Much ink was spilt this past week over a punchy essay in a religious publication under the by-line of a clergyman from Northern Europe who had something to say about the current state of the Church—and said it. Normally, a cleric writing an essay for a religious paper on a religious subject is pretty dog-bites-man, as far as stories go. This time, however, the cleric was the Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht, Willem Jacobus Eijk, the paper was the National Catholic Register, and the topic was “a drift towards apostasy from the truth” for which Pope Francis is supposedly responsible, because of his “fail[ure] to maintain and transmit faithfully and in unity the deposit of faith contained in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture,” particularly insofar as Holy Communion is concerned.
In short: a Cardinal with voting rights, who has been Archbishop of a major metropolitan See of historic importance since 2007, went on the record to observe—not to argue or inveigh, but to state his view of the matter as far as the facts of it are concerned—that “the bishops and, above all, the Successor of Peter fail to maintain and transmit faithfully and in unity the deposit of faith contained in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture,” and proceeded to say that the current state of affairs is to him redolent of the tribulation that awaits the Church in the end times.
Whatever one should decide to call that, “normal” would be a poor word choice.
Cardinal Eijk principally addressed himself to the fact that a sizable majority of the German bishops voted in conference to draft and adopt a “pastoral handout” detailing the circumstances under which the bishops believe a non-Catholic Christian spouse of a Catholic may licitly receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church. The bishops in favor argue that there exists a “grave necessity” in the form of the threat to the health and even survival of such marital unions and to the faith of the Catholic part therein, stemming from the prohibition on non-Catholics’ reception of Holy Communion. In sum, they believe that, if such couples cannot—or believe they cannot—receive Communion together in a Catholic church, the marriage will break up or the Catholic spouse will defect. The bishops in favor also argue that there is need for such a guiding pastoral framework, since many non-Catholic spouses in such unions already take Communion with their spouses in Catholic churches.
Supporters of the measure believe it to be in strict obtemperance with pertinent law (Can. 844§4 for those of you following from home), which does envision communicatio in sacris for non-Catholics under certain very limited circumstances, and provided the non-Catholic has professed Catholic faith in the Sacrament and is otherwise properly disposed.
The bishops in the minority maintain that the law is meant to provide for persons who come from traditions with valid sacraments, who find themselves in emergencies. Lutheran sacraments are not valid, and Lutherans in Germany claiming their situation constitutes an “emergency” in any pertinent sense of the term will surely have a long row to hoe to make their case. In any case, representatives of the minority bishops wrote to Rome to ask the Vatican for help in resolving the dispute, citing also the universal import of the issue — sacramental unity — and the opportunity therefore of resolution at the highest levels of Church governance.
Rome held a one-day mediation session with prelates from both sides, and sent the delegations home to solve it amongst themselves.
Plenty of people on both sides of the controversy tried—and continue to try—to spin the outcome favorably. The truth is, exactly no one was satisfied with the result, or rather the non-result. Cardinal Eijk was particularly disappointed:
The Holy Father should have given the delegation of the German episcopal conference clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church. He should have also responded on this basis to the Lutheran woman who asked him on November 15, 2015 if she could receive Communion with her Catholic spouse, saying that this is not acceptable instead of suggesting she could receive Communion on the basis of her being baptized, and in accordance with her conscience. By failing to create clarity, great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the Church is endangered.
There are two major takeaways from this address of the problem. The first is that it sets in relief the way pastoral concerns are apt to become problems of governance in this pontificate.
The second thing is that these really are problems of governance.
The basic dynamic is this: Pope Francis receives a query from a person or group requiring clarification of an issue pertinent to the life of faith; he responds in a pastoral register, apparently careless of the implications his response might have for matters of order and governance within the Church more broadly considered; people take the pastoral considerations—often assuming, because he is the supreme governor of the universal Church, that they are—as universally applicable statements of principle or general license; hijinks ensue; Pope Francis leaves people to work things out on their own.
If this happens once, or even twice, one may dismiss it as a rookie mistake or an inevitable misstep. For Francis, however, this sort of thing is typical. If he is still doing it, it is fair to assume he is doing it because he wants something from it, and believes he is getting what he wants. However sound his pastoral advice, the Roman Pontiff is not only a pastor, but a governor, and one thing of which we can be sure is that he knows it. It is reasonable to desire to see him more mindful—or at least less selectively mindful—of this fact. The lines separating the three munera of teaching, sanctifying, and governing may be found bright on the theological map, but the real-life borders those lines represent are gossamer and porous. Some policing of them is necessary, and that is why the power of the Papal office exists. It is also why its exercise is a delicate and even dangerous matter.
One may not like the way Pope Francis does the policing, and might even criticize him for it. For the time being, though, we have to live with it, and with each other. One may, as Cardinal Eijk did, question the prudence of the Pope’s governance and even point out the dangers to the faith, which his perceived mistakes engender or exacerbate, without, however, calling his faithfulness as such into doubt. The Pope’s critics do well when they avoid impugning the Holy Father’s fidelitas (or, I hasten to add, his bona fides), while his supporters must remember that his prudence is fair game.
I’d say that history will have to judge whether Pope Francis’ conduct of the office with which he has been entrusted will have been good and fruitful, but Cardinal Eijk apparently thinks history may not get the chance to pronounce itself on the matter. I only note that we have always believed—always known as an article of faith—that we are in the end times, that the Lord is coming soon. The Church decided a long time ago that it is unhealthy to encourage as a matter of general practice, speculation about just how close we are.