Last week, there took place in Germany the Spring General Assembly of the German Bishops’ Conference with more than 60 German bishops present. As we reported, it was exactly during the time of this episcopal meeting that a significant interview with Pope Francis was also published, and prominently, in a German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Though this interview only appeared on the magazine stands on Thursday, 9 March – the last day of the episcopal meeting – the essence of Pope Francis’ message was already published the day before, and this by the German Bishops’ Conference’s own website, Katholisch.de. Why this fact is important may be seen in light of the second fact, namely that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, had insisted that this papal interview be published only at the end of the episcopal meeting.
However, many Catholic observers thought to see here a direct connection between the German Bishops’ gathering and the themes of the papal interview, inasmuch as Pope Francis for the first time explicitly and ominously opened up the idea of ordaining certain so-called viri probati to the priesthood, but without yet clearly saying so. Viri probati are as of now those married men who have abidingly lived a tested and proven life of virtue and who would thus be eligible for the permanent diaconate. Francis additionally said in this 9 March interview, after being asked about the possibility of married priests:
But voluntary celibacy is not the answer. […] We have to reflect about whether the viri probati are a possibility. Then we also have to determine which tasks they could have, for example in far distant parishes. […] In the Church, it is always important to recognize the right moment, to recognize when the Holy Ghost demands something. That is why I say that we will continue to reflect about the viri probati. [my emphasis]
What Pope Francis is apparently saying here is that he wishes not to introduce the married priesthood generally – thus his current rejection of the more permissive idea of a merely “voluntary celibacy” – but he wishes, first of all, to discuss – in the context of some far distant parishes – the idea of making use of viri probati whose tasks are still, however, to be determined. But, Pope Francis does mention in this context the lack of the Eucharist in many areas of the world.
While this all sounds rather vague, it implies something very important potentially for the Catholic Church: because it is mainly about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, as well as about the Sacrament of Penance. Many of the other duties of a priest (such as teaching the Faith, visiting the sick, giving a homily, give out Holy Communion, conduct wake and funeral services without the Holy Mass) may be exercised by a married deacon, but not the administration of most of the Sacraments. (A deacon may perform the Sacrament of Baptism, and witness a marriage (without Holy Mass), but he is not authorized to administer the other Sacraments.) That is to say: if it were not for the current lack of the Holy Mass and Holy Eucharist, as well as of the Sacrament of Penance in certain areas of the world, one would not now be discussing the question of the possible ordination of the viri probati.
Thus it seems to many that, while Pope Francis is speaking in a customarily vague way, he is hinting that a married priesthood is soon to be seriously (and momentously) discussed.
It is in this context that Cardinal Reinhard Marx may well help us, because he has now revealed some of Pope Francis’ privately spoken words to him in this matter. For, Marx gave on 9 March a press conference at the end of last week’s General Assembly of the German bishops in Bergisch Gladbach; and what he presented was very revealing of some proposed initiatives, and it thereby helps us to understand the deeper “Patterns of Change.” We might realize that we are about to start a similar process of “change” as we have gone through these last years with regard to the “remarried” divorcees and their possible access to the Sacraments.
Let me therefore now present some of the most important themes mentioned during that German bishops’ press conference, many of which were brought to light by the very questions of some journalists.
In the following, I shall thus propose to show:
- how Pope Francis had already read the new and very liberalizing German pastoral guidelines with regard to Amoris Laetitia before praising them in a later personal conversation with Cardinal Marx;
- how Marx still insists that Amoris Laetitia is not ambiguous, and is the clear result of the discussions at the two Family Synods later approved by a two-thirds majority;
- how Marx thinks that there should be no taboos with regard to the discussion of the further uses of the viri probati;
- how the German bishops had themselves discussed the matter of the viri probati with Pope Francis during their own 2015 Ad Limina visit;
- how on the occasion of the 2015 meeting with the German bishops, Pope Francis revealingly praised the work of Bishop emeritus Fritz Lobinger, who proposes to ordain male (and female) married persons as “elders” and priests;
- how Cardinal Marx “cannot exclude” the possibility that the viri probati discussion will also come up at the upcoming Youth Synod in October of 2018, in Rome;
- and how there will soon be some progress made in Germany with regard to the intercommunion question with the Protestants.
Let us now go further into detail and first present some of Cardinal Marx’ statements at that concluding 9 March press conference. After a fairly short summary of the discussions at the spring meeting of the German bishops, Cardinal Marx responded to many questions from the journalists.
