DONATE TODAY!: Join the NOR Associates
Critical interviews by major Church leaders have become increasingly popular since the election of Pope Francis last year. Earlier this year, Oscar Andres Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga jumped into the ring, giving a forthright interview with a German newspaper in which he heralded a new era in the Church.
Cardinal Rodriguez, archbishop of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, was hand-picked by Pope Francis to lead the newly formed Council of Cardinals, a kind of papal cabinet created to draw up Church reform proposals and to advise the Pope on Church governance, including making recommendations on how to streamline Vatican bureaucracy. In his interview with the Cologne-based Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger (Jan. 20), the Honduran cardinal explained that, under the direction of Francis, the Catholic Church is heading in a new direction. Im firmly convinced we are at the dawn of a new era in the Church, just as when Pope John XXIII opened its windows 50 years ago and made it let in fresh air, said Rodriguez. Francis wants to lead the Church in the same direction that he himself is moved by the Holy Spirit. This means closer to the people, not enthroned above them, but alive in them.
A straightforward reading of the cardinals comment would suggest that, at least by Rodriguezs assessment, the previous pontificate or two were characterized by stagnation stifling the fresh air that supposedly wafted into the Church in the 1960s and 1970s under John XXIII and Paul VI. It would not be impertinent to question whether the Honduran cardinal is here being critical of, say, Pope Benedict XVI, whom he seems to suggest enthroned himself above the people.
Cardinal Rodriguez was more direct in giving his opinion of Cardinal-Designate Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who recently nixed a proposal to re-examine the Churchs stance on divorce and remarriage. In the interview, Rodriguez urged Müller to be less absolute in his defense of authority in the Church. I understand it. Hes German and a German professor of theology on top of it. In his mentality, there is only right or wrong, thats it. The world isnt like that, my brother, Rodriguez said, rhetorically addressing Müller. You should be a bit flexible when you hear other voices, so you dont just listen and say no, here is the wall. (Rodriquez, by the way, admitted he has not actually talked with Müller about this issue.)
Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop Müller to head the CDF in 2012. Benedict himself headed that office as a faithful guardian of Church orthodoxy for 24 years, before he was elected Pope in 2005. But the influence of the CDF has waned under Pope Francis, who soon after his March 2013 election reportedly told visiting South American priests and nuns not to worry if the CDF wrote to them criticizing what they were doing (Catholic News Service, Jan. 24).
It is rare for one high-ranking cardinal to publicly rap another; it is unprecedented that one cardinal hand-picked for a position of leadership by a sitting pope would publicly excoriate a high-ranking cardinal hand-picked by a predecessor pope. Furthermore, it seems bigoted and culturally unacceptable to dismiss a brother cardinal (or anyone else for that matter) due to his nationality or ethnicity. In Cardinal Rodriguezs characterization, its as if Müllers approach to his role as the Vaticans doctrinal chief is guided by some unalterable tunnel vision typical of all Germanic peoples. One wonders what sort of reaction Müller would have elicited had he dismissed Cardinal Rodriguez by saying, I understand it. Hes Latin American and a Honduran relatively uneducated in systematic theology on top of it. With his mentality, he is unable to distinguish right from wrong. Brother, you should rely on your God-given facility for logical thinking a bit more when you hear other voices, so you dont just listen and say, isnt it great that were dialoguing?
After all, its no secret that Pope Benedict himself is German, a German theologian, and former longtime prefect of the CDF to boot. Does Cardinal Rodriguezs criticism then extend to the Emeritus Pope as well? Is this perceived rigid German authoritarianism what the new era seeks to eradicate from Church governance? Given his abrasive words to Müller, one might suspect that this is indeed the case.
But not so fast! Consider that Cardinal Rodriquez has come down on the side of dissenting German bishops in their quest to redefine the way the Church in that country deals with the issue of divorce and remarriage. Rodriguez presumably does not characterize these dissenting, Luther-leaning Catholic bishops as rigid thinkers with an intractable black-and-white mentality. Late last year, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the German Episcopal Conference, defended a proposed plan by the German bishops to offer Communion to divorced Catholics, saying he felt strengthened by Pope Francis on the matter, despite opposition from Cardinal-Designate Müller, who officially represents the Popes stance in all matters doctrinal. Defending the current practice, in which divorced Catholics must seek an official annulment from the Church before remarrying, Müller said the entire sacramental economy could not be swept aside by an appeal to mercy on the matter, as Archbishop Zollitsch and his German episcopacy would have it. It is instructive to note that Pope-watchers have pointed out that Francis appears to be more in line with Zollitschs thinking, citing comments the Holy Father made on his now-famous plane ride back from Rio de Janeiro in July 2013 that Church law governing marriage annulments has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. In a December 2013 interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, Archbishop Zollitsch dismissed Müller this way: A prefect [like Müller] is not the Pope. I look for dialogue, and for me that is the way of collegiality and the dialogue in the Church.
So is this the attitude Cardinal Rodriguez supports a dissenting voice, appealing to the mock authority of collegiality and dialogue? Is this reaction itself not characteristic of a kind of dictatorial authoritarianism? Its not all Germans to whom Rodriguez objects, after all; its Germans like theologians Müller and Ratzinger with whom he disagrees. And its not just authoritarianism Rodriguez dislikes, its a certain kind of authoritarianism the kind that can easily distinguish between right and wrong that the Honduran cardinal cannot abide.
One might then ask who exactly is this Honduran cardinal who was appointed by Pope Francis to head his new advisory committee of cardinals. Now over 70 years old, Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga has been a career bishop since the boyish age of 35. Known widely as an outspoken campaigner for human rights, a watchdog on climate change, and an advocate for international debt relief for poor nations, his name was determinedly bandied about in both of the previous two pre-conclave prognostications as a leading liberal New World papabile. Here is what veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr., late of the National Catholic Reporter, had to say about Rodriguez prior to the 2013 conclave: Rodriguez is a darling of the center-left wing of the Church for his lifelong advocacy of social justice concerns, his sympathy for liberation theology, and his theological pedigree as a disciple of [the late Fr. Bernard] Häring [a prominent dissenter to Humanae Vitae] . Its no stretch to imagine headlines in conservative media outlets declaring Marxist Elected Pope! should Rodriguez be chosen, and however genuinely concerned most cardinals are about poverty, they may not be ready to risk that sort of perception.
According to Allen, theres another reason Rodriguez was clearly a longshot launched by wishful thinking: In 2002, Rodriguez set off a tempest in the United States by comparing media criticism of the Catholic Church in light of the sex abuse scandals to persecutions under the Roman emperors Nero and Diocletian, as well as Hitler and Stalin. He suggested that the American media was trying to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of the Jewish lobby. As one might imagine, this comment elicited angry protests from both sex-abuse victims and the Anti-Defamation League. In a letter to The Miami Herald, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz described Rodriguez as an unrepentant sinner whose selection as pontiff would severely damage decades of efforts to build better ties between Catholics and Jews.
Ironically, it turns out that Rodriguez didnt need to be elected pope after all in order to have a major influence on how the Church is run. One might ask in good conscience why Pope Francis appointed this Honduran cardinal to head his new advisory committee of cardinals, and why the Holy Father trusts him to make recommendations on Church governance and Church reforms. Is this all a part of inaugurating the dawn of a new era in the Church? It is not a stretch to suggest that Cardinal Rodriguez may well be a self-fulfilling prophet.