“God is greater than our desires”

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki © Bert Bostelmann (KNA)

The archbishop of Cologne is a critical companion of the synodal way. Now Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki speaks about red lines, ordination of women and the danger of a break with the teachings of the Church.

CBA: Cardinal, what is your assessment of the regional conferences of the Synodal Way?

Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki (Archbishop of Cologne): I think it was valuable to speak in a smaller setting. This had a positive effect on the climate of discussion, and it was possible to listen to each other better and to appreciate the other's argument better. That was a welcome difference from the first synodal assembly.

CBA: And from the matter?

Woelki: From the point of view of the matter, it was important to also take up the topic of Corona in the Synodal Way. It was interesting to register the different perceptions. I have emphasized that Corona makes people aware of their human vulnerability, their creatureliness, their mortality. There is a whole generation today that has hardly been confronted with death at all. Therefore, I find that Corona represents a challenge for us to think anew about existential realities and to answer them from our faith.

On the other hand, I was rather irritated that the impulse paper presented by three theologians on the Corona pandemic should be used as a challenge for the Synodal Way to declare war on so-called "clericalism" and – using a term of the French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault (1926-1984) – on "clerical pastoral power". I think that such a language and thought style does neither justice to the gospel nor to the existential questions of people in the face of illness and death.

CBA: What do you think about the departure of auxiliary bishop Schwaderlapp from the forum on sexuality??

Woelki: I think that was consistent. He has said that by abandoning the bond of the transmission of life to the loving union of two people, namely of man and woman, as set forth in Humanae vitae, in Familiaris consortio and in other magisterial documents, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the end all expressions of human sexuality receive an equal status. Also in Amoris laetitia there is no hint about it. In the end, this means a break with the teachings of the Church.

CBA: Where would you personally reach the point where you would say: I can no longer go along with this. Do you have a "red line?

Woelki: I cannot say that at this point in time. The question of the ordination of women, for example, is a discussion that will not lead to a goal in this way. Because this question has definitely been decided with the highest doctrinal authority by Pope John Paul II. Benedict XVI. and also Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized this and also said that the question has been decided by the Magisterium.

I do not understand the aim of this discussion. Is it a discussion for the sake of discussion or is it to open a way that helps us to understand more deeply the faith of the Church on this point? I can accept that, but I cannot treat it as if the question were open. Then the discussion takes place outside the teachings of the church.

CBA: How would you answer the women who say: This not being allowed to participate in the ordained ministry blocks my way to faith?.

Woelki: We must realize that God is always greater than our wishes and ideas. Sometimes the will and the revelation of God is not completely understandable at first sight. Sometimes they may even seem unjust. It is the same in the parable of the workers, who all receive the same wages, although some only work for an hour and others for the whole day. At first glance, that seems unfair to human judgment.

For me, faith means nevertheless trusting that God is just – even if it is not directly apparent to my understanding in individual questions. So I think we also have to accept that in this question the Church is bound to the will of Jesus, which is revealed in Scripture and Tradition. He appointed to his circle of twelve exclusively those whom he wanted to appoint, freely and independently. And these were the 12 apostles and there were no women among them. Even in the subsequent period, nothing has changed in the fact that only men were ordained bishops and priests.

And since there is only one sacrament of ordination in the Church, which unfolds in three stages of consecration, this also applies, in my view, to the ordination of deacons. All other services and offices are of course open to both men and women. I have tried to implement this in Berlin and also here in Cologne and have repeatedly filled important and decisive positions with women.

CBA: What follows from this, if there are more and more women who say: Then I can no longer participate, then this is no longer my church. Do you have to let them go??

Woelki: I can only say that we must make an effort within the church to present the faith in an understandable way also in this question. All other talk that raises unfulfillable hopes leads to frustration and those who talk like this must also be aware that they have to take responsibility for this talk. I am not speaking in my name. It is Christ who asks: "Do you also want to leave??"I was struck by what a group of women wrote to the Pope and also to Cardinal Stella. I was shocked by the tone, it's not a tone that unites, it's a tone that divides.

