Editor’s note: The following is the full text of the speech given on Nov. 18, 2022, by His Eminence Luis Francisco Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the German bishops during their recent ad limina visit. Translated from the original Italian by William J. Melcher.
There is one passage from the Letter of the Holy Father to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany [dated June 29, 2019] that establishes the fundamental perspective of this short speech of mine. Pope Francis writes in paragraph 9 of the Letter just cited: “The universal Church lives in and of the particular Churches, just as the particular Churches live and flourish in and from the universal Church. If they find themselves separated from the entire ecclesial body, they weaken, rot, and die. Hence the need always to ensure that communion with the whole body of the Church is alive and effective. This helps us overcome the anxiety that shuts us in upon ourselves and our idiosyncrasies. It enables us, beyond all that seems to prevent it, to look into the eyes of, to listen to and to accompany those who are on the side of the road. This can sometimes be seen in a small gesture, like the father of the prodigal son, who leaves the doors open so that, when he returns, the son can enter without difficulty. This is not the same as refusing to walk, to move forward, to change; nor does it mean arguing or disagreeing. It is simply the consequence of knowing ourselves part of a larger body that wants us, waits for us and needs us, and that we too want and wait for and need. It is the delight of feeling ourselves part of the holy People of God, faithful and patient.”
The following words are now meant precisely to awaken in each one of us this awareness of being a constituent part of a larger body and that just such a communion with all the other members of the Church can make possible—more than a thousand other gestures or brilliant declarations can—the hospitality that is so necessary today toward the person who is left on the side of the road.
And truly, there are so many men and women today who no longer feel “at home” in the house of the Lord and remain outside of it. Then there are also many men and women who feel deeply betrayed by the men and women of the Catholic Church and no longer associate with us. Above all there are, finally, many men and women who no longer place any trust in us Bishops. And there is good reason for this to happen. Our thoughts turn here immediately to the painful page [in recent Church history] of incidents of sexual abuse and, more generally, of the abuse of power committed by the clergy and to all the times when in such cases our response as Church did not measure up to the situation. In this regard we will never tire of asking the victims of this abuse for forgiveness, offering them whatever help we can; at the same time, we will never tire of renewing our resolution each day, so that incidents of abuse against minors and abuses of power by men and women of the Church will never have to happen again. In this respect, I can assure you that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is committed with all its might and with the utmost conscientiousness to ensuring that the punishments foreseen by the Code of Canon Law will be imposed on those clerics who have disgraced themselves by such abominable crimes.
From this perspective it appears that the Church in Germany is making an extremely praiseworthy effort internally to establish safety protocols so as to avoid all abuse against minors and any other form of violence against adult persons by clerics and more generally within ecclesial institutions. This commitment has assumed its particular concrete form in the Synodal Way which was started in 2019 by the Church in Germany and which just in recent months has reached a particularly important phase.
Now, precisely in the spirit of that “knowing [that we are all a constituent] part of a larger body that wants us, waits for us and needs us, and that we too want and wait for and need” that is mentioned in the above-cited words from the Letter of the Holy Father to the Pilgrim People in Germany, it is my task, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to present to you, Venerable Brother Bishops, five specific concerns that arise from an attentive reading of the texts discussed to date within your Synodal Way.
The first concern has to do with the literary genre of the texts. Since you are not conducting a Synod, but rather a synodal way, no final document seems to be expected for now. But might it not be opportune to think about something like a final document of the Synodal Way or about something similar? Such a question becomes inevitable as soon as one notices that in many passages of the texts of the Synodal Way there are general statements about present situations in the holy people of God, references alluding to scientific and sociological findings, the use of exegetical results that are still debated and debatable, unhesitating declarations about the end of metaphysics and the eclipse of all truth, generic protocols for the possible public identification [riconoscimento] of Church teaching [i.e. deciding democratically what is doctrine and what is not], and finally references to unnamed men and women theologians with no way to identify them. Such things may be very clear to those who compiled the texts and to qualified readers, but if we are part of a larger body and these texts (with the already available translations of them into other languages) begin to have a worldwide circulation, it does not seem out of place to propose a final document or something analogous from which might emerge a way of proceeding that is more linear and less dependent on statements that have not been fully clarified.
The second concern has to do with the connection made between the structure of the Church and the phenomenon of clerical abuse of minors and other phenomena of abuse. The argument proposed by the texts, because of their length also and the necessary repetitions on several occasions, does not seem to consider accurately the specific nature of the ecclesial body. It goes without saying that everything that can be done to avoid more cases of the abuse of minors by clerics should be done, but this must not involve  a reduction of the mystery of the Church to a simple authoritative institution or  a precautionary consideration of the Church as an organization that structurally causes abuse, which must be placed as soon as possible under the control of super-controllers. From this point of view, the greater risk of many operational suggestions in the texts of the Synodal Way is that they would result in the loss of one of the major achievements of Vatican Council II, namely its clear teaching on the mission of the bishops and therefore of the particular Church.