The first theme here to be presented is the question of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the German bishop’s own subsequent pastoral guidelines allowing – under certain conditions and on a case-by-case basis – the “remarried” divorcees licit access to the Sacraments. Cardinal Marx himself had said the following at the beginning of the episcopal meeting, on 6 March:
I gave to the pope [when meeting with him in Rome on 6 February 2017] the text which we had made with regard to Amoris Laetitia, and he has received it with joy; I was able to speak with him about it, and he considers it to be right that the local churches make their own statements once more, and that they therein draw their own pastoral conclusions; and [he] is very positive about this and he received it very positively that we as the German Bishops’ Conference have written such a text. [my emphasis]
When then later asked at the 9 March press conference about this earlier comment and whether at that same meeting Pope Francis had made some more comments with regard to the different interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Marx responded, saying “no, we have not spoken about that.” He explained that he
also did not discuss [the matter] in detail with the pope. I gave it [the new pastoral guidelines] to him, and he had also already read the summary [of the German text], and he received it with benevolence; but we did not discuss it in detail.
This short comment is helpful for us in order to see clearly that Pope Francis himself had approved the German pastoral guidelines after having already read the summary of that text! This is worth highlighting so that no one may validly argue that the pope did not know what he was praising at the time.
Additionally, Cardinal Marx repeated in this context the argumentation of many others, namely that “Amoris Laetitia is not ambiguous” and that it is merely the result of what the two Family Synods had decided upon, also with regard to “irregular relationships” (sic – i.e., cohabitation and homosexual unions, as well?), and with a two-thirds majority. (This is not the place to discuss this matter, but this claim has already been rather thoroughly refuted, also since such access to the Sacraments for the “remarried” was not even mentioned in the final 2015 Synod document.) Cardinal Marx concluded his comments on this topic of Amoris Laetitia with the words: “And that is why one cannot say that here everything was now still left open. The pope picked up on it [the Synod document], both Synods went this way, and I cannot see that this [papal document] would now be ambiguous.” [my emphasis]
A second theme discussed at that 9 March press conference was the viri probati, i.e., morally proven married men that might be in some way become ordained priests, but with not yet clearly defined tasks. Here, Cardinal Marx told us importantly that, already in November of 2015, during the German bishops’ Ad Limina visit with the pope, Pope Francis had spoken about this matter and had shown an openness to further evaluate it. “That is why for us, this is no surprise,” Marx then commented on the new papal statement encouraging this viri probati discussion. “That is exactly what he [Francis] told us at the time in our group – there were different groups of 12 to 15 bishops who met individually with the pope – I think one can say that,” explained the German cardinal. One of the German bishops – whose name Marx withheld – had even told the pope, in their discussion, about the books written by a certain Fritz Lobinger, a bishop emeritus from Aliwal, South Africa. (As with so many of these progressive bishops, Fritz Lobinger is also a German; he was born in Passau.) Marx explains that Lobinger has
reflected upon pastoral care, upon Base Communities, and so on. And it was here that the pope said: “I have read the three books from Lobinger.” And in these books, there is to be found this reference: how are we to do it in those dioceses where, perhaps only once a year, the Holy Mass is being celebrated? I mean, I do not speak here about Germany, I speak here about extreme situations which are of course also in the pope’s mind and thoughts, and not necessarily our own situation in Germany where we are still pretty well equipped with clergy and collaborators, in comparison with the Universal Church.
This last comment of Marx is, however, contradicted by reality. As we recently reported, Germany has the lowest numbers of recently ordained priests, and now the abandonment of priestly celibacy altogether is being discussed everywhere in Germany. Moreover, as we will discuss later, the impatient reformers will always come up with the most extreme examples in order to introduce their own specious reforms.
Cardinal Marx continued his disclosures about the words of the pope, as follows:
And that is when he [the pope] said: “Dear brothers, that is also burdening me, when a brother from the Amazon region or so comes and tells me: yes, we have parishes where the priest comes only once a year and that is it.” And that is where I do reflect about what we are to do.
Marx came back to mentioning that it is, indeed, about “a pastoral situation which is very extreme,” [my emphasis] and he repeated several times that “one has to think about it.” Marx does not think, however, “that this is going to be a theme for tomorrow, or for us,” adding that “there is no taboo so that one may not speak about it. That cannot be.” The cardinal added that there is “no ban on speaking” and he stated again: “He [the pope] only said: ‘We have to think about it.’ […] He did not give an answer.”
When asked about his own attitude toward the viri probati, Cardinal Marx showed himself to be hesitant and likewise concerned about any undermining of the “unmarried form of living of the priest.” But, says Marx, “we feel that we cannot go on like this any further.” “Simply to increase the number of priests,” he added, “is not the solution of our problem, either; it is not that easy.” The German cardinal insisted, moreover, that he has not yet made up his mind in this matter, explaining that “I have always been skeptical, I always said, one cannot treat this form of living [priestly celibacy] in a playful manner; this is a grave incision and lesion.” In Marx’ eyes, the “history and spirituality of the Church” are at stake here. He also said that he was not sure what the tasks of these new ordained viri probati would be. “How shall this look? What does this mean for the unmarried form of living which has high value in the Church – also especially with regard to the priestly service? […],” wondered Cardinal Marx. He also raised the question about the possible effects of such a reform on the currently celibate seminarians and priests in his diocese, to whom this [attenuation of celibacy] might be “a devastating signal.” This debate should not, according to Marx, bring about a “relativization of this [celibate] form of living.” The cardinal concluded these remarks with the words that the Universal Church has to decide about these matters and that “I do not see in the Church a development of the will to change this [priestly celibacy].”
