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Cardinal Lehmann’s Memoirs: On His Humanae Vitae Dissent and the Conduct of Some Popes

Mit langem Atem – Wege. Erfahrungen. Einsichten
(With Long-Term Perseverance. Ways. Experiences. Insights)
Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Author);  Markus Schächter (Editor)
272 pages
19,99  €

Cardinal Karl Lehmann – who was for twenty years the President of the German Bishops’ Conference and who thus greatly shaped the Catholic Church in Germany  – just died, on 11 March, in his home in Mainz at the age of 81. In his 2017 autobiography, he speaks about his dissent concerning Humanae Vitae and how Pope John Paul II cherished him. He also comes to speak about Pope Paul VI’s “ambiguous” attitude, as well as Joseph Ratzinger’s own change of positions with regard to moral issues.

Cardinal Lehmann is known to have been a progressive prelate who, in 1994, not only promoted the idea to give Holy Communion to the “remarried” divorcees, but who also strongly supported ecumenism and argued in favor of the Church’s laxening and fittingly lenient attitude toward the use of contraceptives. He also took initiatives in favor of married priests, as well as female deacons.

In his autobiographical book-length interview with the journalist Markus Schächter, Mit Langem Atem (With Long-Term Perseverance. A Conversation with Markus Schächter, published by the German publishing house Herder), Cardinal Lehmann looks back upon his life.

One of the themes in the book is his dissent with regard to Humanae Vitae and its rejection of the use of contraceptives. When speaking positively about Pope  Paul VI and his strong and energetic support of the Second Vatican Council, Lehmann adds that he regrets that people mostly remember him as “the pope who put on the brakes with regard to the pill.” He continues, saying that the German bishops at the time wrote in their “Declaration of Königstein” (Königsteiner Erklärung) a “very well-balanced and wise reaction” to Humanae Vitae. “Paul VI also responded to it, but only reluctantly. His work could at times seem indeed ambiguous – a little bit – that is what John XXIII once said about Montini, [he is] like Hamlet.”

When asked about Pope John Paul II himself, Lehmann says that “I am personally especially close to him since it was he – as I already mentioned earlier – who appointed me in 1983 bishop of Mainz and then, in 2001, took me into the College of Cardinals.” He adds that they have had in their many personal conversations several serious disagreements, such as about the German practice of counseling pregnant women and handing them certificates that allow for a legal abortion, as well as the Declaration of Königstein. Nevertheless, says Lehmann, he is grateful that he received from this pope the red hat “against much resistance within the Roman Curia” and even though it was not called for to give him that red hat.

Earlier in the interview-book, Cardinal Lehmann reports how the personal secretary of John Paul II only a few years ago assured him how much the pope had especially cherished Lehmann:

I was in Krakow a few years ago and I gave there a talk at the State University. In this context, the former secretary of John Paul II and current archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, wanted to meet me. He picked me up at the airport and then said to me: “Finally, we are alone. We have seen each other often, but we barely were alone. I wanted to tell you something: you should know how much John Paul II cherished you. And it was he alone who insisted upon your nomination to the cardinalate, against all resistances. That is what I had wanted to tell you!” ([Lehmann] laughs)

In a later context in the book, Cardinal Lehmann describes in detail how John Paul II dealt with his dissent with regard to the prohibition of contraception. He says that, shortly after his election as the President of the German bishops in 1987, he had an appointment with the pope, in November. As soon as they met, says Lehmann, John Paul II said: “Your predecessor had wanted to rescind the Declaration of Königstein; that is what you should do now.” Then Lehmann responded to the pope with these words: “Holy Father, he had had many years, and did not do it in these eleven years (1976-1987). Now I ask you to give me some time in order to clarify the matter. I would like to propose to you that we first determine what the Declaration of Königstein really intended. We should not start with the abuse, with which it is justly and partially connected. And only then we should judge.”

Cardinal Lehmann continues, saying that “it was a hard conversation; in any event, he approached me in a hard manner at the beginning of my service. At the end, however, he agreed and said that I should have a report made.” Lehmann himself wrote that document in 1993 (six years later!), and he presented it to the German bishops at their general assembly, inviting a discussion about it. Only in 2006, did he finally publish that speech and report in one of his books.

The interviewer points to the claim of Cardinal Joachim Meisner that Lehmann had indeed promised the pope to rescind the Declaration of Königstein and that he broke his obedience. Lehmann responds to this claim, saying that he only spoke with the pope in private about these matters, without any witness. (Cardinal Meisner might well have heard of such a purported promise from the pope himself, however.)

