Fr Hubert Jedin's 1968 'Letter to the German Bishops'

Fr Hubert Jedin's 1968 'Letter to the German Bishops'

Fr Hubert Jedin

Father Hubert Jedin is best known as the author of the definitive 'History of the Council of Trent' (4 volumes) and a ten-volume 'History of the Church', which was translated into English the year after his death in 1981.

The words of Fr Jedin's remarkable 'Letter to the German Bishops', written in 1968, seem to be more prophetic than ever as each year passes.

That Fr Jedin's 26-year-old warnings have gone largely unheeded is reflective of the crisis of authority which lies at the heart of present-day problems in the Church.

Fr Jedin's covering letter to Cardinal Döpfner as Chairman of the Bishops' Conference: Bonn, September 16, 1968.

"I take the liberty to offer you enclosed a few thoughts and opinions on the present situation in the Catholic Church, with the request to present them to the members of the German Bishops' Conference.

"My thoughts have grown out of long years of scholarly concern with the history of the Church and were dictated by grave concern over her present development. I am aware that many invited and uninvited advisers are said to gain the ear of the bishops. Mindful of the admonition of the Second Vatican Council about the co-responsibility of the priests and laity, I feel obliged in conscience to offer my knowledge and understanding, so that evaluative categories will not be lacking to the venerable episcopate; for what life-experience is to individuals, the history of the Church is for the ecclesial community."

At present the Catholic Church is passing through a difficult crisis. Germany, too, at least the region of the Federal Republic, is gripped by it. This crisis became broadly visible during the 'Catholic Day' at Essen during which the encyclical Humanae Vitae was regarded not as a starting-point but as an object of anxiety and as the flashpoint.

To us historians especially concerned with the history of the Reformation this crisis suggests parallels to those events which led in the 16th century to the schism of the Church in the West. It compels us to draw inferences from the historical experience for the evaluation of the present moment in the Church.

I. Through the research of recent decades it is evident that Martin Luther did not intend to split the Church when in the year 1517 he presented his theses on indulgences to the appropriate bishops and later published them. He renounced the authority of the Church in stages; in Leipzig (1519) he even rejected the binding force of decisions by valid ecumenical councils. And given the resulting resonance in the public sphere he himself did not expect, he was finally tempted to refuse obedience to the condemnation - far too long delayed in any case - of his 41 theses in the bull Exsurge Domine (1520).

In some German dioceses this papal decision was publicised inadequately, and in others not at all. The bishops considered the 'Luther conflict' as a quarrel among theologians and overlooked the fact that the foundations of the Catholic concept of the Church were being not only shaken but destroyed. Apart from a few theologians, the faithful saw in Luther the re-discoverer of the true faith and the restorer of the Church, the liberator from the yoke which the Church had allegedly imposed upon them until then.

The most passionate and most powerful champions of the Lutheran movement were the 'intellectuals' of that time, the humanists, in whose eyes the current theology, scholasticism, was a hindrance to progress. Also included were numerous priests and clerics who, fascinated by the slogan 'evangelical freedom', cast off the vows they had taken upon themselves. Finally there were some from the classes threatened by social decline, such as the imperial knighthood and the well-to-do farmers, throughout a great part of Germany.

The almost complete success of the Lutheran movement in the years 1517-1525 was made possible by the control of that age's only means of mass communication, the press, whose significance for the Church was insufficiently understood. People used to snatch the writings of Luther and the countless pamphlets stamped with his ideas right out of the hands of book-sellers. They spoke the language of the people and were read, even devoured.

The few who issued warnings were, to be sure, more clear-sighted as theologians, but weaker as propagandists. They remained unread and were regarded as the 'reactionaries'. Those responsible for the Church's magisterium, the pope and the bishops, were silent; the repeatedly requested and longed-for council never materialised. Uncertainty in regard to the faith persisted.

Without wishing in the least to explain away the mistakes and oversights committed by the Roman Curia at that time and subsequently, the passivity of the German episcopate must be admitted. They were not sufficiently trained theologically, and with a few exceptions the prince took precedence over the bishop in leading the people. This state of affairs facilitated the nearly unchecked progress of the Lutheran movement, and in fact this is what made it possible in the first place. The German bishops thus missed their chance.

