The bombshell, launched by the website Messa in Latino last week, concerns the appointment of the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. If the rumors will be confirmed, he will be still a religious (Cardinal Ladaria, exiting, is a Jesuitt), but younger, a bishop and German of the orientation of that synodaler weg that Pope Francis has not failed to question because – in the Pope’s words – “in Germany there is already an evangelical Church.” His name is Heiner Wilmer, Dehonian, 61 years old, since 2018 bishop of Hildesheim.
His name would have circulated for the first time at the last meeting of the Council of Cardinals, mentioned by the Pope, who would have been impressed by the way of thinking of this young German theologian, superior general of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for three years. Wilmer has not failed to be critical of the Catholic Church, arguing in 2018 that “abuse of power is in the DNA of the Church.” And, in doing so, he did not hesitate to refer to the thought of Eugene Drewermann, a former priest and psychotherapist who applied depth psychology to the reading of the Bible.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sanctioned Drewermann, and for his 65th birthday, he gave himself the “dubious” gift of leaving Catholicism.
Drewermann questioned the very institution of the Church, priestly celibacy, and even the Bible itself, which he presented as a set of symbols rather than a historical account. It is to respond to this type of approach, widespread in Germany, that Benedict XVI wrote the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. Because beyond the symbols, the Bible is also an accurate and concrete history of peoples, and so is the life of Jesus.
If Wilmer’s appointment were to be confirmed (rumors say it should happen as early as today), Pope Francis would thus give a definitive welcome to the approach that existed before John Paul II and then after Benedict XVI. But he would also do it to contest a substantial idea, namely that one must permanently preserve the institution.
If Wilmer said that abuse is in the Church’s DNA, he did so also thinking of the works of Drewermann, defined as “a prophet of our time unacknowledged by the Church.”
Why would Pope Francis have guided himself to this decision, then? What convinced him?
Reading Wilmer’s 2018 interview, we find many ideas that can be found in the pontificate of Pope Francis.
We leave the words to Bishop Wilmer.
“Sometimes I think: who exactly determines what Catholic is? We continue to behave as if it were the hierarchy, as if we bishops had the right to the Catholic label. It’s wrong! We are not a Stiftung Warentest (German consumer research organization and foundation, ed.). We must be recipients and listeners who learn in dialogue with Catholic men and women, but also with Christians of other confessions and non-believers. If this is theologically clear, so are the consequences regarding the abuse scandal: to stem evil in the Church, we need effective control of power in the Church. We need a distinction of powers, a system of “Checks and Balances” (“checks and balances,” as in the democratic system, ndtr).”
And again: “When I hear from Cardinal Gerhard Müller that the laity cannot judge consecrated ministers according to the Church’s religious order, I can only say: it is not true. In the early centuries, deacons and priests were always chosen for the office of bishop by acclamation of the people. In Cologne, as you know, in the Middle Ages, the citizens repeatedly rose against the power of their archbishop, and, in 1288, at the battle of Worringen, they won the freedom of their feudal lord. There were many more forms of participation in the Church than we have today. We must be careful not to be victims of forgetting our history.”
Pope Francis often echoes this position, of listening to the laity, of controlling power carried forward through personal and never institutional contact, but also with the decision to allow the Vatican Tribunal to judge cardinals or the prelates. And then, there is this idea of the canonical mission, which is conferred by the bishop and can be attributed to anyone. It is the center of the reform of the Curia, but it is also a step backward compared to the Second Vatican Council, which had linked power to the order precisely to avoid abuses. And the same happened when it was decided that consecrated ministers could not be judged: it was a form of guarantee, created not to defend the institution-Church, but to protect the sacrament.
However, the Pope’s super-pragmatic line does not have these nuances, nor does it look at history. According to the Pope, realities are greater than ideas. However, some ideas correspond to the Pope’s thoughts and form reality in the Pope’s vision.
Bishop Wilmer, however, was inspired by Drewermann, as mentioned. And this is where things get more interesting. His best-known work is “God’s officials: psychogram of an ideal”. In almost 700 pages, Drewermann investigates priestly formation and functions in the light of depth psychology. The book’s thesis is that those who go to the seminary do so to escape their sexuality, seeking refuge in the hated church apparatus, reduced to a sort of nest. Full of pitfalls, however, given that it would cause neurosis in new priests due to the tireless mad and desperate study of the fundamental elements of Catholic doctrine. All stuff that should be eliminated, writes the author.
“It is serious – he said a few years ago in an interview with the German periodical Publik-Forum – the schizophrenia that ecclesial dogma knowingly causes,” and that is “that the interpretation of the Bible and contents of the Christian faith must not be made on a symbolic level, but only ideologically, in the sense of objective dogmas or historical facts.”
This position also reflects, in some way, the thought of Pope Francis. The Church, for Pope Francis, indeed cannot be a nest full of pitfalls, but it is the Church of the people, made by the people, nourished in the suburbs. Only this Church, thus formed, can be authentic, accurate, and truthful. And it doesn’t matter, for Pope Francis, if it is a question of tearing down some structure. Sometimes, he thinks, this is necessary and healthy.
So will this be the approach of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith? It’s possible. If the Pope has decided, he will go ahead with the appointment, even beyond any possible objection.
Indeed, this appointment would seem to be a sign of favor towards the Synodaler Weg and the approach of the German bishops, open to re-visiting celibacy through the themes of sexuality and abuse of power in the Church.
But it was the Pope himself who criticized the Synodaler Weg, not fully sharing its approach.
The fact is that, now, the choice of the Pope could fall on this bishop-religious, who seems to be the face of a theological new wave that aims at applying the Second Vatican Council in a more literal sense than what has been done up to now. A self-denial, in a certain sense, of previous pontificates.
But also a repudiation of the line of Benedict XVI, who had indeed chosen a German as prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, but one in line with the teaching of the Church: Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller. It should be noted that Mueller is also a profound connoisseur of Liberation Theology and a personal friend of the founder of this theology, Gutierrez.
In this late phase of the pontificate, is Pope Francis closing an era? Perhaps. There may be other more “political” motivations in this possible choice of Pope Francis. That is to say, granting the German world a theologian of a certain openness to the Doctrine of the Faith to frustrate their synodal movement, which aims to even change the doctrine of the Church.
The news is just a rumor, but it could be confirmed soon. The announcement of the new prefect for bishops is also expected, essential for the next episcopal appointments. But, a surprise is likely there if Wilmer’s nomination takes place.
Indeed, should Wilmer arrive, many statements by Pope Francis will also have to be read against this light: were they actual, or were they intended to capture the attention of a specific progressive world?