In any event, according to Lehmann’s own account, after he had sent to John Paul II his report on this matter, “John Paul II did not afterwards show a great interest any more in this topic. I am now convinced that he understood that that which he read in [my] document was much more reasonable and understandable than what he had been told about the Declaration of Königstein. And that the text of the Declaration of Königstein itself is also more reasonable than that which was [earlier] presented to him.” Lehmann says that his request to meet with the pope in person – in order to discuss his paper – was delayed one or two times. Then, finally, the pope said: “Talk with Cardinal Ratzinger about it!” Lehmann continues, saying: “This discussion never took place. Pope John Paul II was too good an ethicist not to notice that, with all the remaining problems, the problem [of the German bishops’ dissent about Humanae Vitae] would not be solved in any way by a decision to insist upon the withdrawal of the Declaration of Königstein.” [emphasis added]

Later, after he became a cardinal, Lehmann decided to publish his report to the pope, as indicated above. He also adds that he had learned from his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Höffner, President of the German bishops 1976-1987, how Paul VI had spoken to Höffner about the problem, at the end of 1976. “That has encouraged me in a determining and fateful way for my own time,” Lehman explains. Lehmann might imply here that the fact that Pope Paul VI did not take any corrective steps against Höffner might have encouraged him in his own resistance to Humanae Vitae.

Let us return to John Paul II here. When asked as to whether John Paul II’s approach in this matter was a “masterpiece of ecclesial diplomacy,” he answers: “That is why I cherished John Paul II so much. He could have dealt with me in a much more formal way and could have asked me harshly how matters are standing. But he found a way to clarify the matter.” Lehmann does not specify how the matter was clarified.

Cardinal Lehmann also discusses his relationship with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Importantly, he reveals that, in 1970, he – together with other members of the German bishops’ Commission on matters of the Faith – wrote a memorandum, raising the question of the possibility of ordaining to the priesthood married men who have sufficiently proved themselves in their married life, their professional life, as well as in the Church: the so-called viri probati. Both Walter Kasper and Ratzinger signed that document. Looking back, Lehmann bemoans that “a fitting moment, a kairos, was missed.” One should have approached individual men, not right away to establish a “new caste” within the Church, explains the cardinal. “To try it out with a few individuals, and to ordain them to the priesthood, would have been a good approach.” He also regrets that that discussion had then also been silenced soon within the Church.

He now sees a renewed chance with Pope Francis, saying that he sees “indications that Pope Francis at least is open for a discussion and perhaps also for a limited experiment; perhaps he even awaits for some proposals that are now being made.” Lehmann specifically refers here to Bishop Erwin Kräutler’s claim that Pope Francis encouraged him to make such proposals.

To return to Cardinal Ratzinger, in the context of the 1993 initiative of three German bishops – among them Lehmann and Kasper – to admit “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion, Lehmann admits to have been very “wounded” when Rome strongly rejected it. A special disappointment for him had also been that it was Cardinal Ratzinger (as then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) who was responsible for that curial rejection. Lehmann recounts how, in 1969/70, he and Ratzinger had been invited by the Munich Academy to speak about this topic, and Ratzinger – who was then a model for many of the German theologians – opened himself up to the idea of liberalizing the Church’s teaching in this matter, calling for a “clear turn,” in Lehmann’s words.

Lehmann continues, by saying that later, when Ratzinger was pope, he was wondering how would deal with that 1970 talk of his when now re-editing his opera omnia. “And what does Joseph Ratzinger do? He leaves 90%, to include his argument in favor of his earlier practical conclusions [to admit “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion], but then completely re-writes the concluding chapter without changing anything from the previous argumentation.” Lehmann thinks that Benedict should have, rather, decided to “leave the article out,” “but this way to leave the whole argumentation untouched while writing another conclusion, has disappointed me.” (See here a report on this matter.)

Lehmann speaks here as someone who was close to Ratzinger. As he himself recounts, “I knew Joseph Ratzinger as a theologian whom I always honored, since the time of the Council, that is to say up to his election [as pope] more than forty years.” Even though nine years older, Ratzinger “treated me always like a brother and promoted me,” explains Lehmann. “Until the papal election, we theologically worked and discussed together much.” One of the fruits of that collaboration was a book that the two published together, called Mit der Kirche leben (To Live With the Church). Additionally, they worked together at conferences, on other book projects, and especially at the International Theology Commission in Rome.

Let us, at the end of this partial review of Lehmann’s autobiographical book-length interview, return now to Pope Francis. The interviewer asks Lehmann about the papal election of Bergoglio and Bergoglio’s own little speech that he gave during the conclave, which supposedly influenced many cardinals to vote for him. Here, let us hear the words of Cardinal Lehmann himself:

After the speech, there was a remarkable silence. In subsequent conversations, Walter Kasper and I agreed that this had been a very significant intervention. […] He had already played a role at the election of Benedict XVI. At that time, he could not do much in light of the overwhelming prominence and high reputation of Joseph Ratzinger. [But] in this moment, when the block of Italian cardinals was not able – or was not willing – to agree with one another, this speech – which was later published, with permission from the pope, in the Bulletin of the Diocese of Havana (Cuba) – was indeed a quiet turning point. It contains, as we now well know, a large part of what he, as pope, wishes to implement.

This same man, Jorge Bergoglio, now as Pope Francis, wrote the following words about Cardinal Lehmann on occasion of the cardinal’s death:

In his long activity as a theologian and bishop, and as president of the German Episcopal Conference, he helped shape the life of the Church and of society. His heart was always open to the questions and challenges of the times, and to offer answers and directions starting from the message of Christ, to accompany people along their path, seeking what unites them beyond the confines of confessions, convictions and states.

A circle closes itself. From John Paul II to Pope Francis. May Cardinal Lehmann’s soul finally rest in peace.

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