Published March 21, 2023
Shortly before Christmas 2022, it seemed likely that Dr. Heiner Wilmer, SCJ, bishop of Hildesheim and a prominent proponent of the German “Synodal Way,” would be named prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in succession to Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ. Bishop Wilmer’s statements on a number of doctrinal and moral matters drew the concerned attention of senior churchmen in Rome and elsewhere; these men, including the late Cardinal George Pell, made their concerns known to Pope Francis; and the announcement of Bishop Wilmer’s appointment, which was reportedly planned for December 19, did not take place.
The Wilmer appointment, however, remains a live option, according to Vatican sources. It thus seems appropriate to draw to the attention of all concerned a letter Bishop Wilmer sent to his diocese on March 13, shortly after the Synodal Way adjourned its final assembly after endorsing a new governing structure for the Church in Germany, liturgical blessings for same-sex “unions”, a reformulation of the Catholic ethic of human love, and the reconsideration of the admission of women to Holy Orders.
In his letter, Bishop Wilmer acknowledged that the divisions within German Catholicism “seemed to deepen more and more” along the Synodal Way, “the factions becoming more intolerant.” Yet the bishop did not comment on the obvious fact that the “gap between the synod members” was a chasm between those who believe that divine revelation is real and its authority binding over time, and those who believe the Church has the authority to correct divine revelation according to the more nuanced knowledge of the human condition that contemporary Catholics putatively possess, thanks to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of this age.
Rather, the bishop stated that his “task is to serve unity…in such a mixed situation” – a concept of episcopacy and its relationship to the truth of Catholic faith that would have puzzled St. Athanasius during his battle with Arianism, St. Augustine during his contest with the Donatists, St. Charles Borromeo during his heroic efforts to reform the archdiocese of Milan after the Council of Trent, and St. John Fisher while confronting the pusillanimity of his episcopal brethren in England at the time of King Henry VIII.
Can a local bishop who does not understand that his first responsibility is to teach and defend the settled convictions of the Church – what Pope St. John XXIII called the “Sacred Deposit of Faith” in opening the Second Vatican Council – adequately serve the universal Church as prefect of the curial office charged with precisely that same responsibility?
The bishop’s letter also includes a sympathetic narration of the distress felt by some during a September 2022 Synodal Way Assembly, when a resolution calling for the radical reconsideration of the Church’s ethic of human love failed to gain the necessary votes:
Women and men, younger and older, burst into tears, shaking their heads. Some just sat mute and petrified at their tables. Others jumped up, scolded, and gave vent to their disappointment. A small group met in the middle of the hall and quickly grew. People surrounded each other, put their arms over their neighbor’s shoulders, united in suffering together. Unnoticed by the crowd, a young woman collapsed in a corner of the hall, unconscious on the floor. She herself is a victim of sexualized violence in the Church; for years she had been abused by a priest. Did the Synodal Way fail in these dramatic hours?
That the German Church, like other local churches throughout the world, failed for years to get to grips with the grave sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse is not a subject for rational debate. Those failures happened; they inflicted deep and open wounds on the Mystical Body of Christ; transparency is essential about those failures and their causes (which include the collapse of discipline in post-conciliar seminaries and houses of religious formation and the deconstruction of Catholic moral theology in those years). But to weaponize the suffering of the victims of clerical sexual abuse in order to advance an agenda that progressive German Catholicism advocated for decades before the abuse crisis broke into public view is deplorable. Indeed, it is despicable.
Yet is that not precisely what Bishop Wilmer does when, later in his letter, he states that “it has become clear that we need significant changes in sexual morality in the Catholic Church.” Indeed, we do. But the entire context of the bishop’s letter suggests that what he means by “significant changes in sexual morality in the Catholic Church” is not a rebirth of chastity that includes a reaffirmation of the good of sexual love within the bond of marriage, but a change in teaching that affirms sexual relations which revelation and reason teach us are not life-giving, but morally and humanly harmful. Thus the bishop wrote that he “welcome[d] the fact that the Synodal Way is in favor of establishing a working group to develop a manual for blessing celebrations for same-sex couples as well as remarried divorcees.”
How can a bishop who welcomes this development lead a curial dicastery that recently declared that such blessings were impossible, as the Church cannot bless what is, objectively, sinful?
The bishop’s letter contains more curiosities. He celebrates the fact that, in the Diocese of Hildesheim, “we have begun to fill pastoral positions with people who have not studied theology or religious education but instead have [matriculated in] cultural studies, social pedagogy, or architecture.” Given the current state of German theology, this may perhaps be considered a blessing for the diocese. But it beggars the imagination that a bishop who seemingly demeans the importance of sound theology for effective pastoral work could be appointed the head of the Roman office that is charged with nourishing dynamically orthodox theology throughout the universal Church.
Even more amazingly, the bishop boasts that, in his diocese “the core area of private life is no longer subject to legal evaluation;” that this zone of inviolable privacy “includes, in particular, relationship life…;” and that “we have already made the corresponding changes…in the regulations for the conferral of the Missio Canonica with regard to teachers of religion.” Which is to say that people objectively living in grave sin, and thus not in full communion with the Church, can receive from Bishop Wilmer a canonical mission to teach as a Catholic religious educator.
How could such a bishop possibly be considered as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Concluding his letter, Bishop Wilmer urges the Diocese of Hildesheim to be open to “…the Holy Spirit, who surprises us again and again.” Yes, the Holy Spirit does that, and we should be grateful for it. But the Holy Spirit does not, because the Holy Spirit cannot, contradict what the Spirit has already taught the Church through divine revelation. That would not be a “surprise;” it would be the complete and utter dissolution of the Jewish and Christian concept of God.
If the appointment of Bishop Wilmer to the position once held by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is made, it would not only be a mortal insult to the memory and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. It would mean that, in the next conclave, all the cards would be face up on the table, and there could be no denying that what is at stake in the next papal transition is the fidelity of the Catholic Church to divine revelation and the apostolic tradition.
Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies
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.