Published December 16, 2022
Bishop Heiner Wilmer, SCJ, the boyishly handsome bishop of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, would likely not object to being counted among the most progressive bishops in a German episcopate dominated by progressives. Nor is the 61-year-old Dehonian priest and former Superior General of the Priests of the Sacred Heart shy in expressing his opinions. Thus, in 2020, at the height of the COVID plague and governmental restrictions on church attendance in Germany, Bishop Wilmer had no criticism of the “gathering ban” but had this to say about live-streamed Masses for those forbidden from gathering in churches:
I personally don’t feel comfortable with all this streaming. We have said here in the diocese, we have an official streaming service, but also only audio, from the Hildesheim Cathedral. I personally don’t think it’s good if every parish priest, every priest streams from some little chapel or from the living room…..It also can’t be that we are only fixated on the Eucharist! Of course it is important, but the Second Vatican Council says that the Lord is not only present in the Eucharist, but also in the Holy Scriptures, in the reading of the Bible, and we should take seriously the word of Jesus, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Then, when his interlocutor asked, “Does that mean the Eucharist is overrated, and you’re advocating trying other forms of cohesion, even communal experience?” Bishop Wilmer replied is these striking terms:
Well, in the reaction of some believers, the Eucharist is already overrated. As if there were nothing else.
Such seeming insouciance about what the Second Vatican Council called the “source and summit” of the Church’s life runs parallel to what appears to be the bishop of Hildesheim’s indifference to doctrine. Thus, in opening the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality for a Synodal Church in Hildesheim cathedral, Bishop Wilmer declared himself, in so many words, a fervent disciple of the Zeitgeist:
We need a new look at sexuality and a new way of thinking about the ministry of the priest. We need a new look at gender-just participation for everyone in the church, men and women alike…
As for the purpose of the Synod on Synodality for a Synodal Church, Wilmer declared that “the pope wants to turn the Church upside down.” And doing so would require that “everyone also has to let go of something, including their own convictions,” in order to hear “what the Spirit wants to say to us.”(The bishop did not indicate that the “Spirit” might be “saying” that we should “let go” of the truths embodied in Scripture or the convictions expressed in the Nicene Creed, but one could only wonder what limiting principle would be available to temper “everyone letting go of something” to the point where we all let go of everything.)
Bishop Wilmer is also firmly within the consensus of the German episcopate that the radical reinvention of Catholicism being proposed by the German Synodal Way is necessitated by the sins and crimes of clerical sexual abuse. But was he also expressing a consensus among his brother bishops when he averred, unblushingly, that “the abuse of power is in the DNA of the Church”? Or when he added that we have to say that there are “structures of evil” in the Church to which “we have to say goodbye”? Including, one can only assume, the hierarchical governance of the Church, in the name of what Bishop Wilmer endorsed as an ecclesial “separation of powers.”
In other circumstances such candor, however disconcerting from a doctrinal point of view, might be welcomed: here, at last, is a bishop with the gumption to say what many other German bishops really think, although the others are content to shelter behind the lay Church bureaucrats and ill-educated theologians whose Catholic Lite proposals dominate the German Synodal Path.
But these are not “other,” or even normal, circumstances. For according to persistent stories emanating from Roman sources (some the usual hysterics, others far more credible), Bishop Heiner Wilmer, SCJ, will be named Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, perhaps as soon as December 19.
Should that happen, it would mark a truly extraordinary moment in an extraordinary pontificate. And not simply because there is something surreal about an ecclesial situation in which Heiner Wilmer succeeds such fellow-Germans as Joseph Ratzinger and Gerhard Ludwig Müller as a principal guardian of what John XXIII called, while opening the Second Vatican Council, “the Sacred Deposit of Faith.” But also because such an appointment would seem a papal repudiation of the man Pope Francis previously appointed as Prefect of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his fellow-Jesuit, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer. Why?
Because in his address to the German bishops gathered in Rome in late November, Cardinal Ladaria offered a calm but devastating theological critique of the German Synodal Path that Bishop Wilmer so fervently supports – and which he in fact embodies. In that address, the cardinal reminded German Catholicism that it is part of a universal Church that has settled teachings on the goods of human love and its expression; a Church that must reject gender ideology as incompatible with the biblical Word of God; a Church that is governed by bishops by the will of Christ; a Church that has determined that it has no authority to admit women to Holy Orders; and a Church that reads the “signs of the times,” not through opinion polling among ill-catechized Catholics, but through the lens of ancient, timeless, and irreformable convictions grounded in revelation.
What would it mean – what would it signal to the rest of the world Church – for the Holy Father to appoint as Cardinal Ladaria’s successor a man who, we may suppose, finds Ladaria’s critique of the German Synodal Path unacceptable? Would Pope Francis be repudiating his own “Letter to the People of God Journeying in Germany,” to which Ladaria referred at the beginning of his address to the German bishops, and which urged the Synodal Path to listen less to the alleged signs of the times and more to the enduring truths of the Gospel?
One hopes that Pope Francis is also aware that the appointment of a man such as Bishop Wilmer as Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith would throw into crisis the Synod on Synodality that has become the centerpiece of his pontificate. Defenders of the synodal process that is now entering its continental phase, in preparation for the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2023, have long insisted that the recklessness of the German Synodal Path must not be confused with the Pope’s synodal process; the Germans, concerned Catholics have been advised, are the outliers.
But the German Synodal Path, its deconstruction of the Church, and its creation of a Brave New Catholicism cannot be regarded as an outlier if one of its episcopal protagonists and defenders is named Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Under those circumstances, the German Synodal Path can only be considered the driver of the world synodal process. And that risks detonating the entire process.
During the cardinals’ meetings in Rome in August 2022, a veteran cardinal with both extensive pastoral and curial experience reminded a newly created cardinal that, according to a venerable tradition within the Roman Curia, its senior members must warn the Pope if, in their considered judgment, he is about to make a grave error. That ancient practice of fraternal correction, which can trace its origins to Galatians 2.11, has been largely in abeyance for the past decade.
It should be recovered immediately, not least by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. For the Holy Father must be fully informed of the views of Bishop Heiner Wilmer, so that what are likely to be the implications and grave consequences of bringing him to Rome to head the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith are clear.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.