they raised the threat of Church disunity. Two leading cardinals soon responded.
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, also from Germany, in March granted an interview to the French Catholic weekly Famille Chrétienne. Marx’s idea that the German bishops could resist implementing instructions from Rome “is an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church,” Müller said. “Episcopal conferences have authority on certain matters, but they are not a magisterium beside the Magisterium, without the Pope and without communion with all bishops…. An episcopal conference is not a particular Council, even less so an Ecumenical Council… This kind of attitude risks in fact the reawakening of a certain polarization between the local Churches and the Church universal… The Church is not a sum of national Churches…”
A second German cardinal responded in an even more dramatic way. Marx’s comments “belong in the village pub,” said Cardinal Josef Cordes, the retired head of the “Cor Unum” office in the Vatican, in a March 7 open letter to Tagespost, publicly rebuking the head of the German bishops’ conference. (The letter may be found on the German-language Catholic news website Kath.net.)
“The President of the Bishops’ Conference plainly declared that ‘We are no local branches of Rome,’” Cordes wrote. “As a social ethicist, Cardinal Marx may know much about the dependency of branches of large corporations. In an ecclesiastical context, such statements should rather be left to the village pub… This ‘anti-Roman instinct’ is not the invention of some scholars, but in the north [of Europe] a reality that displays strong centrifugal power. It is destructive to the highest degree to the unity of the Faith… May the pastors assembled in Rome this autumn also instruct these men and women on how their marriages can root them deeper and deeper in the Faith in Jesus Christ, so that they may become for many contemporaries witnesses of God’s power in the life of men. Maybe it will even occur to the Synod Fathers to express their respect to those who, out of fidelity to the marriage vows once made, do not enter any new union. They too exist.”
On March 22 in England, a group of 461 priests — their signatures take up two pages of text — published an “open letter” on the web site of the London-based Catholic Herald urging all participants of the Synod on the Family (October 4-25 at the Vatican) “to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.” Signees included parish priests, members of religious orders and prominent English theologians Dominican Fr. Aidan Nichols and Fr. John Saward. One signatory, Fr. John Johnson, the dean of Wigan in northern England, told Catholic News Service it would be a “scandal to the community” to allow people who have deserted their spouses to set up home with another partner to publicly receive Communion. “It is a very delicate matter… but you can’t teach the indissolubility of marriage if you allow all and sundry to go to Communion,” he said. (Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster on March 25 urged priests to cease debating the Synod in the press.)
But the Catholic faithful should not be overly concerned about this theological bickering. The fact is that, as American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said on March 19 in New York, “this Holy Father has been and will be faithful to the doctrine and teaching of the Church. He says it clearly… He’s not an obfuscator. He tells it like it is, because he wants people to hear it as it truly is.”
McCarrick recalled meeting then-Cardinal Jorge Bergolio at the airport in Buenos Aires. “He picked me up in a rickety borrowed red Ford. As we rode to our destination, he didn’t point out tourist sights, but places that troubled him,” including a settlement of impoverished people under a bridge and an adult prison that housed young offenders. Bergolio told him that he visited both locations, but knew he should do so more often.
“The only things I saw were his concerns,” McCarrick said. “I really would have been less troubled if he had just shown me the sights,” as it made him think how attractions he shows visitors reflect his priorities.
Pope Francis understands both the sinfulness of people and God’s boundless mercy, McCarrick said.
In his homily at one of the first Masses of his papacy, Francis said God never gets tired of forgiving us, but we sometimes get tired of asking him, McCarrick said. The cardinal predicted Pope Francis will address the issue of broken marriages by coaxing canon lawyers “to develop better systems so we understand how the mercy of God can reach into circumstances that we don’t always understand,” he said. “I believe that so many marriages that were rightly and correctly celebrated are not valid, because people really don’t understand that this is forever, with this one person, and in the hope of bringing children into the world.”