Once the majority of the imperial cities and the princes had made Luther's cause their own (after 1526), it was too late. By-passing the bishop, Lutheran rural churches were erected and the urban clergy numerically increased. As the Lutheran movement became organised and consolidated, it conducted itself as a creed and bound itself together by a politico-military league. The schism in the Church was a fact.

We know today that the inner process of schism, the formation of a 'Confession' (denomination), lasted not years, but decades. Melanchthon and Calvin claimed to be 'Catholic' until the end of their lives while the adherents of the old faith were calumniated as 'Papists'.

The faithful long clung to the Mass and their saints, and the church regulations introduced by Lutheran magistrates took over many Catholic customs - even processions and pilgrimages. The bulk of the simple faithful never understood that the 'Reformation' was not a reform of the Church but the construction of a new Church set up on a different basis. In retrospect one must therefore maintain: the schism of the Church succeeded by nothing so much as by the illusion that it did not exist. It was widespread in Rome and in the German episcopate, among many theologians, amongst the majority of clergymen and among the people.

The parallels between then and now are obvious. But one essential difference exists: the schism in the Church in the 16th century, since the end of the 1520s, was increasingly an affair of 'governments', and therefore of states. Today the state is indifferent toward ecclesiastical events except in Communist regimes which put the Church under heavy pressure. In those cases the signs of crisis discussed below are either not present or found just minimally. They can only be found in the Free World of the West where they profit from rebellion against the so-called 'establishment.'

II. The Church's present crisis in Germany is in its innermost essence, as in the 16th century, a matter of uncertainty and disorientation in the faith. Protestant biblical criticism has broken into Catholic theology on a broad front. The problem is not so much those who hold chairs of exegesis with their rather nuanced statements as with their students and auditors who are often insufficiently prepared theologically and philosophically and who accept uncritically the views of radical Protestant theologians, e.g., Rudolph Bultmann. They extend and coarsen the concepts to the point of polarisation, simplify them in their institutes and propagate them in conferences and courses as well as in preaching.

Under the cloak of hermeneutics the binding nature of dogmatic definitions by ecumenical councils is called into question (e.g., transubstantiation). The bond of theology to the magisterium is loosened, if not altogether denied, and the magisterium itself depreciated and even ridiculed. Today's hostility and contempt for authority, which is so widespread among the younger generation and is supported by many parents and educators, abets this dissolution of the Catholic concept of the Church, and consequently the idea of religious obedience.

The question 'Is there anything still Catholic?' is not just something asked only by older and so-called 'traditional' Catholics, but comes from the very core of sincere and genuine believers. This too was brought about not just by the constant change of liturgical forms and the ever more encompassing capriciousness in liturgy, but is the result of real uncertainty and the need for knowledge.

Today's modern communications media are incomparably more powerful than those of the 16th century. Almost without exception they have become dominated by intellectuals who frequently, especially if they are Catholic, want the 'new' for its own sake, as the supposedly 'progressive' thing to do. They promote it and propagate it regardless of the truth content. In their speech and style of expression they cater to the inclination of the younger generation for slogans ('democratising the Church'), and they judge this agitation to be harmless to their religious formation, or they explain it away, and in general they comment upon Church events in a distorted way.

Communications media

They make (or better, they manipulate) 'public opinion' against which only a few among the many millions of television watchers are capable of validly forming their own opinion. The constant saturation of the faithful by a communications media controlled by the ecclesiastical 'Left' has the effect of altering their relation to the Church and has indeed already changed it. This disorientation makes progress month by month. The longer it lasts, the greater will be the danger of schism in the Church, as in the 16th century. Or, what could be even worse, a complete estrangement from the Church, just as individual raindrops disappear in the dry sand.

I do not believe that the founding and support of conservative, traditionalist groups and movements ('Una Voce', 'Nunc et Semper' and the like) is the right way to prevent the schism or revolt threatening the Church. To leave the fight against the abuses of the ecclesiastical 'Left' to an ecclesiastical 'Right' would be a fundamental abdication by the authorities. In contrast to the Protestant church-communities, the Catholic Church possesses authority since her structure is based on divine law. The bishops must speak out clearly and act decisively, rising above public opinion. If they act, and act quickly, it will become evident that they still have the great mass of Catholic faithful behind them.