The third concern has to do with the view of human sexuality according to Church doctrine and in particular the way in which it is expressed in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. The general impression that could emerge in this regard from reading the texts of the Synodal Way is that almost nothing of the Church’s doctrine in this area can be salvaged. Everything would have to be changed. How can we forget the impact that all this has on so many of the faithful who listen to the voice of the Church and strive to follow its directions in their lives? Or are they perhaps supposed to think that they have done everything wrong until now?
No one should assume too easily that human sexuality is something transparently in front of us, without the ambivalence involved in every human gesture, and even more so in every human gesture related to the practice of sexuality. Greater caution would have been desirable on the part of the compilers of the texts of the Assembly of the Synodal Way, and some down-payment of trust in the vision of sexuality that the Magisterium has developed in recent decades. Safeguarding the essentially generative and generational character of the human being remains one of the great prophetic tasks of the community of believers in this time of the progressive commercialization of human existence.
The fourth concern has to do with the role of women in the Church and in particular the question of women’s access to priestly ordination. In this case, too, the texts of the Synodal Way appear to fall short of a hermeneutic shared by the Magisterial positions, reducing the whole thing to the following observation: in the Catholic Church the fundamental dignity of women is not respected, because they cannot be admitted to priestly ordination. The position of the Magisterium is in fact more specific. The decisive point in this regard is not that in the Catholic Church women cannot be admitted to priestly ordination; the point is that it is necessary to accept the truth whereby “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” (Saint John Paul II, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 4.)
Here we find the full meaning of this sense of being part of a larger body, a body that is not disjointed, but a body which, by the explicit will of the Lord Jesus, has its leader in Peter and his successors. I would like to add immediately that the final resolutions of the Synodal Way to try to address to the Holy Father Francis the request to reopen this question do certainly tone down the highly polemical tone of the specific text about the access of women to priestly ordination, and for this we can only be grateful. Of course, once again the question remains about the ultimate purpose of these texts of the Synodal Way. Our fraternal suggestion remains that of arriving at a synthesis that is more sober and decisively more in tune with the “knowing that we are constituent part of a larger body” that is the guiding theme of this present speech.
The fifth and final concern has to do with the exercise of the Church’s Magisterium and in particular the exercise of the episcopal teaching authority. What is said in the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum remains almost forgotten in the texts of the Synodal Way, in particular the question of Tradition: handing on the faith thanks precisely to the apostolic succession: “But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them ‘the authority to teach in their own place’” (DV, 7).
Before the writing of the New Testament corpus, there was in fact the community of men and women disciples of the Lord Jesus, which was called to bring to all the men and women on earth the message of the Good News about God’s love for all. This community, however, is an ordered community, founded on a head which is Peter and placed under the direction of the Twelve, to whom belongs specifically the task of authenticating the testimony of the other men and women disciples of the Lord. Over the course of the centuries, this order in the diakonia [service] rendered by all to the Kingdom of Heaven was made possible precisely thanks to the presence and mission of the bishops and in a special way thanks to the presence and mission of the Bishop of Rome. Precisely for this reason, to them belongs a special task in accompanying all the faithful to live charity in truth and the truth in charity. And although it is true that the Magisterium is under the judgment of the Word, it is also true that the Word comes alive and resonates as a living thing precisely thanks to the exercise of the Magisterium of the bishops and of the Bishop of Rome in particular. How comforting it is for every bishop to know that he is always cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter]!
Therefore, it is not possible to assimilate into this delicate and decisive task in the life of the Catholic Church other ministries that are present in it, for example, that of the theologians and of experts in other sciences.
Revered Brother Bishops,
these are the concerns which I wanted to bring to your attention in the spirit of this knowing that we are all a constituent part of a larger body. The universal Church needs the Church in Germany, just as the Church in Germany needs the universal Church. But we must want to “need” one another, we must want to wait for one another, we must want this communion of life and pilgrimage. And truly, this is precisely what is required by your sincere and most profound desire to be more and more a Church in which all can feel at home, in which all can feel that they are part of a family, a Church in which God reveals to everyone His face as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, especially now after the dramatic pages that we have experienced because of the evidence of terrible crimes of abuse committed by clerics against minors and of the handling of these cases by some bishops that was not always equal to the gravity of the situation.
May the Lord bless our will to need one another.
• Related at CWR: “Return to the spirit of the Acts of the Apostles”: Address of Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to the German Bishops during their ad limina visit on November 18, 2022.
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