The following is an interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider, conducted by Dr. Maike Hickson.
Maike Hickson (MH): You have signed, together with Professor Josef Seifert (among many others), the Filial Appeal confirming the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage. Professor Seifert has now been removed by his Spanish archbishop from his Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair at the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada, Spain – with the explicit adverse reference to his critique of certain statements that are contained in Amoris Laetitia. Could we ask you for your response to such a punitive measure, which was justified with the argument that Professor Seifert was undermining the Catholic Church’s unity and was confusing the faithful?
Bishop Athanasius Schneider (BAS): Professor Josef Seifert has made an urgent and a very meritorious act in formulating publicly and respectfully critical questions about some evidently ambiguous affirmations in the Papal document Amoris Laetitia, considering that these affirmations are causing a moral and disciplinary anarchy in the life of the Church, an anarchy which is under the eyes of all and which no one who still uses his own reason and has true faith and honesty can deny. The punitive measure against Professor Seifert on behalf of an ecclesiastical office holder is not only unjust, but represents ultimately an escape from truth, a refusal of an objective debate and of a dialogue, whilst at the same time the culture of dialogue is proclaimed as a major priority in the life of the Church of our days. Such a clerical behavior against a true Catholic intellectual, as is Professor Seifert, reminds me of the words with which Saint Basil the Great described an analogous situation in the 4th century, when Arian clerics invaded and occupied the majority of the episcopal sees: “Only one offence is now vigorously punished—an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries and transported into deserts. Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose” (Ep. 243).
MH: When we speak about the unity of the Church: what is the basis for the unity? Do we have to sacrifice all reasoned and prudent debate over matters of Faith and Doctrine – if there are coming up different and incommensurate teachings – in order not to cause a possible rift within the Church?
BAS: The basis of the authentic unity of the Church is the truth. The Church is in its very nature “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15). This principle has been valid ever since the time of the Apostles and it is an objective criterion for this unity: it means the “truth of the Gospel” (cf Gal. 2: 5.14). Pope John Paul II said: “Over and above unity in love, unity in truth is always urgent for us” (Address to the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, Puebla, January 28, 1979). Saint Irenaeus taught: “The Church believes the truths of the Faith just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth” (Adv. haer, I, 10, 2). In the very beginning of the Church God showed us the obligation to defend the truth, when it is in danger of being deformed on behalf of any member of the Church, even if this should be uttered on behalf of the Supreme Pastor of the Church, as it was the case with Saint Peter in Antioch (cf. Gal. 2: 14). This principle of fraternal correction inside the Church was valid at all times, even towards the Pope, and so it should be valid in our times as well. Unfortunately, whoever in our days dares to speak the truth – even when he does it with respect towards the Pastors of the Church – is classified as an enemy of the unity, as it likewise happened to Saint Paul; for, he had stated: “I have turned into your enemy simply by saying the truth to you” (Gal. 4: 16).
MH: Many prelates have now, in the recent past, remained silent out of fear of causing a schism in the Church when publicly asking questions or raising objections toward Pope Francis with regard to his teaching on marriage. What would you say to them about their choice of silence?
BAS: First of all, we should bear in mind, that the Pope is the first servant in the Church (servus servorum). He is the first who has to obey in an exemplary manner all the truths of the unchanging and constant Magisterium, because he is only an administrator, and not an owner, of the Catholic truths, which he has received from all his predecessors. The Pope must never himself behave towards the constantly transmitted truths and the discipline by referring to them as if he were an absolute monarch, saying “I am the Church” (analogously to the French King Louis XIV: “L’état c´est moi”). Pope Benedict XVI has formulated the matter aptly: “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.” (Homily of May 7, 2005). The bishops are not employees of the Pope, but Divinely constituted colleagues of the Pope, although jurisdictionally subordinated to him, yet still colleagues and brothers. When the Pope is himself tolerating a wide dissemination of obvious errors of faith and of grave abuses of the sacraments (like the admittance of unrepentant adulterers to the sacraments), the bishops should not behave themselves like servile employees wrapping themselves in silence. Such an attitude would demonstrate indifference toward the grave responsibility of the Petrine ministry and would contradict the very collegial nature of the episcopacy and the authentic love for the Successor of Peter. One has to recall the words of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, which he spoke in the time of the general doctrinal confusion of the 4th century: “Today, under the pretext of a piety that is false, under the deceptive appearance of a preaching of the Gospel, some people are trying to deny the Lord Jesus. I speak the truth, so that the cause of the confusion that we are suffering may be known to all. I cannot keep silent” (Contra Auxentium, 1, 4).
