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German Bishops’ Spokesman Declines Requests for Clarified Guidelines

(Image: Bonn, home of the Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference)

On 14 February, Steve Skojec reported on his own attempts to receive, in justice, some clarifications – specific and unambiguous ones – concerning steps now to be taken by the Archdiocese of Newark with regard to the outspoken and conservative Catholic priest, Father Peter West. (My family has known Father West personally and has cherished him for his gentleness and radiant kindness). As it now turns out, however, the speaker for the Archdiocese evaded and then declined to give any further details as to the standing “protocols” and the canonical grounds upon which Father West will now be dealt with.

A similar experience of evasion and denial of access has also just come to me, but this time from another place: Germany.

During my extensive reporting on the new 1 February German Bishops’ pastoral guidelines with regard to the “remarried” divorcees, I several times contacted (first on 2 February) the press speaker of the German Bishops’ Conference, Matthias Kopp, in order to acquire clarifications from him regarding some important details of the new doctrinal-pastoral guidelines. During our exchanges, I had essentially posed two important questions:

  • Whether or not the divorced and “remarried” persons who were to receive the proposed “accompaniment” and “discernment” concerning their possible having licit access to the Sacraments of Penance and of the Holy Eucharist may now be counseled by a pastoral caretaker who is a layman. (If this were to be the case, would it not also raise serious questions about a layman’s effective jurisdiction in the Catholic Church?)
  • Whether or not the local priest must then accept those assisted individual decisions of conscience and thus admit those individuals to the Sacraments, even if the priest himself might have, in his own conscience, moral objections to those subjective decisions. (The Austrian Bishop, Andreas Laun, just recently wrote about a German priest with exactly this kind of difficulty and moral objection.)

Additionally, I asked Mr. Kopp whether there will be a kind of formal process where the final decision with regard to the access to the Sacraments will be written down in the registry of the parish, similar to how it would now be properly done with those faithful persons who have received an ecclesial declaration of nullity of their marriage from its inception.

I had hoped to receive from Mr. Kopp – the official press speaker for the German Bishops’ Conference – an official and unambiguous, clear and affirmative response.

The background for these specifically posed questions is – as I have already reported – that the German pastoral guidelines only speak of “pastoral caretakers” with regard to the “process of discernment.” But, according to the Catholic Church’s Law (Canon 519), a “pastoral caretaker” may also be a layman officially working for the individual diocese. (The more inclusive definition of “pastoral caretaker” had been earlier  pointed out to me by an expert of the German Bishops’ Conference, Dr. Michael Feil.) The other reason for my questions is the fact that the new pastoral guidelines now say – even in an insistent way – that “the decision [of the “remarried” divorcees] to receive the Sacraments must be respected,” [my emphasis] with finality, as if it were a final declaration of nullity.

After several days of going back and forth over formalities – for I had, in Mr. Kopp’s eyes, not yet properly given a sufficient amount of my personal contact information – Mr. Kopp finally gave me one officially responsive statement, and he further requested that I either publish it in full and unabridged, or otherwise first receive his approval if I choose to use only excerpts of his response. He also said that he rejects my own depiction of the situation according to which there is chaos now spreading in the Catholic Church in Germany.

Here is his statement:

  • Pope Francis says in his post-synodal Apostolic document Amoris Laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (AL no. 301)
  • This [AL quote] has as a direct consequence that 915 CIC [Code of Canon Law] is not any more presumptively applicable to all those persons who live in so-called “irregular” situations: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or the declaration of a penalty, as well as others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to communion.” [Can. 915 CIC]
  • Fundamentally, the right to the reception of the Sacraments is valid: “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.” (Can. 912 CIC)
  • As a restriction, there remains the judgment of conscience in the individual case: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.” (Can. 916 CIC) [my emphasis]

As the reader may easily see, Mr. Kopp has not at all answered my specific questions. Thus I asked him again to answer those questions, saying that I know of German priests who now worry whether they might be pressured to accept the personal individual decision of conscience of a “remarried” person, even though it goes against the priest’s own conscience. (Here, once more – as Dr. Edward Peters also again told us on 14 February – I would point to the risk and danger of a grave penalty for, in any way, soliciting the violation of the Sixth Commandment in Confession (Can. 1387), which is itself a grave sin.)

On 14 February, Mr. Kopp answered me one last time, saying that he prefers not to say more than what he had already said.

In my last e-mail to him, I had earnestly requested of him simply to answer my questions – “dubia” – with a simple yes or no; and, while writing it, I was reminded of the Four Cardinals’ own dubia! I also told Mr. Kopp that ambiguous vagueness is not pastoral, and not to clarify such matters is not manly. (I did mention the parallel to Pope Francis’ silence with regard to the dubia.) I essentially said to him: say what your intentions and plans are and then deal with the potentially opposing voices as they come to present themselves politely. But, to leave a whole country – Germany – in a confused state as to who may likely and officially now counsel those “remarried” divorcees; and as to whether a priest must then accept the decision of conscience of these “accompanied” couples with regard to the Sacraments – whatever their decision may be – is itself a grave and negligent omission.

After Mr. Kopp’s final answer to me, I directly turned to two German prelates: first to Cardinal Reinhard Marx – President of the German Bishops’ Conference – and then to Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. The former did not respond at all to my questions; the second is currently traveling, I was told.

What I should have asked Mr. Kopp, but failed to do, is the following: when mentioning “all those in any ‘irregular’ situation” with regard to their possible and permitted access to the Sacraments, does this apply to cohabitating partners, and even to homosexual partners, as well? This matter is of great concern also to the German psychiatrist, Dr. Christian Spaemann – son of the esteemed Professor Robert Spaemann – who wrote an article in which he points to the danger that the German Bishops’ recent undefined reference to “irregular situations” might now include Communion for people in all kinds of irregular relationships – thus promoting a moral relativism which would then undermine the Catholics sacramental order altogether.

We shall now fittingly keep insisting, however, that Pope Francis himself needs to stop bringing the Catholic Church into a deeply uprooted state of confusion and demoralization. Because, as even Mr. Kopp acknowledges in his official response to me: the new German pastoral guidelines derive from Amoris Laetitia and the mind of the pope.

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