In listening to this somewhat voluble statement, one apt thought might still come to the surface of our mind: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” Why? Because, after this later part of the question and answer session, Cardinal Marx then came to reveal some of the methods – or underlying patterns of change – that are involved here so as to effect a desired new reform; and this he did with an explicit reference to the process which led up to the papal text of Amoris Laetitia itself.
After another journalist – returning later to the viri probati question – asked him about the current danger of schism, Cardinal Marx said that the pope has to be “careful with this topic,” but that he nevertheless wants to “set up people to start thinking,” in the sense of saying “why do you not think about it a little bit?”
Marx – who himself is member of the Council of Nine counseling the pope – added : “He [the pope] also has to see what is happening in the whole Church,” adding that “also Amoris Laetitia is a path – a path which also gives a clear orientation.” [my emphasis] Marx, moreover, sees that Amoris Laetitia is not “excessive,” but “within the continuity.” [my emphasis] The cardinal continues, by saying: “He [Francis] wants to remain in the continuity [sic] because he knows otherwise that the Church will also get into turbulences. We see this also already in part with regard to Amoris Laetitia.” Marx adds that it is thus important to “preserve the unity of the Church, but not at all costs, but rather, he wants to push her [the Church] ahead, after all” and the pope wants to “start processes.” [my emphasis] Processes with patterns!
Then comes Cardinal Marx’ additionally revealing comment: “Somewhere someone will meanwhile pick up the ball [sic], that is what I think. That is what then also happens.” [my emphasis] Here we all should remember that, when it was about the “remarried” divorcees, the German Bishops’ Conference under Marx’ leadership was all too eager to “pick up the ball” and to organize in Rome a so-called “Shadow Council” or “Day of Study,” thereby preparing the themes of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. The same method seems now also to be intended and employed with regard to married priests.
When asked at the 9 March press conference about the upcoming 2018 Youth Synod and whether the viri probati issue will be placed on its agenda, Cardinal Marx importantly referred to the progressive German Catholic journal Herder Korrespondenz, saying that “there will surely appear articles in it [concerning this topic], that is also how it was with Amoris Laetitia, too.” [my emphasis] Marx even promised a “colorful debate” with regard to the question as to “what does viri probati mean?” The German cardinal then responded to the original question as to whether this item will be a theme of the upcoming synod with these words: “I do not want to exclude that.” [my emphasis] Moreover, Marx referred, as well, to the upcoming online Youth Synod questionnaire – a method and a pattern we already know from the previous “synodal process” concerning marriage, as well.
As a final theme of importance, Cardinal Marx also discussed – both during the press conference and then also in a short subsequent interview – the matter of Holy Communion for Protestants who are in mixed marriages with Catholics, which also had been discussed by the German Bishops’ General Assembly. Here again, Marx stressed that one will not “simply say something general,” but that one will have “to look at the individual cases,” [my emphasis] but he also assured the audience that “I think that I am quite confident” and that there is the “hope that we will move ahead [sic] this year, or in the next.” [my emphasis] At the same time, Cardinal Marx had to admit that there is no “unanimity” among the German bishops on this matter and that they had a “lively debate” about it. The issue of intercommunion is also on the agenda of Pope Francis, who opened up this same theme when showing his personal openness to it during his visit to a Lutheran Church in Rome itself, even in November of 2015. The German Bishops discussed this incipient matter with a direct reference to Pope Francis himself and “his encouragement” in this matter.
By way of this one press conference and the subsequent, short interview, Cardinal Marx has likely – perhaps unintentionally – covered some of the main upcoming themes on the papal reform agenda. At the same time, he has effectively revealed to us some of the expected methods of operation, or patterns of change, that is to say: how to change the mentality of Catholics so that they sufficiently accept the changes. The methods are: 1) raising questions; 2) encouraging discussion; 3) to have select progressive journals “picking up the ball”; 4) to have questionnaires sent out to many of the faithful who are themselves quite confused (theologically and morally) and thus will responsively come back with a few desired proposals for change; 5) insisting upon arguments such as the pressing case of “extreme situations,” “individual cases,” and the greater “need for pastoral care”; 6) finally, after a longer period of “mentality-molding” or “mind-changing” activities, there will be a synodal document with various creative propositions (written by papal friends, as it was in the case of the “rigged Family Synod”) which will then be used in turn in a post-synodal exhortation. 7) Or, if Pope Francis sees his time running out, he will speed up the process and will introduce a doctrinal or pastoral novelty in a “shock-and-awe step” – as he has done with the laxening of the process for the declaration of the nullity of a marriage, which also had suddenly happened just ahead of the second Synod on the Family.