MH: Let us return to Professor Seifert’s own polite critique of Amoris Laetitia. In his new August 2017 article, he raises the question as to whether claiming that sometimes divorced and “remarried” couples might have to maintain sexual relations for the sake of the children of that new bond does not actually lead to the conclusion that there are no moral absolutes anymore; that is to say, that many a mortal sin could, in certain situations, turn out to be not any longer sinful in God’s eyes. Professor Seifert sees this logic to be potentially a “moral atomic bomb” which will lead to moral relativism. Would you agree with him here?
BAS: I am completely agreeing with Professor Seifert on this point, and I warmly recommend that others also read his magisterial article, entitled “Does Pure Logic Threaten to Destroy the Entire Moral Doctrine of the Catholic Church?”. In his book “Athanasius and the Church of Our Days” Bishop Rudolf Graber of Regensburg wrote in 1973: “What happened over 1600 years ago is repeating itself today, but with two or three differences: Alexandria is today the Universal Church, the stability of which is being shaken, and what was undertaken at that time by means of physical force and cruelty is now being transferred to a different level. Exile is replaced by banishment into the silence of being ignored, killing by assassination of character.” This description is also applicable to the current case of Professor Seifert.
MH: Having yourself grown up in a totalitarian country, what are your own considerations concerning academic freedom in Spain when an internationally renowned professor can be removed from his academic positions merely for having raised questions, polite questions, concerning a papal document and for having pointed to the possible dangers of some of its statements?
BAS: For decades it became within the Church politically correct and “good manners” to proclaim and to promote practically the freedom of theological speech, debate and research, so that freedom in thinking and speaking became a slogan. At the same time, one can now observe the paradox that this very freedom is denied to those in the Church who in our days raise their voices with respect and politeness in defense of the truth. This bizarre situation reminds me of a famous song which I had to sing in the Communist school in my childhood, and whose wording was, as follows: “The Soviet Union is my beloved homeland, and I do not know another country in the world where man can breathe so freely.”
MH: May you tell us any words that Cardinal Carlo Caffarra related to you personally with respect to our current Church crisis, his words that might constitute, in part, a kind of legacy?
BAS: I spoke only twice with Cardinal Caffarra. Even those short meetings and conversations with Cardinal Caffarra have left in me some deep impressions. I saw in him a true man of God, a man of faith, of the supernatural view. I noticed in him a deep love for the truth. When I spoke with him about the necessity for the bishops to raise their voices in view of the widespread attack against the indissolubility of marriage and the sanctity of the sacramental bonds of marriage, he said: “When we bishops do this, we must fear nobody and nothing, for we have nothing to lose.” Once I told to a deeply believing and highly intelligent Catholic lady from the United States the phrase used by Cardinal Caffarra, namely that we bishops have nothing to lose when we speak the truth. To this she then spoke these unforgettable words: “You will lose everything when you will not do this.”
MH: Do you see it to be justified that other cardinals – such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn or Cardinal Óscar Rodrígez Maradiaga – have rebuked the four cardinals for having ever published the dubia?
