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Catholic cardinal causes outrage with Nazi comparison

February 5, 2020

A cardinal has caused upset by likening German church reform talks taking place this week with Hitler's rise to power. The cleric and other conservatives say the lay-ecclesiastical synod could undermine papal teachings.

Kardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller
Image: picture alliance/Stefano Spaziani

There was mounting outrage on Wednesday over Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller's dismissal of "Synodal Path" talks as a "suicidal process" akin to 1933.

The talks, involving German bishops and lay Catholics, started in Frankfurt last week and were set to run, on-and-off, for months.

Read more: German Catholic women stage boycott over lack of reforms

The synodic process is intended to address a long-simmering protest by groups, including the KDFB Catholic German Women's Federation. It is focused on widespread calls to end celibacy, create ministries for women, debate sexual mores and scandals over priestly abuse of minors.

Frankfurt am Main | Erste Versammlung des Synodalen Wegs
Frankfurt January 30 2020: Demonstating as the synodal assembly beganImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

However, Müller slammed the 230-member Catholic conference that adjourned on Saturday as "a self-appointed assembly, which is not authorized by God nor by the people it is supposed to represent." He accused participants of wanting to rescind, what he termed, "the Constitution of the Church of Divine Right."

"This is like the situation when the Weimar Constitution was repealed by the Enabling Act," Müller had told the arch-right Canadian portal LifeSiteNews on Monday, referring to German law passed on March 24, 1933, that cemented 12 years of Nazi rule.

Debate 'poisoned'

Jesuit Bernd Hagenkord, a former senior Vatican Radio journalist and a key synodic figure, on Wednesday accused Müller of "deliberately poisoning any debate," and exhibiting "no idea" historically about the Enabling Act that Hitler used to sidestep parliamentary oversight and decree dictatorial laws.

Hagenkord said Müller's use of a Nazi allusion pitted Christians against Christians. He said it was not an act of conservative safeguarding of tradition, but "destructive." 

Radio Vatikan Bernd Hagenkord
Hagenkord led Radio Vatican's German-language teamImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Radio Vatikan

Müller's remarks were "very much out of place" and not helpful, added Wurzburg Bishop Franz Jung, stressing that the process had been set up by German bishops and the ZdK Central Committee of German Catholics. Having made that decision together, Jung said, "one must stick to it."

ZdK president Thomas Sternberg, described Müller's remarks as "far removed from life" and directed against "the large concordance among the Catholic faithful and the great majority of the episcopal co-brothers [bishops]."

Müller, formerly the bishop of Regensburg in Bavaria — and from 2012 until 2017 and chief of the Vatican's powerful Congregation of the Faith — is among some five conservatives who were left on the back-foot during the synod's opening debate of conference procedures.

The procedural rules would make it harder for conservative bishops to block motions and require a women's majority for each decision to proceed. Müller and his allies were outvoted.

The Catholic Bishops Conference comprises officeholders in 27 bishoprics within Germany.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, in his Cologne cathedral summon on January 6, warned against what he termed a "neutralized" church. The adjective was used to describe the past Nazi crushing of free expression and pluralism.

MdB Maria Flachsbarth CDU
'Great chance,' for Catholic renewal, says FlachsbarthImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/B. Zawrzel

Even before the conference, Müller had described it as a "defective birth" resulting from a "political misunderstanding." He said power in the church could not be democratically confined and its evangelical teachings could not be "redefined or even reinterpreted."

That was nothing other than "populism and theological ignorance, Müller asserted.

Time-over for 'male-designated church'

There was also opposition to Müller's remarks from the KDFB itself.

"The time of male-designated Catholic church has expired," insisted the KDFB's Berlin branch president Barbara John in remarks run by the Catholic news agency KNA Wednessday.

The KDFB's federal president Maria Flachsbarth urged German Catholics to view the Synodic Path as a "great chance" in which each woman, alongside men, would be treated as a "likeness of God."

German Catholics demand changes

ipj/rc (KNA, epd, dpa)