That Cardinal Reinhard Marx is not so hesitant, after all, to open up the whole matter of married priests – as he had indeed first presented himself to be doing during this 9 March press conference – might be seen in the further fact that he had earlier invited Bishop emeritus Erwin Kräutler to last year’s spring General Assembly of the German Bishops. For it was there that this Austrian prelate and retired bishop of Xingu, Brazil, had then encouraged the German bishops to “think about alternatives to priestly celibacy.” Bishop Kräutler is known for his effective undermining of priestly celibacy and for his having received the encouragement of Pope Francis himself to make “courageous proposals.” Dr. Sandro Magister has amply reported on this matter, and Marco Tosatti also discussed this matter recently, in light of the recent papal interview with Die Zeit, as well.
This discussion will also now bring us back to another important revelation made by Cardinal Marx on 9 March; namely, that Pope Francis supportively mentioned to some German bishops – in November of 2015 – the dubious books of Bishop emeritus Fritz Lobinger. While it is still not fully clear which three books Francis had himself earlier read (even though, in one interview, Bishop Kräutler mentions the first of the two books cited below when speaking about his 2004 meeting with the pope), the very name Lobinger is intimately connected with one important idea – the idea of ordaining some married elders of a community, and this after a rather short time of preparation. Some of his book titles are: Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders, and The Empty Altar: An Illustrated Book to Help Talk About the Lack of Parish Priests. It is in this context therefore helpful to consult an article published by the National Catholic Reporter which asked in August of 2016: “Will [the] next synod address ordaining ‘elders’ – both women and men?” After quoting the papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh, the article then explains that Pope Francis had also recommended the Lobinger books to Bishop Kräutler:
Kräutler and the pope also compared notes about the priest shortage in Latin America and, according to Ivereigh, Francis alluded to some “interesting hypotheses” [sic] that had been proposed by retired Bishop Fritz Lobinger of Aliwal, South Africa. Francis then encouraged Kräutler to work with the national bishops’ conference to send “bold, concrete proposals” to Rome. [my emphasis]
That same National Catholic Reporter article leads us straight to an English-language essay published in 2010 by Lobinger himself, with which essay we would now like to end this analysis:
I know that if the church continues to admit only celibate, university-trained candidates to ordination, there will be no hope of ever overcoming the scarcity of sacraments. […] I equally know that the early church indeed did ordain local leaders who were married [please see Dr. Sandro Magister’s own learned 2010 explanation of the history of celibacy in the Catholic Church], had received brief local training, were chosen by the local community, and had proven their worthiness over some time. […] The ordination of married candidates would unavoidably raise questions: Why could some priests be married while others had to remain celibate? […] There are signs of hope. The communities that have no resident priest have proven that they usually possess all charisms that would be needed for the ordination of local leaders. […] Another lesson we have learned is to choose the right term for such a team of ordained local leaders. They would be a distinct kind of priest and should be called by a distinct name, such as the original term used in the New Testament: elder. […] The two kinds would exercise two different roles. The elders would lead the community and administer the sacraments in their own community, while the priests would be the spiritual guides of elders in several self-ministering communities. […] Ordaining proven local leaders could thus be the starting point for a solution. Because the majority of proven local leaders are women, it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present church law does not permit it. [my emphasis]
Here we have it. Pope Francis repeatedly praises – in front of a range of variegated bishops – a retired bishop who now still proposes to ordain male and female married persons to the priesthood. It is in this context that Pope Francis’ quote from his recent papal interview with Die Zeit comes also to mind: “Many parishes have brave women [mulieres probatae?]: they keep up the Sunday and celebrate liturgies of the word, that is to say without the Eucharist.” [my emphasis]
Thus, let us be sober and watchful. We remember how, in December of 2014, Pope Francis had insisted that the Family Synod discussions are “not touching any item of Church doctrine on marriage” and that “it is not a solution if we give them [the “remarried” divorcees] Communion. This alone is not a solution: integration [sic] is the solution.” [my emphasis] We have come a long way since then, and Catholic mentalities have been and are still being deleteriously changed, as it seems.
Let us also be watchful now when we even see that – just one day after the pope’s own 9 March interview with Die Zeit! – none other than Cardinal Karl Lehmann himself (the former President of the German Bishops’ Conference and member of the “Sankt Gallen Group”) has now also come out with his own favorable statement in an interview wherein he encourages many further discussions about the viri probati – calling these proposed discussions a mattter of “urgency.”
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.