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Vatican Specialist: There is a Rending Civil War in the Church; Francis Knows It

The German progressivist bishops are unanimously indignant and disappointed about the recent CDF letter from Archbishop Ladaria which told them not to make public their controversial intercommunion guidelines. In a new interview, a Vatican specialist explains that there is, indeed, a civil war in the Church and that the Pope himself had to make a step back due to a lack of support from the world-wide episcopacy.

“In the Church, There is a Civil War.” This is the title of an interview with the Vatican specialist Marco Politi, as it was published today, on 14 June, by the German newspaper Die Zeit (in its religion section Christ&Welt). Politi is a German-Italian journalist and a book author who has worked for twenty years for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (founded by Eugenio Scalfari) and who now works for Il Fatto Quotidiano. Politi is well informed about the happenings at the Vatican and thus can give us a worthwhile perspective on the recent happenings in Rome.

Politi now explains why Pope Francis backed off endorsing the German intercommunion handout, even though it largely corresponded to his own wishes, and he thus told the German bishops not to publish it.

In the eyes of the 71-year-old journalist, Pope Francis is “in a difficult situation,” because “his opponents keep up the pressure against him.” This could be seen in the many “conservative appeals and letters against Amoris Laetitia” in the last two years, according to Politi. “One even further criticized the Pope by saying that some parts of Amoris Laetitia could be heretical, that is, a heresy [German: Ketzerei].” This is the background, “the greater dimension of the struggle within the German bishops’ conference,” he explains. “That is why the Pope now makes one step forward and one step back.”

Politi describes the current conflict in the Church as a “civil war in the underground” between progressivists and conservatives. “The German bishops’ conference might be, in its majority, progressivist; but the Universal Church is not.” There exists, according to this journalist, “a restricting majority” in the Roman Curia as well as in the Universal Church. Some of these restraining forces are driven by fear, others are “slothful,” some are “arch-conservative.” For Germany, these two camps are personified by Cardinal Reinhard Marx on the one side and Cardinal Rainer Woelki on the other side, according to Politi. Both have received support and approval from Pope Francis. It was Francis personally who wished that Rainer Woelki would become the archbishop of Cologne.

When asked about Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Politi answers: “He does what Pope Francis decides.” “Ladaria had been chosen,” he adds, “because his predecessor, Cardinal Müller, always was the controcanto of the pope – the countermelody.” “Ladaria is completely different: he is loyal.”

In general, the Roman Curia is “divided,” and people in the Vatican are “confused, adds the journalist. Returning to the problem of the resistance within the Church, Politi says that “The truth is that the Pope does not have in the Universal Church a majority for his reform agenda. He now sees it to be so.” Explaining the Pope’s behavior in this context, Politi adds:

That is why he first made a step forward with regard to the German intercommunion debate; but then, when there came the resistance beyond the borders of Germany, there followed after all the brake of Ladaria.

Politi responds to the question as to whether the pope could not follow the Germans “because the world would have been against it” with the words “Yes. The Vatican is a afraid of a split, that is its greatest fear.” Had the Pope accepted the German intercommunion handout, other bishops’ conferences would have asked “Did the Universal Magisterium now change, or did it not – we wish to have clarity!” According to the author, the Pope knows that he cannot simply change the Magisterium:

The Pope does not want to change publicly the Magisterium. Or he cannot do it. It is not as in the times of the [Second Vatican] Council in the [19]60s when the majority of the bishops were in favor of change.

Marco Politi gives further evidence for Pope Francis’ weakened position when he refers back to the two family synods. “He [Francis] feels that he does not have a sufficiently strong mass of bishops for his general reform agenda. In the family synod a while ago, there was no majority for the very progressive proposal coming from Cardinal Kasper and the German bishops’ conference.” The final document of that synod, explains Politi, did not include the Kasper proposal, “this German advance.” “There was no two-thirds majority [at the synod] for so much progressivity,” he explains. The modernists “were not able to implement their positions,” says Politi, and he thus concludes: “The Pope is simply not sure that he has a majority for reform on the level of the Universal Church.”

Explaining the current dilemma of Cardinal Marx with regard to his intercommunion proposal, Politi says that this prelate had just followed the pope’s own proposal for a more decentralized Church. “Marx took Francis at his word.” Marx, he adds, is “a member of the reform-oriented group which supports the Pope,” and “Francis highly respects Marx.” Therefore, “The stop sign is now not directed against Marx. It [, rather,] reveals Francis’ concern for the situation of the Universal Church.” Politi also explains that the Pope “left open a backdoor” to reform with regard to intercommunion:

In the Ladaria letter, there is built in a small backdoor, just as in Amoris Laetitia, too: the local bishop is to decide about the “grave emergency situations.” […] When the pope now says that the local bishop always decides whether there exists a grave emergency situation [in the case of a specific couple in a mixed marriage], and not Rome, then he at least leaves open the possibility for the local bishops to be free to make pastoral decisions – without his first giving them instructions.

Politi explains that this is Pope Francis’ method: if he anyway does not have a majority on his side in a specific point of his reform agenda, he leaves it up to local bishops or priests to make decisions. Says the journalist: “If one anyway does not have a majority for it, [let us] not prescribe everything in Rome; rather, let the bishops, respectively the individual confessors, make their own decision.”

With regard to the intercommunion debate in Germany, Politi thus says: “Now it is in the responsibility of the bishops. They know the situation of the concerned couples; they have to make the discernment of spirit, as the Jesuits say.”

When asked as to whether the Pope will now become more conservative in the second half of his pontificate, the German-Italian journalist answers: “The Pope loves surprises.” But he also shows that the Pope is aware of the divisions in the Church. As Politi explains, some bishops who are now opposing the intercommunion reform did not mind the reforms with regard to Amoris Laetitia. Thus, the dividing lines are changing, depending upon the topic. “Cardinal Woelki, for example, when it came to the synod on the family, was on the side of the progressives who were in favor of Communion for the remarried divorcees,” he says, adding: “And now he is against the progressive majority in the question of Communion for Protestants. It is not so simple.”

Moreover, Politi also points out that even someone like Cardinal Woelki has stated that he would not refuse a Protestant spouse at the Communion rail – for it is something that is not done, according to an “unwritten law.” He himself does not wish to put these “exceptions” into a “rule of law,” according to the journalist. (We have briefly reported on this Woelki statement here.)

Returning at the end of this lengthy interview to the Vatican’s fears of a possible split – schism – in the Church, Politi refers to the Anglican example where there is now the danger of the African branch breaking off the Anglican Church over the issue of allowing homosexual bishops. The journalist concludes: “The Vatican is afraid of a split. And many in the Curia think that under no circumstances should Catholics experience what the Anglicans now go through.”

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