Had the German bishops in the first years of the 16th century's schism from the faith joined together for common action before the Reformation became political, the schism in the Church, even if it were not totally prevented, could quite possibly have been reduced to a mere splintering.

The episcopate of today is no longer burdened and obstructed by defective theological education or by its social place and the resulting entanglements in politics. The constitution Lumen Gentium has conferred on them thorough-going rights and opportunities, but also a higher responsibility for the integrity of the faith than ever before. They cannot wait for the intervention of higher authorities, but must act themselves.

Where the public communications media construct walls of silence or permit one to observe daily events only through distorted lenses, a word of clarification and corresponding action is doubly indispensable. To every Catholic and non-Catholic it must be made clear that the bishops consider the unabridged truth and care for the good of the faithful their first and highest duty.

III. Some concrete examples may illustrate how one might imagine this 'action.'

1. The canonical mission of professors of higher education and teachers of religion, who plainly teach errors of faith, should be withdrawn. Conflicts arising from this with state officials and with the pressure groups of the 'Left' must be accepted.

Priests and chaplains who come into open opposition to Church discipline in their teaching or through their conduct (e.g., in regard to the Holy Eucharist) are to be suspended, even if there results from this a temporary shortage in pastoral care.

One should not be afraid of making 'martyrs' of them. It is necessary to set an example - but in so doing it will be important to take care that the transition to a secular occupation be facilitated by providing suitable help for those afflicted.

2. No candidate for priestly office should be ordained unless he explicitly and unconditionally acknowledges the duties of the priesthood and undertakes canonical obedience. Above all, the authors of declarations against celibacy, against papal and episcopal teaching on doctrine, the instigators of revolts and those who try to coerce unacceptable changes in monasteries and seminaries are to be excluded from ordination.

It is better to have many fewer priests and to look after vacant parishes in a temporary and improvised fashion through ordination of older, married men as deacons, than for rebellious or demagogic priests to lead parishes astray.

3. The education of 'lay-theologians' must be supervised with much greater vigilance, and the canonical mission must be bestowed more carefully. A portion of this group is inspiring the ecclesiastical 'Left' and - knowingly or unknowingly - is promoting uncertainty and confusion about the faith.

4. It must be impressed on the entire clergy that liturgy is not a free-style composition by the parish assembly, but a divine service regulated by the Church. The chaotic changes in the liturgy have already gone so far that even the words of consecration are being changed by individual clerics without authorisation. The Latin Mass, the bond of unity of the universal Church, should not be allowed to perish now that the world is becoming so much smaller. In every church with several Sunday services, one Latin Mass should regularly remain. It will, as experience shows, be well attended.

5. In teaching style, slogans like 'democratising the Church' or 'critical Catholicism' and the like must be rejected because of the errors intermingled within them. The teaching of the Church from the basis of the constitution Lumen Gentium must be inculcated. The traditional principles of 'subsidiarity' and 'solidarity' fully suffice to guarantee the participation of the laity in the accomplishment of its apostolic mission. One should not be afraid to retain the concepts 'authority' and 'obedience' in the vocabulary of the Church.

IV. In the parallels pointed out above and the sample proposals derived from them, I have taken into consideration that in present-day Church developments there are at work strong religious forces not unlike those in the 16th century movement enkindled by Luther. The saying of St Augustine applies to both of them: "Nulla porro falsa doctrina est, quae non aliqua vera intertmisceat." ("There is no false doctrine without some truth intermingled." Quaest. ev. 11.40). I am convinced that the true and the good which has emerged from the new awakening of the Church at the Council and through the Council up to today can only be fruitful if it is separated from error.

The longer the painful operation is put off, the greater will be the danger that valuable sources of strength are going to be lost because they will be amalgamated with error. Then there will occur among us not only a separation from the Church, but a defection from Christianity itself. The more clearly the bishops speak and the more decisively they act, the greater the chance to maintain the movement of awakening within the Church and thereby to uphold the Church.

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