Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the former head of the German Bishops’ Conference and a famous “neo-Modernist Dissenter” turns 80 years old this month, and has thus submitted his final resignation from his office as the bishop of Mainz. In the course of this transition into retirement, Cardinal Lehmann has given several candid, and sometimes casual, interviews that are acutely relevant to the Catholic world for several reasons.
Before we go into these reasons, however, let us briefly review some of the things for which Lehmann stands:
- He stands for the Sankt Gallen Group – he was one of the members of a group of cardinals that met regularly – until 2006 – in the Swiss city of Sankt Gallen, in order to promote a progressive agenda within the Catholic Church, and that promoted, in 2005, the election of Jorge Bergoglio (which failed at that time, but later succeeded in 2013)
- He stands for his straight and strong opposition against Humanae Vitae after its publication – he is one of the signatories of the now-famous revolutionary “Königsteiner Erklaerung” (Declaration of Königstein) which gave space to the questioning of Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in light of the individual couple’s subjective conscience.
- He stands for a continuous promotion of the idea of admitting “remarried” divorcees to the Eucharist – and for some 45 years, according to his own recollected account. In 1993 he issued, together with then-Bishop Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and Oskar Saier, the archbishop of Freiburg, a statement proposing this idea. This proposal was rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
- Just after the release of Amoris Laetitia, Lehmann praised the document and said that one now cannot simply say any more that couples in “irregular situations” live in “the state of mortal sin” and that they have thus lost “sanctifying grace.”
- Finally, he stands for the German bishops’ year-long refusal to accept John Paul II’s strong admonishment to their Catholic counseling organizations NOT to issue so-called “Beratungsscheine” (counseling certificates) which would thereby allow women in Germany to have a legal abortion.
To sum it up – Cardinal Lehmann thoroughly stands for the ongoing progressive-liberal agenda within the Catholic Church.
In this light, here are the relevant statements to be found in Cardinal Lehmann’s recent 8 May interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, all of which should be of interest to the larger Catholic world:
First of all, Lehmann makes demeaning remarks about Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After being asked by the interviewer about Müller, who – according to the journalist – “with stubbornness” was somehow able to become the Prefect of the CDF and is now, thus, the number three in the Vatican, Lehmann responded: “Whatever might be the case today, in any event he was not like that in earlier times. I checked it in my archives, and I have accompanied Gerhard Müller altogether for 13 years in the theological field – right from the theological diploma up to the Habilitation [post-doctoral thesis]. He was very docile then and he also dealt well with criticism. He wrote impeccable works. Later, he changed. But, I do not want to judge this at all. Each pupil has to go his own way.” Later on in the same interview, Lehmann also rejects Müller’s purported claim that Pope Francis is more of a pastor than a theologian, saying that “one cannot make such a distinction with a pope” and that the pope’s remarks “are always based upon theological principles.”
Secondly, Cardinal Lehmann – who was made a cardinal by John Paul II in 2001 despite his resistance the Catholic Church’s moral teaching – praises Cardinal Julius Döpfner (of Munich) as his model, both for becoming a bishop and for resisting papal instructions. Döpfner was, it should be known, the leading force behind the “Declaration of Königstein.” Lehmann says:
He [Döpfner] once told me [a few weeks before his own death] that Pope Paul VI demanded him to recant the “Declaration of Königstein”of the German bishops about the freedom of conscience [sic] with regard to the question of contraception. Döpfner said to him: “We cannot do it. It is a question of our pastoral conscience.” Then Pope Paul replied: “Do you, then, also accept my own decision of conscience as pope?” Döpfner said: “Yes.” To which the pope then replied: “Then it seems that we have to live with it.”
In the following, Lehmann first praises both the pope and Döpfner for the way they mutually handled this conflict, and then he continues with these words:
And all that [experience] has helped me, for, when, in 1987 as a new president [of the German Bishops’ Conference], I sat with Pope John Paul II and he came to me with the same demand – namely, that the Declaration of Königstein has to be removed – I responded with the words: “Holy Father, you did not ask this from my predecessor for ten years. Then, please, do not ask it from me now.” Today, I think I was quite bold. But, he might probably have realized that the difficult intimate questions of sexual morality are not solely to be solved by the means of prescriptions and interdictions. I myself wrote for him an assessment. He certainly had had more second thoughts.
Lehmann was then reminded that it was, indeed, Pope John Paul II who, ten years later, forced him and the other German bishops to stop any participation in the German system of “abortion-counseling.” Here, Lehmann also reveals how John Paul II, nevertheless, finally gave him the red hat – in spite of their abiding conflicts over the abortion issues. Lehmann says, with regard to the somewhat contradictory German legislation concerning abortion (which forbade abortion unless it was preceded by a few formal counseling sessions), that Rome still considered it as “playing tricks in dealing with the life of the unborn.” He continues:
And with everything that smelled like a feint, this pope – who was morally so straightforward – had great difficulties. I knew that, and I also knew that it was finally he who decides. This dissent, obviously, did not damage our relationship. An intimate friend of the pope told me first hand that my own nomination to the cardinalate in 2001 happened due to an explicit and conscious intervention by John Paul – and this after all the struggles. Today, I can well worship him as a saint.
Cardinal Lehmann also now defends the papacy of Pope Francis. He praises him for picking up those themes
that have needed positive attention. Here I am thinking, for example, of his commitment to a Synodal Constitution of the Church [sic]. I am very glad about this. There has entered a new spirit of freedom in the Church. I had experienced it [in the past] three times, during previous synods, that a debate about married priests who had proved themselves in marriage and the family – the “viri probati” – had then been suppressed by an interdiction from above. Today, however, the pope says: “A synod is either free, or it is not a synod.” What a change! I hope that he lives long enough in order to make crucial personnel decisions. The new [way and “spirit of freedom” in the Church] needs new people.
The mutual esteem between Lehmann and the pope is further described by Lehmann with the following words – while first being reminded that the pope himself is only a half a year younger than he : “That is what I told him, too, when he [recently] gave me an embrace at the end of a conversation last November , and then said to me: ‘You only have one mistake: You are too old.’” [Is one not also reminded here of the similar gestures of praise and intimacy Pope Francis has recently bestowed upon Cardinal Kasper?] Lehmann later re-affirms his own praise for Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia with these words:
“With his Amoris Laetitia, the pope has now given us a great task – namely, seriously to implement it!”
What this Lehmann interview shows, in part, is that one of the most prominent and long-standing dissenters within the Catholic Church is now fully supported by Pope Francis. Additionally, it shows how Lehmann and his allies – such as Cardinal Walter Kasper – have really been only weakly and insufficiently resisted and opposed by previous popes (such as Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II), much less corrected or punished by them. Not only have the likes of Lehmann not received a properly authoritative public correction with regard to their heterodox actions, but they have even received further honors by being elevated in ecclesiastical rank, such as the cardinalate!
It is therefore clear that the papacy of Pope Francis, while of crucial importance, does not give us the whole story. We must look to the history of our recent popes in order to better understand the current and exacerbating crisis within the Catholic Church, and the empowerment of those who lead its charge.