A German cardinal has publicly opposed the words of two other German bishops who have suggested that the nation's Church can form its own policies without direction from Rome.

Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes published a letter earlier this month objecting to the pronouncements of prominent leaders of the Church in Germany that the nation's bishops' conference will pursue its own program of pastoral care for marriages and family regardless of the outcome of October's Synod on the Family.

At a Feb. 25 press conference following the German bishops' plenary assembly, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, who is president of the conference, stated, "We are not a branch of Rome. Each conference of bishops is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context and must preach the Gospel in its own, original way. We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here."

Cardinal Marx, whom the German bishops have chosen as one of their three delegates at the upcoming Synod on the Family, added that there are "certain expectations" of Germany in helping the Church to open doors and "go down new paths," and that "in doctrine, we also learn from life."

He was echoed by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck – a fellow synod delegate – who called the Synod on the Family a "historically important" moment and a "paradigm shift," urging that "the reality of men and the world" be a source for theological understanding.

Cardinal Cordes – who was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Paderborn and is president emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – published a strenuous objection to the media statements of his fellow German bishops in the form of a March 7 letter to the editor of Die Tagespost, a prominent German language Catholic newspaper. The text of the original letter was translated to English by CNA's Jan Bentz.

"Since the words of the highest representative of Catholics in Germany have a guideline-like character, and create substantial waves in the media, it makes sense to object publicly to some of the utterances, in order to limit the confusion which they have caused," Cardinal Cordes wrote.

The cardinal noted that the February press conference was focused on the Synod on the Family, and on particular of the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper – another German – to admit some among the divorced and civilly remarried to Communion.

"The problem was addressed with the beautiful words of 'new solutions' and 'opening doors'," Cardinal Cordes wrote.

He responded to Cardinal Marx' characterization of the Church in Germany as an exemplar by saying that "if he wanted to express that Germany is example in leading the faithful to a giving oneself up to Christ, then I think the bishop is fooled by wishful thinking. The existing German ecclesial apparatus is completely unfit to work against growing secularism."

"It was not without reason," Cardinal Cordes wrote, that Benedict XVI strongly urged the Church in Germany to become less worldly during his 2011 visit there.

"In themes of faith, realism counts above all," the cardinal reflected. "Therefore one has to consider the facts." He noted that a recent survey shows that among Catholics in western Germany, only 16 percent believe God to be personal: "all other Catholics see in God a faceless providence, an anonymous fate along the lines of a primordial power. Or they simply deny his existence flat out. What do they think of when they pray the Our Father? So there is no reason to pride ourselves on our faith if we stand in comparison to other countries."

Cardinal Cordes then commented on Cardinal Marx' ecclesiological statements, saying his "theological blurriness makes you wonder," adding that statements like "we are not a branch of Rome" are more suited "to the counter of a bar."

"The head of the German bishop's conference certainly has some competence when it comes to a second edition of the hymnal or the changing of the pilgrim route to Altötting," Cardinal Cordes stated. "But the president argues something entirely different."

"The president argues about the drama of the divorced and remarried! This matter reaches far beyond regional particularities of a pragmatic nature, of a given mentality and cultural background. This matter is bound to the very center of theology. In this field not even a cardinal can loosen such a complex Gordian knot in a single swordstroke. He has the sacramental theology of the Council of Trent. He has also the words of Benedict XVI, who only recently (January 21, 2012) told the Roman Rota, the ordinary court of the Apostolic See, that no-one can simply brush over binding legislation of the Church when it comes to pastoral matters. A responsible shepherd cannot be guided by a blurred 'mercy.' And while the president repeats that regarding the Magisterium, he wants to 'stay within the community of the Church,' he either ignores the limits that this Magisterium gives to pastoral care, or he is carefree in making a statement to make himself sound good."

Cardinal Cordes lamented that in Cardinal Marx' comments, the idea of communion – among bishops, and with the Bishop of Rome – was sorely lacking, "even though the bishops expressly promised 'unity with the College of Bishops under the Successor of Peter' during their episcopal consecration. The sentence: 'We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here' is not imbued with a spirit of 'Communio'."

He charged that the message sent by Cardinal Marx "seems to be the result of an 'obedience that goes ahead', a deeply political strategy which creates 'facts' in order to dominate the process of decision-making and to put pressure on their colleagues."

"Particularly deplorable are the statements during the press conference that the 'new solutions' – everyone knows what is meant – can be theologically justified," Cardinal Cordes wrote. "Does he want to say that the dogma of the inseparability of marriage becomes intolerable because of the life situations of remarried people?"

Cardinal Cordes then turned to the comments made by Bishop Bode, who had cited Gaudium et spes, Vatican II's pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, as a support for his conclusion that "not only does the Christian message have to find resonance with men, but also men must find resonance with us."

Cardinal Cordes responded, saying that while Gaudium et spes does state that "nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in the hearts of Christ's followers," the fathers of Vatican II "came to the conclusion that it would be erroneous to see the 'signs of the times' in the life of men simply as a 'source of faith' … and formally excluded the embarrassing fallacy that any challenge of the Church as such would be a source of faith."

In contrast, he noted, the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei verbum, "leaves no doubt that faith in the Catholic Church feeds solely from Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium."

"Independent of this unambiguous direction, it would be paradoxical to ascribe to a small part of the Church, who live in spiritually regrettable but objectively still irregular situation, the function of a source of faith," Cardinal Cordes noted.

He concluded, writing that "May the shepherds who gather in Rome this autumn also give guidance to  the majority of practicing members of the Church, on how to ever deepen their marriage and to root it in Jesus Christ, so they may be testimonies of God's power in the life of man for their contemporaries."

"May the synod fathers come to the conclusion to pronounce deep respect for those who never married a second time – who due to their faithfulness to their first marriage commitment, did not enter a second union. Those cases also exist."