Cardinal Walter Brandmuller elevates the Eucharist during a Tridentine-rite Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 2011. It was the first time in several decades that the rite was celebrated at the altar. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
(Rome, kath.net) In February 2014, after the
publication of controversial statements by a German bishop about the
need to change Catholic moral teaching, Armin Schwibach interviewed
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, President Emeritus of the Pontifical
Committee for Historical Sciences about current problems in a broader
perspective. Excerpts from that interview follow.
A. Schwibach: In an interview with the editor of the Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung,
the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, started a not-so-new discussion
about “morality”. The bishop emphasized, first of all, that this is not
about “fundamental changes of doctrine”. Nevertheless, it is essential
to strengthen the individual awareness of responsibility, so as “then to
respect also a decision made in conscience”.
Moreover the bishop
addressed three larger issues and declared that is no longer opportune
to regard a second marriage as a mortal sin and to refuse to admit the
remarried to the sacraments permanently. It is likewise indefensible, he
said, to treat premarital sexual relations generally as a serious sin.
The distinction made by Pope Paul VI between natural and artificial
methods of regulating birth is in Ackermann’s opinion “also rather
artificial”, and no one understands it any more.
In all these
areas he sees “a need to change the morality and sexual ethics” of the
Church. Your Eminence, can the Church’s moral doctrine be “changed”, and
if so, when and how?
Cardinal Brandmüller: First
a remark: It is astonishing, that for so many of our contemporaries all
moral doctrine is reduced exclusively to sexual morality. How many
problems there are, however, with truthfulness, justice, the defense of
human life, and so on! There ought to be a lot more talk about that!
now concerning the question of whether the Church’s moral doctrine must
or can be changed: The moral doctrine of the Church can be changed only
if human nature changes. For the Church’s moral teaching follows from
the nature of the human being as a person who is both body and soul.
Conclusions about the concrete way in which a human being should live
his life must be drawn from these basic facts. Then comes the Gospel,
which elevates the human person, and thus also his actions and his
responsibility, to the level of a child of God. Now, neither human
nature nor God’s commandments and the Gospel have an expiration date.
Someone who nevertheless makes the aforementioned demands for a change
in Catholic moral doctrine finds himself in contradiction with God’s
As for talk about “conscience”: Strengthening the awareness
of personal responsibility and enabling the individual to make a
responsible judgment in conscience have been the goal of the Church’s
pastoral ministry from the start. The conscience is the final subjective
norm for human action; this is a classical Catholic teaching. It must
be added, that such a binding judgment in conscience is possible only if
the individual’s conscience takes the objective norm as its guide.
Conscience is not a judgment that sets norms, but rather a judgment that
interprets norms, a judgment or human faculty that applies a norm that
is always valid for everyone to the individual case in question and
decides it accordingly. [...]
the statements by the Bishop of Trier and the publicized results of the
questionnaire distributed by the Holy See with a view to preparing the Instrumentum laboris
[working document] for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family,
made it clear that the Churchand not only in Germany apparently has a
major problem in communicating her understanding and her teaching about
marriage and sexuality, about what the family is and what makes the
family important. A significant percentage of Catholics seem neither to
accept elements of Catholic moral teaching nor to see its relevance.
can or should this communications problem be solved? Cardinal Marx
[Archbishop of Munich and Freising] opined that the Church should not
speak about morality in terms of “catalogues of sins and indexes of
penalties”. Rather it is a question of helping people to be able to
“shape” their lives according to the demands of the Gospel and to arrive
at “well-considered” decisions in conscience.
Cardinal Brandmüller: Who
on earth nowadays still talks about catalogues of sins and indexes of
penalties?! And is there such a thing as “badly-considered” decisions in
conscience? In this connection we find again and again the phenomenon
of language being spoken by someone with ecclesiastical authority that
is hazy and nebulous and leaves much to be desired in terms of precision
and clarity. Thus we may hear formulas with which one can neither agree
nor disagree, and so everyone then takes from them whatever suits him.
is urgently necessary for clear concepts to be communicated in the
Church’s proclamation of faith and morals. Of course, right away we have
to say also that this communication should use a language that appeals
not just to the ear but also to the human heart, a language that
sympathetically enters into the concrete situation of the hearers and is
capable of leading them to a real understanding of the Church’s
message. A quotation from Goethe should be written in the notebooks of
all bishops, priests and religion teachers today: “In a time of
vacillation, anyone who is inclined to waver makes the problem worse.”
one thing must not be forgotten in all these “moral questions”: there
is a big difference between the objective judgment of an act or a way of
acting and the subjective responsibility of the person who is
actingsomething that is usually overlooked. Even Saint Augustine says:
Hate the error, but love the sinner!
One more thing should be
said: if someone with full authority to proclaim the faith in the name
of the Church should ever become convinced that he is unable to advocate
Church teaching authentically, intellectual honesty demands that he
draw the consequences.
Translated from German by Michael J. Miller