Francis' Address to the German Bishops

by Michael Sean Winters

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This morning I want to bring together three items: the Holy Father’s address to the German bishops on their ad limina last week; the critique of the European Church offered by U.S. Catholic neo-conservatives; and, finally, yesterday’s Feast of Christ the King.

In his address to the German bishops, Pope Francis did not sugarcoat the decline in religious observance in that country. He told the bishops:

Whereas in the 1960s every second believer generally went to Holy Mass on Sunday, today this number is often less than 10 percent. The sacraments are increasingly less used. Confession is often disappeared. Fewer and fewer Catholics let themselves be confirmed or enter into the sacrament of marriage. The number of vocations to the service of the priesthood and to religious life has drastically decreased. In the face of these facts, we can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.

This dire state of the case could be said about most countries in Western Europe. Cathedrals still take pride of place in the city square and shrines to the Blessed Mother and the saints still dot the rural landscapes, but the churches are increasingly empty, the seminaries and convents are ghost towns and the faith is little known and less practiced.

Some conservatives are touting the Holy Father’s address as a kind of confirmation of all that they have been saying for years. Edward Pentin said that the "worldliness" the Holy Father warned against (more on that in a minute) was really a reference to the Church Tax in the Federal Republic, which has made the church in Germany very wealthy, strong in institutions and in charitable giving, but that "its dependence on the state has smothered its missionary spirit." Pentin did not explain how, in earlier times, the even closer relationship of Church and State did not rob the Church of its missionary spirit, nor how the "missionary spirit" continued apace even though Europe was not considered mission territory for centuries.

Pentin is not alone in producing an analysis that is facile and tied to a set of ideological presumptions that have no basis in reality. Last May, in the pages of First Things, George Weigel did a hit job on the German Church, saying the country suffered from a “catechetical disaster and pastoral failure on a nationwide scale,” and expressing horror that the German episcopate would offer suggestions to the rest of the world in advance of the Synod on the Family given their proven track record. He accused them of “surrendering to the spirit of the age.” In an interview last March, Weigel pinpointed, unsurprisingly, the heart of the matter, or at least the pelvis of the matter: “We live in a Gnostic culture in which everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable,” he said. “The best antidote to that Gnostic ‘unreality’ is biblical realism. So Biblical preaching is an imperative, both to deepen the faith of the Church’s primary missionaries in the world – its people – and to provide them with ‘lenses’ through which to see things clearly – thinks [sic] like maleness and femaleness, and the complementarity and fruitfulness built into those realities.” Oh, so that is what the Church in Germany needs? A few lectures on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body? The “Gnosticism” of the age applies to many things, not only to gender, but you wouldn’t know it reading the neo-cons.

Let’s return to the Holy Father’s address to the bishops last week and what he had to say about worldliness:

The current need is for pastoral reorientation, and also “to make [the structures of the Church] more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (Evangelii gaudium, 27). Certainly, the conditions are not necessarily favourable in modern society. A measure of worldliness still prevails. Worldliness deforms souls and stifles the awareness of reality.

A worldly person lives in a world he has created himself. He surrounds himself, so to speak, with tinted windows, so as not to have to look outside. It is difficult to reach such people. But on the other hand, our faith tells us that God is always the first to act. This certainty leads us to prayer. We pray for all men and women in our city, in our diocese, and we also pray for ourselves, that God will send a beam of His love’s light and, through the tinted windows, touch hearts and help them understand His message. We must be with the people, with the glow of those who have first accepted the Gospel. And “[w]henever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new”” (Evangelii gaudium, 11). In this way, alternative paths and forms of catechesis can arise, which can help young people and families to rediscover authentically and with joy the general faith of the Church.

Me thinks Pope Francis does not share the obsessions of American neo-conservatives. His description of worldliness does not mention “reliance on the state” nor focus almost exclusively on sex. His antidote to the erosion of the faith is not to hole up in a smaller, purer Church, but to redirect all Church structures and personnel, including the most important personnel, the people of God, to go forth.

The Church in Germany survived the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War and the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession, the Napoleonic era and all the social dislocation that created, Bismark’s Kulturkampf in the nineteenth century and Hitler’s fascist rule in the twentieth. What the Church in Germany – and elsewhere – has had more trouble with is broad-based affluence. That is what changed in Western Europe and in the U.S. in the latter half of the twentieth century. The “worldly person [who] lives in a world he has created himself” is the man of contemporary consumer-capitalist society. No longer subject, as subsistence farmers were, to the caprice of weather, master of many, if not all, diseases as previous generations were not, living at a time when even the middle class can expect to board a plane and fly to distant parts, no longer tied down to the daily chores and the rhythms they imposed, able to regulate even the creation of new life, pelted with advertisements for this product and that, all promising happiness and convenience, modern man is first and foremost in control and acquisitive. That is who we are. Even the poor are steeped in the culture of acquisition more than they are confined by a culture of dependency. Why should we be surprised that the Gospel, which is good news to the poor, falls on deaf ears among the affluent and the shopper? The neo-cons read Pope Francis’ talk to the German bishops and they understand it as a vindication of all they have been saying. I read it and hear Francis explaining the ecclesial need for a “poor Church for the poor,” the coin which is the true coin of Jesus’ realm.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. We moderns do not have much experience of kingship, which brings a sense of arbitrariness as well as power with it, and I do not conceive of our God as arbitrary. Still, I like any celebration that reminds us that we are not in control. And, what is more, I like the Gospel reading the Church proclaims to mark Christ’s Kingship, Jesus condemned, powerless in worldly terms before Pilate and the state he represents, about to be executed, deprived even of life. Last year, in Cycle A, we had Matthew 25 – “Whatever you do for these the least of my brethren….” – as the Gospel text on this feast. Next year, in Cycle C, we will have the two robbers in Luke, speaking to Jesus while on the cross. Here is where Christ’s Kingship is found, not in wealth and control, but in poverty and surrender, not in acquisitiveness, but in self-emptying, not in a moralistic purity, but in doing unto the least of these, not in pseudo-intellectual critiques of the state, but in clinging to the truth Christ proclaimed irrespective of whether Pilate washes his hands or not. The problem for the Church in Germany, throughout Europe and in the U.S. is not the state, not the sexual revolution, not some amorphous powers of secularization: The problem is us and our ability to meet our own needs and set our own goals and acquire stuff. God promises to save the broken-hearted, not the self-satisfied. The Gospel is good news to the poor, not the upper middle class. Christ’s Kingship is found in suffering not self-assertion. There is plenty here to challenge everyone, on the left and the right, but let’s look to ourselves and stop beating up on the German bishops.

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