A Good Question: “How credible are you?”

[A Comment from Father Duncan McVicar SI] Father Kentenich felt called by God to lead the Church, with a prophetic voice, “to the new shore”. He once commented: “The Church should always be what it was at its beginning – the soul of the world’s culture. Don’t separate the Church from culture, and don’t separate the Church from the world! However, the Church should always be the soul of the world’s culture – even this confused and utterly secularised culture.” (8th December 1965)

Many were taken aback by the atmosphere created by some German bishops – including Cardinal Caspar and Cardinal Marx – regarding the burning issues within marriage and family doctrine and pastoral care in the lead-up to the Family Synod in Rome in October this year – amongst others. Pope Francis addressed the present-day crisis of marriage family in his challenging and passionate address to the international Schoenstatt Movement in Rome, after we celebrated the wonderful days of the Jubilee Year 2014. He spoke about the impact of a “throwaway culture” that reduces the covenant of marriage – which is the icon of Christ’s relationship to his Church –  to a mere “association” within society, that should conform to modern-day expectations.

He encouraged the audience of Schoenstatt members from all over the world: “That the family is hit, that the family is knocked and that the family is debased as [how can this be] a way of association … Can everything be called a family? How many families are divided, how many marriages are broken, how much relativism there is in the concept of the Sacrament of Marriage. At present, from a sociological point of view and from the point of view of human values, as well as, in fact, of the Catholic Sacrament, of the Christian Sacrament, there is a crisis of the family, a crisis because it is hit from all sides and left very wounded!.. We are witnessing”, he notes, the “reduction of the Sacrament to a rite… the Sacrament is made a social event… [but] the social [dimension] covers the fundamental thing, which is union with God… What they are proposing is not marriage, it is an association, but it is not marriage! It is necessary to say things very clearly and we must say this!”

It comes as quite a surprise that some of the German bishops seem fixated in changing certain issues of Catholic teaching – such as the divorced and remarried returning to receive the Sacraments – that was already raised in the 1980 Synod on the family and proclaimed in St John Paul’s exhortation “Familiaris Consortio”. Cardinal Caspar – resurrecting one of his own pet theories from the 70’s – lobbies for changes in Church practice under the headline of “mercy”. An understandable immediate reaction from outside Germany, was the call for the German hierarchy to lead by example and apply “mercy” to those who are cut off from the Sacramental life of the Church if they refuse to pay Church taxes.

The German Church is funded by the “Kirchensteuer” – “church tax” – making it one of the richest national churches in the world. The amount of annual income is considerable. If my information is correct, the German Church in 2011 took in around £5 billion. Thousands of German Catholics year for year have been choosing to opt out. If they do so, they are excluded from receiving the Sacraments, except in the grave situation of death. It seems to me that it would be more prudent to begin a missionary outreach of “mercy” in this regard first. Some German bishops don’t seem to see the need for mercy here on their own doorstep. Their call for “mercy” for the divorced and remarried would then seem to me to be more credible. Financial security for the Church is important, the defence of our understanding of marriage is vastly more important.

People leaving the Church anywhere is a serious problem – Germany is not alone here. Their response to the problem is, however, surprising. Instead of an “all-in missionary Catholicism”, which strives to seek out “the lost”, a “prairie fire” of a new evangelisation, we witness an almost “dumbing-down” of moral doctrine and a comfortably, accommodating pastoral practice. The statistics on Catholic Church practice in Germany are “jaw-dropping”. As one young observer commented: “There are more people at Mass in a rural American Church during the week, than in the Cathedral of Munich on a Sunday!”.

In 1934, the Founder of Schoenstatt urged: “We have to make our contribution to a new world, where the original Catholic energy is awakened and mobilised. This is our ‘attack strategy’: We will build up an ‘oasis’ – everyone can be a part of this – Pessimism, impotent complaining, fear and repression are completely useless in this regard!” His mission was an intensifying of our Catholic mission awareness. From every Schoenstatt Shrine and every Schoenstatt Home Shrine, for that matter, should flow a powerful stream of orientation and vibrant life for the religious and moral renewal of the Church – an “oasis” that represents a culture of life and love. Christianity, according to Father Kentenich, is not just a “ladder to heaven”, it is also a “ladder to the earth” for today’s world. It saddens me that the thinking and lobbying of a few German bishops in regard to the vision of married and family life is virtually indistinguishable from that of non-believers (see George Weigel).

Perhaps the question, raised by university students, “how credible are you?” lies at the heart of the German crisis. The vision of Father Kentenich saw the pressing need for Christians and clergymen to be “windows to God” – authentic “transparencies” of God in the world. Bishops and priests, in this regard, as spiritual fathers – should not only represent a selfless authority, but it should be an authority that you can count on. As Father Kentenich often said: “Only life awakens life” or “you can’t light a fire with an icicle”. What Cardinals Caspar and Marx seem to be promoting is a freezing-cold “icicle” that adapts too much to the expectations of certain sections of society. The “icicle” is always recognised by the same historical process – in the words of George Weigel – first you have “acquiescence, followed by surrender, followed by collaboration”. Cardinal Marx’s recent comment that regardless of the outcome of the Synod, Germany will go its own way, seems to give the sour taste of a confused ecclesiology: National Bishops’ Conferences are not the Magisterium – at least, that was what we were told in our student days of theology.

The “plot thickens” when the news came out of a recent “closed door” meeting in Rome, organised, amongst others, by various German bishops – to “study” the issues for the coming Family Synod in October. It seemed that no-one was prepared to say why the meeting was organised in secret and why only the “like-minded” where invited. Amongst the so-called “specialists” present was Father Eberhard Schockenhoff, a moral theologian. He is known as a challenger to various Church teachings, a regular critic of “Humanae Vitae” and a consistent supporter of homosexual clergy. Edward Pentin gave a good insight into the views of Father Schockenhoff when he wrote: “[Father Schockenhoff] urged that any assessment of homosexual acts “must take a back seat” on the grounds that the faithful are becoming “increasingly distant from the Church’s sexual morality,” which appears “unrealistic and hostile to them. The Pope and the bishops should take this seriously and not dismiss it as laxity,” he has also admitted that moral theology must be “liberated from the natural law” and that conscience should be based on the “life experience of the faithful.”

Where is the radical “Good News” of Jesus Christ in all of this? Should not the Church today make it their priority to give witness to the existence and reality of God? Are we willing to suffer as a Church today, and if necessary “hang on the cross” with the Lord? Are we not called again and again to “swim against the current” in the realisation of a new society that bears the face of Christ? Father Kentenich, I’m sure, would say in this context: “You can only overcome one vision by living another stronger vision”.

It seems today that, in the words of Father Charles Rahner, the Church is going through a “dark winter”; the “winter” of fewer Baptisms, fewer Church marriages, fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The warm glow of a “new springtime” would be the clear voice and witness of Schoenstatt in regard to these issues. We speak, after the Jubilee, of a “Schoenstatt which goes forth” and of our commitment to the “strengthening and renewal of marriage and the family” (see Pentecost Congress 2015). When is the “springtime” coming from Schoenstatt?  The silence of our communities and Family Movement is deafening! Where is the voice of our Schoenstatt brothers and sisters in Germany? Why don’t we hear or read about a clear challenge to the disturbing views of these bishops? A good question: How credible are you?


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