BAS: The formulating and the publishing of the dubia on behalf of the four Cardinals was a highly meritorious and, in some sense, also an historical act, truly honoring the Sacred College of Cardinals. In the current situation, the indissolubility and the sanctity of the sacramental marriage are being undermined and, in practice, denied through the normative admittance of unrepentant adulterers to the sacraments, trivializing and profaning thereby also the sacraments of Marriage, Penance, and the Eucharist. At stake is ultimately the validity of the Divine Commandments and of the entire moral law, as Professor Seifert has rightly stated in his above-mentioned article, and for which he was grievously punished. We can compare this situation to a ship in a stormy sea, in which the captain ignores the obvious dangers, whereas the majority of his officers wrap themselves in silence, saying: “All is just fine on the sinking ship.” When in such a situation a small part of the ship’s officers then raise their voices for the sake of the safety of all passengers, they are grotesquely as well as unjustly criticized by their colleagues as mutineers or as spoilsports. Even if the captain finds the voices of the few officers at the moment disturbing, he will gratefully recognize their help later, when he will have to confront the danger, looking it in the face, and when he will once appear in front of the Divine Judge. And so also will be grateful, both passengers and History, when the danger will have passed. The courageous act and the names of those few officers will be remembered as truly selfless and heroic; but surely not those officers, who out of ignorance, or out of opportunism, or out of servilism, wrapped themselves in silence or even absurdly criticized those who took saving action on that sinking ship. This corresponds in some way to the current situation around the dubia of the Four Cardinals. One has to remind himself what Saint Basil observed during the Arian crisis: “Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. And now the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for mutual attack; and men conceal their private ill-will and pretend that their hostility is all for the sake of the truth. All the while unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the word imitate the truth. The better ones of the laity shun the churches as schools of impiety and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. The faith of the Fathers we have received; that faith we know is stamped with the marks of the Apostles; to that faith we assent, as well as to all that in the past was canonically and lawfully promulgated” (Ep. 92, 2).
MH: Now that there are only two dubia cardinals left – after the death of both Cardinal Carlo Caffarra and Cardinal Joachim Meisner – what are your own hopes with regard to other cardinals who might now step in and fill the void?
BAS: I hope and wish that more cardinals, like the officers of that ship in a storming sea will now join their voices to the voices of the Four Cardinals, independently of praise or blame.
MH: In general, what should Catholics – laymen or clergymen alike – now do if they are being pressured into accepting certain controversial aspects of Amoris Laetitia, for example with regard to the “remarried” divorcees and their possibly permitted access to the Sacraments? What about those priests who refuse to give out Holy Communion to these “remarried” couples? What about the Catholic lay professors who are being threatened with the removal from their teaching positions because of their actual or perceived criticism of Amoris Laetitia? What can we all now do when we are faced, in our consciences, with the alternatives either to betray Our Lord’s teaching, or to go into resolute disobedience toward our superiors?
BAS: When priests and laypeople remain faithful to the unchanging and constant teaching and practice of the entire Church, they are in communion with all the Popes, orthodox bishops and the Saints of the two thousand years, being in a special communion with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher and with the innumerable abandoned spouses who remained faithful to their marriage vows, accepting a life of continence in order not to offend God. The constant voice in the same sense and meaning (eodem sensu eademque sententia) and the corresponding practice of two thousand years are more powerful and surer than the discordant voice and practice of admitting unrepentant adulterers to Holy Communion, even if this practice is promoted by a single Pope or the diocesan bishops. In this case we have to follow the constant teaching and practice of the Church, for here works the true tradition, the “democracy of the deceased,” it means the majority voice of those who have preceded us. Saint Augustine answered to the erroneous untraditional Donatist practice of the re-baptism and re-ordination, affirming that the constant and unchanging practice of the Church since the times of the Apostles corresponds to the sure judgment of the entire world: “The whole world judges right,” i.e., “Securus judicat orbis terrarum” (Contra Parmenianum III, 24). It means the entire Catholic tradition judges surely and with certainty against a fabricated and short-living practice which, in an important point, contradicts the entire Magisterium of all times. Those priests, who would be now forced by their superiors to give Holy Communion to public and unrepentant adulterers, or to other notorious and public sinners, should answer them with a holy conviction: “Our behavior is the behavior of the entire Catholic world throughout two thousand years”: “The whole world judges right,” “Securus judicat orbis terrarum”! Blessed John Henry Newman said in the Apologia pro sua vita: “The deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against a temporal novelty.” In this our historical context those priests and faithful should say to their ecclesiastical Superiors, and Bishops, as well as they should say lovingly and respectfully to the Pope what Saint Paul once said: “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your renewal and restoration is what we pray for” (2 Cor. 13: 8).
Originally appeared in One Peter Five