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Chaos in the German Church in the Wake of the New Pastoral Guidelines

Just two days after the official publication of the new pastoral guidelines concerning marriage, there seems to be in Germany an increase of disorder. Contradicting, confusing, and alarmed voices are now to be heard from all corners of the country. But, foremost, the document itself turns out to be more insidiously dangerous than had seemed to be the case at first sight. We have even now come to wonder about the extent to which laymen themselves will now have jurisdiction in the Catholic Church.

As we reported two days ago, the German guidelines concerning the “remarried” divorcees seemed at first to be less liberalizing than the Maltese guidelines – the latter of which Dr. Edward Peters (the canon lawyer) has described as the “Maltese Disaster.” However, at the same time, as I then also put it, the Germans have come pretty close to the Maltese standard. That is to say, the German expression that “the decision [of the “remarried” divorcees] to receive the Sacraments must be respected” comes close to the Maltese statement that the “remarried” may go to Communion if they feel “at peace with God.” In both cases, the subjective and more sentimental conscience is highlighted and given much decisive weight.

For example, here is what Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin has just recently said concerning the matter of conscience: “We [German bishops] write that – in justified [sic] individual cases and after a longer process – there can be a decision of conscience on the side of the faithful to receive the Sacraments, a decision which must be respected.” When asked why the German bishops – in contradistinction to other, more cautious, episcopal guidelines – now “chose the largest opening world-wide [with regard to the “remarried” divorcees], which makes one’s own conscience the standard,” [my emphasis] Koch momentously answers: Because we are firmly convinced that this is the intention – according to the word as well as in the spirit – which Pope Francis himself desires and takes, and which we thus carry forth with him.” [my emphasis]

Thus, it is already clear that the German pastoral guidelines are increasingly troubling due to the accent which is now to be put on the individual conscience – if not quite yet on an unformed subjective conscience.

What we have, indeed, somewhat overlooked so far is the fact that the German Bishops now do not any more even speak explicitly about the employment of ordained priests with regard to that “path of discernment” which should ostensibly now be willingly undertaken by the “remarried” applicants themselves.

For example, in the whole set of pastoral guidelines, only the words “pastoral” and “pastoral caretaker” (without further definition) are now being used; the word “pastor” or “priest” is nowhere to be found. The grave consequences of this linguistic phenomenon is that, at least in Germany, now also laymen (women and men) may officially “accompany” the “remarried” in their discernment as to whether they may have access to the Sacraments or not. This matter was just brought to my attention through an interview which was published yesterday by the German Bishops’ own website, In this interview, Ute Eberl, a lay woman working in the field of the pastoral care for the Diocese of Berlin, comments on the new German pastoral guidelines and explicitly praises the fact that the accompanying person can also now be a layman. Eberl explains:

First of all, I am content. I think it is really wonderful that the bishops have put the footnote “remarried persons” into the main text and said: the decision of conscience is to be respected. I hope that thus the controversies will have an end. The advice to get in contact with a pastoral caretaker is excellent. Next to a priest, this can first also be a person to whom one is close, who accompanies someone through a separation, but then also rejoices about the new relationship. The episcopal letter [the new guidelines], therefore, is not a way of restricting people to a new order of rules and conduct, but breathes a great liberty. [my emphasis]

After reading this entire interview, I contacted the press office of the German Bishops’ Conference, asking for a further clarification as to who it then shall be who officially accompanies the “remarried.” I also quoted the following passage of the new German guidelines: “Amoris Laetitia speaks about a process of coming to a decision [about the reception of both the Sacrament of Penance and of the Eucharist] which is accompanied by a pastoral caretaker.” [my emphasis] To the question as to whether this means that it can also be a person other than a priest who authoritatively accompanies the “remarried” divorcees, I received the following answer today from Dr. Michael Feil for the German Bishops’ Conference – and these are all of the words of explanation I then received:

For a further definition of the expression “pastoral caretaker” in this context, one may see Canon 519 CIC [the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law – link provided by M.H.]:

The pastor (parochus) is the proper pastor (pastor) of the parish entrusted to him, exercising the pastoral care of the community committed to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop in whose ministry of Christ he has been called to share, so that for that same community he carries out the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, also with the cooperation of other presbyters or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of the Christian faithful, according to the norm of law. [my emphasis]

So far, I have not yet again heard back from Dr. Feil, namely after I wrote to him a second time, asking him for a confirmation that this now effectively means that laymen may also allowably accompany the “remarried” in their discernment as to whether they may receive the Sacraments; and whether the German bishops are now also saying that the local priest has to respect in all cases the decision of conscience of the individual “remarried” person with regard to the reception of Holy Communion.

Moreover, another matter in question also remains somewhat unclear, namely: what would this mean with regard to the reception of the Sacrament of Penance? Would there thus be a layman counseling a “remarried” person and thus being involved in the decision as to whether that other person may now also receive absolution in the confessional? To what extent will laymen now have jurisdiction in the Church? After all, the German bishops speak about “pastoral caretakers” in general when explicitly mentioning the allowed access to both the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Dr. Peters himself raised yesterday in his own commentary on the German guidelines a similar and related question, namely:

By the way, other passages in the German documents imply that Confession, too, might be sought in these cases [of the divorced-and-“remarried”], but without, it seems, requiring of penitents a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ (even in regard to voluntary sexual activity with a non-spouse). As I noted in HPR a few years back, this approach exposes the celebration of Penance to the risk of sacrilege and its minister to the charge of solicitation in confession.

