The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber was published in 1967; it is an account of how the priorities and positions of German Catholicism had a massive influence in Rome in the mid-20th century in general and on the Second Vatican Council in particular.
Did the Rhine bring fresh waters to the stagnant, fetid Tiber? Or did it pollute the Tiber with noxious effluent?
That has been a dominant question of the post-conciliar period, all the more relevant under the German-friendly pontificate of Pope Francis.
Managing the Germans has been a key issue in Rome for several generations. The Church in Germany is scholarly, with a long tradition of theologian-bishops, so its ideas are better developed and more influential that other local Churches. And the German Church is very wealthy — the richest of any country because of its church tax — meaning that it has influence of a more worldly kind in the Vatican, too.
Recently, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, dismissed from his post in 2017 by Pope Francis, issued a “manifesto of faith” in response to a period of “confusion” in the Church.
Cardinal Müller’s manifesto is itself unremarkable in content, largely consisting of extensive quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But the subtext was, in reality, the headline: a former doctrinal chief observing that the current pontificate has brought division and doctrinal confusion.
Quick with a response was another retired German cardinal, Walter Kasper, who accused his countryman of himself being the cause of division and confusion. Cardinal Kasper even likened him to Martin Luther.
It was intended to be a criticism in this case, but perhaps not a severe one, as both Cardinal Kasper and the Holy Father have expressed a positive assessment of Luther in recent years, especially on the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
And so last week it was like so many other occasions in the last decades, an intramural German dispute front and center in Rome.
This long-running melodrama between the conservative and progressive wings of German Catholicism had to be dealt with by both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Under Pope Francis, the previous policy, which managed to keep a working unity between the two wings, has frayed, and the divisions in Germany — like divisions in the universal Church — are more evident. And it matters more because, despite his early-stated preference for a “poor Church for the poor,” Pope Francis has insistently and enthusiastically favored the pastoral priorities of the Germans, the richest, most worldly Church of all.
In the 1970s, there was a parting of the ways between the German theological giants of the post-conciliar period. The theological journal Concilium, most notably involving Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, went in a more liberal direction. Concerned precisely about that, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger founded another journal, Communio. Not only Germans were involved, but the split signified that different wings of the influential Church in Germany were in open conflict with each other.
St. John Paul attempted to manage that conflict by advancing key figures in both wings. Most notably, he made Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger his doctrinal prefect and chief lieutenant in Rome for more than 20 years. Repeatedly, it fell to Ratzinger to hold the line against German bishops who favored admitting the divorced-and-civilly remarried to Holy Communion, intercommunion with Protestants, and participating in the German system for issuing counseling certificates necessary for obtaining an abortion.
In Germany itself, John Paul chose Cardinal Joachim Meisner for the premier see of Cologne, an appointment that caused such outrage in the liberal circles of German theology that it led to a manifesto signed by more than 100 leading figures, condemning John Paul and Ratzinger and all their pomps and works.
At the same time, John Paul elevated both Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann to the cardinalate, allowing the prominent members of the liberal wing to be heard and hold influence. Cardinal Ratzinger continued the same approach after his election as pope: Pope Benedict XVI appointed both Cardinal Reinhard Marx to his own former see of Munich and brought Cardinal Müller to Rome to head the CDF.
In the midst of it all was, and remains, the figure of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, perhaps the leading theologian-bishop of his generation and general editor of the Catechism. Under John Paul he was viewed as part of the Ratzinger party in German-speaking Catholicism; under Francis he has shifted to the Kasper party.
Pope Francis is, not by nationality but by policy, a German pope. The priorities of the wealthy Germans have been advanced across the board — Holy Communion for those in invalid unions, greater autonomy in liturgical translations, and an apparent (but ambiguous) tolerance for admitting Protestants to Holy Communion.
Cardinal Marx began 2019 with a New Year’s address that said the German episcopate would seriously examine the question of priestly celibacy ahead of the synod for the Amazon in October. It is expected that the German bishops will push there for the ordination of married men as an “emergency” measure, which will then be adopted in Germany as routine practice.
At the moment, Pope Francis is opposed to that, but past practice has demonstrated that what the Germans want, the Germans get.
Meanwhile, the opposition has also been led by Germans — Cardinal Müller most prominent among them. Two of the four cardinals who submitted the dubia regarding Amoris Laetitia were German: Cardinals Meisner and Walter Brandmüller. And last year, Benedict himself pointedly declined to endorse a series of books praising the theology of Pope Francis on the grounds that some of the authors were prominent members of the “anti-papal” party of German theologians who dissented so vigorously during John Paul’s pontificate.
The long-standing German argument, managed by allowing space for both wings, has given way under Pope Francis to open division, with the liberal wing feeling confident and secure enough to disparage the conservative wing; hence Cardinal Kasper’s attack on Cardinal Müller’s manifesto of faith.
The principals though, with the exception of Cardinal Marx, are now all retired (Benedict, Kasper, Müller) or dead (Meisner, Lehmann). So it may be that the long German moment is passing, going out with a bang under the current pontificate.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.