CBA: Mary 2.0 is now starting a new week of action, and on Sunday there will even be a "meal celebration" for the first time in front of Cologne Cathedral. How do you think about it?

Woelki: I share the basic concern: to stand up for the dignity of women and against clerical abuse of power such as sexual abuse by priests. But the solution for both does not lie in the priesthood of women. This is its own form of clericalism, which Pope Francis warns against in the post-synodal letter Querida Amazonia. It is also always good when people sit down together at a table to exchange ideas and get to know each other better, when people gather to eat and drink together in friendly table fellowship.

However, such a meal celebration must not give the impression that Eucharist is taking place here. The celebration of the Eucharist by the priest, who in such a celebration acts in persona Christi capitis on the basis of the sacrament of Holy Orders, makes it clear that the Eucharist is a gift of God to us, which we cannot give ourselves. In this respect, such productions, which tend to cause confusion, already worry me.

CBA: How do you explain that at the moment there are no clear guidelines from the Pope on the Synodal Way??

Woelki: There are clear guidelines on the part of the Pope. There is also a clear statement, which the Pope has explicitly confirmed, with regard to the recent Vatican instruction on pastoral conversion of the parish community. Apart from that, I have always understood the Pope as thinking that it is important to come together. The people of God belong together in all members. It is important to listen to one another. For the pope, synodality includes silence, prayer, being focused on Christ, listening to the Word, listening to the faith of the Church. He practices all this in the synodal assemblies over which he presides.

Then he says that synodality from above must be added to synodality from below. It is clearly the task of the bishops to be with the people, to listen, but then also to ame their responsibility and to decide. This is only possible in unity with the Pope, in unity with the universal Church.

In this respect, I think that the Pope is trying to open up a very spiritual path for us, which we sometimes find difficult to follow, because until now it has been unusual for us to follow such a path.

CBA: How do you explain that the theological level in some papers of the Way is so modest?

Woelki: I think we are still at the beginning of the journey here and I believe that in time it will be good to bring in the theological expertise more from the theologians who are themselves called to be members of the Synodal Way. But perhaps then theologians from outside will be found who are willing to collaborate here.

I believe that Bishop Vorderholzer was right with his interjection and then also put his finger in a wound that is important to perceive. It is not acceptable that a one-sided biblical theology, which has not been voted on, becomes the basis for further discussion. I mean, the entire world is currently looking at the Church in Germany and at this Synodal Way, so we simply cannot afford to embarrass ourselves theologically through ignorance.

CBA: On the one hand, what would be the worst and the best outcome of the synodal journey?

Woelki: The worst result would be if the Synodal Way leads to division and thus out of the Church, out of communion with the universal Church. The worst result would be if something like a German national church were to emerge here.

The best result would be if we succeeded in initiating a real reform, which is in any case necessary in the Church. In my eyes, this should be a reform that corrects all the appearances and realities that have led away from the essence of the Church and helps us to recognize more deeply the essence of the Church – above all to perceive that the Church is not a purely sociological entity, but that it is the work of God, that it is the body of Christ, and that one can never see the Church without Christ. He who loves Christ loves the Church, he who loves the Church loves Christ. Christ and church belong inseparably together.

And when it comes to reforming the church, it can only ever be about a rediscovery, about drawing closer to Christ and his gospel, as an individual and as a community, as a church.

CBA: What is currently preventing us from discovering this very essence of the Church?

Woelki: It must be a matter of leading people back into a friendship with Christ, a friendship with God. Many Catholics no longer know who Christ is, what the Church is, they no longer know what a sacrament is, what the sacramental structure of the Church is. Related to this is the importance of the priesthood.

I think that talking about "our church" is so treacherous. I always try to avoid this. In a real sense it is of course our church, also my church, but it is above all His church. And with that, of course, there are specifications that are beyond our power of disposal.

The interview was conducted by Ludwig Ring-Eifel.

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