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from issue no. 10 - 2005

Interview with Cardinal Karl Lehmann

The Church’s mission is to proclaim the Gospel

But when one identifies the Church with a cultural and political bloc, there is the danger of making difficult the Church’s contact with all those outside the bloc

Interview with Cardinal Karl Lehmann by Gianni Valente

Cardinal Karl Lehmann

Cardinal Karl Lehmann

No one doubts that Cardinal Karl Lehmann is a free man. And his freedom seems to be respected by his German brethren who chose him last September as president of the Episcopal Conference of Germany for the fourth time in succession. There’s nothing strange to it, then, should the former assistant of Karl Rahner, who began his priestly venture in the same nursery as Pope Ratzinger, deal without reticence and conformity even with the most controversial questions debated at the October Synod on the Eucharist.

The October Synod was the first in the pontificate of Benedict XVI. There are those who say that little has changed in respect of earlier ones.
KARL LEHMANN: The Synod of Bishops has existed for forty years. In that long span of time it has been for all of us a good school for introducing us to the universal dimension of the Church. This year there were a lot of new people, 52 participants out of a100 were at their first Synod. Certainly, the free evening debate introduced by the Pope didn’t always succeed. But it was important as a beginning to encourage more lively debate. For the future, I would suggest avoiding subjects of too vast a scale. It would be useful to make out a list of fundamental questions on the matter to be dealt with, and discuss only those.
Your speech, judging by the summary, was very packed...
LEHMANN: I wanted in six minutes only to sketch in the aspects that theological thinking has gone into in the last decades, within the perduring classical context of the Eucharistic doctrine: the Eucharist as memory (anamnesis), the Eucharist as sacrifice, the correspondence between Church and Eucharist, the action of the Holy Spirit in the mass, the relationship between Eucharist and the witness of the Christian also in public life… They’re all elements that have found room in systematic theology also. And of which one must take account when looking for answers to the more controversial questions in the pastoral ministry today.
What did you think of the discussion on whether to refuse the Eucharist to politicians who back laws that don’t conform to the law of God?
LEHMANN: In the propositiones the invitation to the bishops to treat the subject with prudence remained. Christians who have influence in political life must feel as individuals responsibility in front of their own faith. And the duty of encouraging laws that are not in contradiction with the Commandments comes within the mission of the Church. Account of one’s reasons must be given in public, there must be dialogue to provide bearings for people and politicians as well. In Germany also we meet a lot with the larger parties, when we set out the Catholic point of view on ethically controversial questions. But when those democratically elected people in charge of institutions make different choices, we must respect their decisions and not try to delegitimate them. And then, the Catholics in Germany who have direct political responsibility are few, and we can’t claim any jurisdiction on the others.
At times even Catholic politicians seem impatient of any ecclesiastical checks…
LEHMANN: In Germany the Catholic politicians don’t stray from the indications of the magisterium on essential points. None of them directly defends the legislation on abortion. There is a strong challenge to the sectors that support active euthanasia. Whereas now there are some uncertainties in the debate on stem cells.
What space did ethical issues have in the German election campaign?
LEHMANN: All the interest was focussed on economic policy. Ethical questions were almost ignored.
Some people see signs of a spiritual rebirth in Europe, after decades of ethico-cultural relativism.
LEHMANN: There’s always the tendency to transform the Church into an ethical agency, and of measuring the Church by the yardstick of social and cultural utility. The mission proper to the Church is that of proclaiming the Gospel. But when one identifies the Church with a cultural and political bloc, there is the danger of making difficult the Church’s contact with all those outside the bloc. As for a spiritual rebirth, one needs to distinguish, as Saint Paul and Saint Ignatius did before us. I see around many expressions of a sick religiosity, such as satanism, the occult. The interest in the supernatural in a very generic sense and in the spiritual is not in itself a factor that helps the communication of the Christian faith.
How was the issue of sharing the Eucharist with non-Catholic Christians dealt with?
LEHMANN: The Synod repeated that this is a great problem among the Churches, but could not give a solution. They’re delicate questions. We, in the ecumenic dialogue in which we are involved at national level, have already spent three years with forty theologians on the question of the apostolic succession, that is a crucial problem, and with luck in a couple of years we’ll manage to formulate a proposal, that will be only a working hypothesis, however, without pretension of presenting it there and then as the definitive solution. Common participation in the Eucharist can only be a final outcome of ecumenic dialogue, not the starting point. It presupposes union among the Churches and a shared faith in the Eucharist itself. Our Protestant brethren don’t understand this at times, because they tend to take into consideration only the individual and social dimension of the Eucharist.
And with the Orthodox?
LEHMANN: With them the discourse is different. I believe that Orthodoxy has been thinking lately, and despite other impressions, that we can’t have full sacramental communion if we don’t first have a fundamental agreement on the question of the primacy, that still isn’t there. On the Catholic side, within the limits of dogma, we must try to define in what way real collegiality between the Pope and the heads of the Orthodox Churches can be exercised.
On the possibility of giving communion to remarried divorcees?
LEHMANN: I’m satisfied that at least a certain sensitivity was shown on the issue. There are those who suggested new pastoral measures, but many others expressed their concern to protect the indissolubility of matrimony. I believe that no all-inclusive solution can be contrived for the problem, one valid for all cases. The thing that counts is that the Church offers spaces for receiving all those who have been through the shipwreck of their married life. That it be seen that the Church remains a welcoming mother also for those going through these personal failures. And then, it can be judged whether it is possible to admit to communion these individuals, each taken as an individual case.
Are you persuaded by the solution of widening the criteria for declaring a marriage null?
LEHMANN: Those who can must be encouraged to choose that path. That legal path cannot be the sole one. This is not a valid solution for all the cases. But that path must be taken, where it is or appears possible.

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