Here Peters points to the danger of priests being thus pushed – under a reference to the subjective conscience of the “remarried” person – into giving absolution to an unrepentant adulterer, which puts his own priesthood at risk – under canon law! We therefore earnestly recommend to our readers a close study of Dr. Peters’ 2011 analysis of Canon 1387 (see link in Peters’ quote), which says that a priest who “solicits a penitent to violate the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue,” in or around the confessional, is to be punished. This solicitation, according to Peters, can also mean that a priest could improperly allure and encourage a penitent to violate the Sixth Commandment with any other third party, and not only with himself. We have recently – after having ourselves received a reference to this matter from another counseling canon lawyer – pointed to this dangerously developing situation with regard to Amoris Laetitia, specifically.

If this same sacramental problem in itself – as caused now by the German bishops – is not already sufficiently confusing, the reactions to the new German pastoral guidelines are even more so. For example, today, the German bishops’ website,, published an interview with the German Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of the Diocese of Augsburg. This bishop is unmistakably and openly confused himself, and cannot publicly even clearly answer the question as to whether the “remarried” divorcees may now receive Holy Communion in Germany. He insists that now, one might even need a further clarification of that German document! “Here we are now again in such a need that someone else has to come and interpret for us the [German episcopal] document,” [my emphasis] the bishop himself says, after being asked specifically about the question of the “remarried” divorcees and whether “everybody can now do things as he wishes.”

Zdarsa sees, moreover, that there is now even more of a need for an “attentive pastoral care” for those with marriage troubles. He sees that “we [bishops] now have given such an immense responsibility [to the local pastors] that not everybody can handle it and endure it in the same measure.” The German prelate then asks a piercing question: if a pastor does not even have the time for a thorough preparation of the youth and of future married couples, “how much less time, strength and patience” will that same priest have in order to enter into this desirably thorough process of discernment, “as the pope now demands it”? In this context, Bishop Zdarsa fears that thus there will be “premature decisions” (“Schnellschüsse”), “or that there will be other [grave] causes of conflict which cannot yet be adequately foreseen.” [my emphasis]

Zdarsa also puts into question whether, in general, the German “remarried” divorcees will at all even seek the counsel of the priests, inasmuch as “the frequentation of the confessional is here among us not so high.” With regard to the question of the individual conscience, Bishop Zdarsa, with a painful look on his face, says that one first has to start with “the formation of conscience”; and he then admits that, in Germany, much has been neglected in this regard. “We barely discuss this question of the formation of conscience,” adds the bishop. After pointing out the importance of orienting human life according to the laws of God, this bishop – who himself grew up in Communist East Germany and who had suffered under Communism – answers to the rhetorical question “So, it will remain difficult?” with a heavy heart, saying: “Yes.” It is nearly palpable how much this beset prelate suffers under the current confusion and disorder.

However, Bishop Zdarsa is not the only churchman who sincerely expresses his reservations about the newly promulgated pastoral guidelines (which have not been approved by all German bishops individually, but, rather, only by the General Council of the German Bishops’ Conference in which sit the chosen delegates from all of the German dioceses, one per diocese). For example, the German progressive journal, Der Spiegel, published an article today which has as its title: “Conservative Priests are Rejecting the Initiative of the German Bishops’ Conference.” The article thus reports:

Representatives of the Network of Catholic Priests (“Netzwerk katholischer Priester”), of the German Opus Dei, of the Legionnaires of Christ, and of other orthodox groups speak now about “schisms in the parishes” and about an “obscuration of the Sacrament of Marriage.

It is also important to note in this context that a German canon lawyer, Father Gero P. Weishaupt, has just today posted a comment on the facebook of Mathias von Gersdorff, describing the increase of chaos in Germany: “Chaos reigns now, especially among bishops. The Cardinal of Cologne [Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki] said yesterday […] that he does not exclude a schism. The pope will not be able to avoid having to clarify the matter.” [my emphasis]

It is also worthwhile to consider here the comments as published by the German Catholic commentator, Mathias von Gersdorff himself. He reports on a 2 February article published by the prominent German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), which now even claims – with regard to the new rules for the “remarried” divorcees – as follows: “All the other bishops’ conferences in the world will now have to ask themselves with which arguments they will now deny the pope their loyalty in this question.” [my emphasis] Von Gersdorff comments upon this subtle quote with the following, quite perky words: “These are new times: of all people, the German bishops are now the new model for papal loyalty!” [my emphasis]

As von Gersdorff also says, the German FAZ now depicts and presents those three bishops, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, and Oskar Saier – who, first in 1993, pushed strongly in their own dioceses for allowing sacramental Communion for the “remarried” – to be valiant victims who have finally been vindicated.

In the past year, with his document Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis now embraces the insights of these three [formerly dissenting] bishops,” [my emphasis] says the FAZ. To these words, von Gersdorff then ironically comments: “After a long time of suffering – nearly 25 years – the following becomes apparent: the true loyal followers of the pope are the Germans, after all! As soon as Cardinal Kasper dies, Daniel Deckers [the FAZ journalist] will most probably propose his canonization.” [my emphasis]

The world often enough now seems to have turned up-side down. The earlier dissenters are now the loyal papists, and the orthodox Catholics are the new recusants and recalcitrant dissenters.

The chaos in Germany is now unmistakably increasing – as is also now the case in the larger Church.

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