A New Generation of Bishops?

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki

As we approach the one year anniversary of Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” remark,  we are looking to see what signs of change there might be in the rest of the church.  Yesterday, we looked at how some U.S. bishops have not been following Francis’ lead.  Today we look at how Francis has made an epsicopal change which is more in line with his apparent new outreach model.

Pope Francis’ welcoming tone has ignited hope for change in the Church, but many observers believe it will be be his episcopal appointments, and not any words or acts, that will leave the most lasting impression. One recent appointment is being celebrated as a sign that bishops more in line with Pope Francis are entering the hierarchy.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin is being moved to Germany’s largest and wealthiest archdiocese, Cologne. Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper said of this development:

“Woelki represents the prototype of a new generation of bishops who will set the tone in the coming decades. You are no longer cranky and dogmatic wrongheaded as it was Joachim Meisner in office the Cardinal of Cologne. The new men speak of mercy and mean it that way. Go to people – in moderation even their critics – and have a heart for the socially disadvantaged. Theologically conservative they are anyway. The human part of Turned and Social comes in the public good, the theological conservatives holding things together.This is the line that pretends Francis. Cardinal Woelki fits in Bergoglio’s vacancy.”

Woelki was considered conservative when appointed to Berlin, but surprised many LGBT advocates with his positive statements that the Church must “rethink” its approach to gay couples and find a way to treat them similarly to heterosexual couples. The cardinal has also endorsed civil unions for same-gender couples. For all this, he was offered the Respect Prize by Berlin’s Alliance Against Homophobia, though Woelki declined, saying it should be normative for Christians to be respectful of everyone.

The German Church overall is showing signs of openness. Earlier this year, leading German theologians responded to the Vatican questionnaire in preparation for this fall’s Synod on marriage and family life, calling for a “fundamental, new evaluation” of sexual ethics. German bishops, after evaluating responses from lay Catholics and others to that same questionnaire, said the Church’s sexual teachings were unrealistic and ‘merciless.‘ Most recently, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier reiterated these calls for new ways of thinking about sexuality and said the Church must “respect their decisions of conscience.”

What do you think? Is Cardinal Woelki’s appointment a sign of progress to come or simply an anomaly? Let us know your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


9 thoughts on “A New Generation of Bishops?

  1. Friends July 27, 2014 / 5:39 am

    It’s interesting that the Germans are generally in the forefront of theological “Reformation” — I use the term wryly but meaningfully — while the Americans are a bastion of far-right-wing theological conservatism, at least at the administrative level. How the “Sweet Land Of Liberty” became a bastion of rock-ribbed hard-core conservative ideology is a beckoning subject for a doctoral thesis, at the very least!

    • Friends July 29, 2014 / 10:48 pm

      As a partial response to my own comment above (if our editors will excuse the “double-dip”): it turns out that American Catholicism was deeply influenced by a very grim Irish and French theological Jansenism, which began to have an impact from the 19th Century onward. But Catholicism in Italy and Germany largely resisted this Jansenist corruption, which was just about as far removed from the actual teaching and the living model of Jesus Himself as anybody could imagine. Great research subject, if anybody would like to dig into it.

  2. Brian Kneeland July 27, 2014 / 7:41 am

    Now to get bishops like this in the US!

    • Gerald July 27, 2014 / 8:36 am

      Yo Brian ! Don’t hold your breath waiting. . . .especially when we consider the crowd coming out of our seminaries. Aside from your own possible comments have you listened to the comments from God’s holy people in the pews. . .? Which batch of Easter eggs are they coming from? Makes one wonder. . .

      • Friends July 29, 2014 / 11:26 pm

        Great points, Gerald! I’m an alumnus of Holy Cross College, and a current member of the Cardinal Newman Catholic Center at the flagship New England state university where I’m based. Our two Newman chaplain priests — one of whom is an alumnus of the university — are in their 30s, and I would describe both of them as “moderately traditionalist”. One of them commented recently, in a sermon: “The Admissions Office tells us that about 15,000 of our students specify ‘Catholic’ as their religious affiliation — but we only ever see about 300 of you over the course of a semester! So where are the rest of your classmates hiding, and how can we reach them?” Great question. Maybe “Getting real about meeting young people where they are in their life journeys, in a non-judgmental way” would be a great starting point.

  3. Joe Geist July 27, 2014 / 8:42 am

    We desperately need housecleaning in the U.S.

  4. ellefersan July 28, 2014 / 12:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Eliane Fersan and commented:
    Why am I not surprised that the new reform in the Catholic Church will start yet again in Germany. Pope Francis shook the world almost a year ago with his “who am I to judge?” He spoke as a true disciple of Christ! Today, his words are translated by actions, actions of wisdom, tolerance, openness, compassion, evolution and above all reform. Meet Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin, recently appointed to Germany’s largest archdiocese: Cologne.

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