ROME – A leading German bishop says Pope Francis made the right decision when he refused the resignation of German Cardinal Gerhard Marx, who had asked the pope to release him from his role as archbishop of Munich in an attempt to assume collective responsibility for the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
“It creates security for the others: You never know for what mistake a bishop might be obliged to resign,” said Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen.
Overbeck was in Rome in his role as vice president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).
He and COMECE’s president, Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, spoke to journalists on Friday after meetings with Pope Francis and top Vatican officials
Hollerich refused to comment on the specifics of the Marx case, saying simply that he believed Pope Francis’s letter to be of use to all the bishops in the world, despite being addressed to the German prelate.
Among the questions posed to the prelates was the ongoing debate regarding the blessing of same-sex couples.
“But what does it mean to bless? A nuptial blessing? It’s not going to happen, because for us marriage is between a man and a woman. But when I am with young people, of course, there are also homosexuals who come to me and ask me what can they do,” Hollerich said.
“The pastoral attitude is always to seek the best possible solution, not the best abstract option,” he said. “Because the best abstract thing can defeat man, while the Church is here to help the person. We have to be careful not to discriminate, but the theory and teaching of the church and the pastoral attitude are both important.”
The cardinal also noted that sometimes, “the conservative side and the liberal side of the church, they don’t talk to each other anymore, only through the Internet, and they are very radical,” which doesn’t work, because the Catholic Church is called to “help the people of our time, all of them.”
Both prelates also discussed the issue of migration, a key concern for the European Union, and at the center of the conversations they held with Pope Francis and other Vatican officials.
“The Church, first of all, has to call on the world to do everything possible to keep people at home,” Overbeck said. “But seeing the people, where they are fleeing from, seeing that the Mediterranean is the biggest cemetery in Europe, what can we say but welcome? The question of migration is a key issue, maybe for the next 100 years.”
When it comes to migrants fleeing some of Africa’s most conflict-ridden areas, or those affected by draught and climate change, the prelate said that for them, the question is no longer about “how to live, but how to survive. And we, Europe, as Christians, have to have enough neighborly love to welcome them.”
Seeing that many of the migrants arriving in Europe are Muslims, Hollerich was specifically asked if he feared a prevalence of Islam in a continent that has historically been Christian.
“I’m not responsible for Muslims, only for Catholics,” he said. “But I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid because I know the Muslims in my country, and we have a truly good relationship. It’s a matter of integration into Europe, but also, of an Euroization of Islam. I think that the Church, even if as a minority, due to its history, will always be present. But it’s our duty to build a lively Church in Europe, and I don’t mean this as proselytism, but truly preach the Gospel in the continent.”
As the only German in the COMECE leadership, Overbeck was also questioned about his country’s Synodal Path, which has received a lukewarm response from many in the Vatican for its willingness to question Catholic doctrine, including gay marriage and the ordination of women.
The prelate was very adamant in denying any accusation that the Synodal Path risks schism, saying instead that the German Church is one that is “alive,” even if the path is an attempt to address a crisis. Marx, in fact, said that the local Church was at a “dead end,” which Overbeck didn’t agree with when speaking about the Church as a whole.
“When it comes to celibacy, then yes, we’re at a [dead end]: Priestly vocations are basically zero, and this is not only in Germany, but virtually all through the Western culture,” he said. “We have to see what is God asking from us. Maybe a well-educated man, who’s married, can be a priest. We have cases of this in the Eastern Churches.”
Speaking about his diocese, Overbeck said that in the decade he’s been a bishop, there have been one or two priests ordained each year, while 20 or 30 died.
The prelate argued that a Catholic Church that has no priests is one that would lose its sacramental aspect. Asked if women could be ordained into the priesthood, he said that his priority is “getting some men ordained into the priesthood, then, we’ll see.”
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