Pope John Paul II has written a personal letter to all of the cardinals of Germany, warning them in unusually blunt language about the condition of the Catholic Church in their country.
The Pope's letter, addressed to all nine German cardinals, was dated 22 February: the feast of the Chair of St Peter and the date of the consistory on which the Holy Father elevated two Germans (and 40 others) to the College of Cardinals.
Because it was private, however, the letter did not become public knowledge until 12 March, when newspapers in Bonn broke the story. The papal letter apparently leaked to the press after Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the president of the German bishops' conference, disclosed its contents to the German bishops during their annual meeting.
In his letter, the Pope asks the German cardinals to take prompt action to curb improper developments within the Catholic Church in Germany. He points to problems, particularly in the domains of ecumenical affairs, theological speculation, and the involvement of the laity in public ministry.
While acknowledging the strengths of the Church in Germany, the Pope warns that German Catholicism is threatened by secularisation. He says that despite the "solid organisational structure" of the Church and the many institutions that make Catholicism "present in public life," serious problems are looming.
"We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that more and more people are abandoning the active practice of the faith, or accepting only a portion of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church," the Pontiff writes. The process of secularisation, he continues, threatens the interior life of the Church, so that Catholicism "may appear strong on the outside, but has no inner vitality, and has lost credibility in the process."
The Pope calls upon the German cardinals to use all their talents and energies in an effort to bring new strength to the Church in their country, so that "the Catholic faith can be proclaimed with new vigour, in all its fullness and all its beauty."
The Pope instructs the German prelates to pay special attention to the formation of priests in seminaries, and to the teaching of Catholic theologians. The latter, he said, must be "firmly rooted in the faith," and must not give in to "the spirit of the age, or resignation."
Next the Pope points to the condition of family life in Germany. He says that Catholic families should be faithful to the spirit of Christian marriage, and must educate their children in the faith. He lays particular stress on the importance of adhering to Catholic teaching as set forth in Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and the Vatican document cautioning against the reception of the Eucharist by Catholics who are divorced and remarried.
Turning to ecumenical affairs, the Pope states that Catholic leaders, in discussions with other Christian communities, must uphold the teaching and discipline of the Church. He points out that the conditions that would allow non-Catholics to receive Communion are "in practice, rare." (The admission of non-Catholics to Communion has become a frequent occurrence in Germany and neighbouring lands.) The Pope says that in theological discussions, Catholics must keep in mind the principles set forth in Dominus Iesus regarding the unique role of the Catholic Church in the economy of salvation.
Finally, the Pope expresses concerns regarding the "collaboration of priests and laity in pastoral work." He says that there have been numerous reports of cases in which lay people have carried out functions that are specifically reserved for the ordained ministry. He points out that these abuses apparently continue despite repeated cautions from Rome. This situation must be rectified, he writes, "because a renewal of hope for the Church is impossible without a renewal of the priestly ministry and consecrated life."