Friday, May 23, 2014

You don't expect people to be heroic do you?

Dear Rev. Know-It-All,

I heard an interview with some German Cardinal the other day where he says that the pope says everybody is going to get a do over marriage.  That sounds great! What do you think?

Yours truly,
Polly Gamus

Dear Polly,

Apparently you heard Cardinal Walter Kasper, the friendly ghost of Vatican II.  Former Bishop of Stuttgart, he has been a Vatican Apparatchik since 1999. At the age of 81, he is one of the young liberals of the new era.  Actually he has said some very lovely things about love and mercy. He has said some very disheartening things about marriage and the family. It is not to be forgotten that German Cardinals are not infallible. Only the pope is infallible and then only when he speaks “ex Cathedra”, or “from the chair”.

“When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, (the Bishop of Rome) defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter 4, 9
The Latin phrase “ex Cathedra” refers to a custom from the time of Christ. “Cathedra” means chair or throne.  Hence, a cathedral is a church where the bishop’s teaching chair is kept. Apparently, rabbis at the time of Christ taught sitting down. We see this in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sits down before the Sermon on the Mount  — “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them….” Matt 5:1. This is a solemn and deliberate act that means what is about to be said is of great importance. 

There is an ancient chair kept in Rome, enshrined in the great Bernini sculpture behind the main altar of St. Peter’s. This chair is said to be the rabbinical chair that St. Peter brought to Rome. It is probably from a later century, but may well look back to an earlier chair.  When the pope speaks in his capacity as the heir of St. Peter, he is said to be speaking “ex Cathedra.”  We Catholics believe that then, and only then, he is infallible, that is, guarded from error by the Holy Spirit. 

I believe this. I believe it because it is the promise of Christ to the Church. I also believe it because of the evidence of history.  The doctrinal consistency of the Roman Church over two thousand years is amazing. I don’t have time to go into it right now. If you want to learn more about it, read Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2, 000-Year History by H.W. Crocker III. The pope is infallible; bishops, priest, deacons and nuns are not. 

This brings us back to Walter Kasper, the former bishop of Stuttgart. As I mentioned he says a lot of things, some wonderful, some a little less wonderful. However, one thing he says disturbs me mightily. Hilary White of Lifesite News reported on May 9th that, in an interview with Commonwealth Magazine, Cardinal Kasper said that the high standards required by Church teaching on marriage could be considered an “ideal” to which the Church ought not hold people in the practical realm. “We cannot as human beings always do the ideal, the best. We must do the best possible in a given situation…..heroism is not for the average Christian.”
“Heroism is not for the average Christian…” 

This terrifies me.  It terrifies me because I am part of the German diaspora.  My ancestors, Hessian Catholics, left the newly created state of Germany to escape the militarism of the Prussian Empire.  My great, great grandmother went to Hanoverisch Muenden to put her 16-year-old son Karl on a ship. She knew she would never see him again, but she sacrificed him to save him from the military machine that had taken over much of the German-speaking world.  That seems fairly heroic to me.

The cousins who remained in Germany faced a century of war and indescribable barbarity that sprang from the conflict in the German soil, the conflict in my soul, perhaps the conflict in every soul, German or not.  Grandpa Karl was born in a little city, 2000 people, just west of the forest where the story of Little Red Riding Hood originates.  The Brothers Grimm scoured the area for old folk tales. There is a common thread in a lot of their stories. “Stay out of the woods.”  “Don’t get to far from home.” “Don’t step out of line.” “Stay with the group.” When you are trying to keep children safe, this is probably good advice.  Still, it can go too far. It can become, “Don’t be a hero!” 

My overseas family was devastated by the wars.  I had a cousin (by marriage), Willie, who drove a tank at the battle of Stalingrad. He was one of the few who came home after the war, having spent 8 years in Siberia. Another cousin, Richard, was part of the pit crew for a U-boat in Holland. He was detained after the war in one of the horrific American concentration camps in Western Europe. Oh, you’ve never heard of them? Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died, forced to live in tents through the post-war winter. Look it up. Cousin Richard survived only to come back to Neustadt during the starving time after the war.  Another cousin went missing on the Russian front and we have no idea where his bones now lay. 

These were fine people who had been taught to follow orders. Those few that I knew after the war were so kind to me. I loved them and now in my old age I think of them often. They were good people who had been taught not to step out of line.

I had another cousin who had a bit of a difficult streak. He was only a child when the Nazis took over. He didn’t want to join the Hitler Youth. He thought it was all nuts. The Hitler Youth Leader came to house one day when he was ten, dragged him out and rubbed his face in the muddy little drainage ditch that always dribbled past the house, shouting,  “When we’ve taken care of all the Jews we’ll come back for all you white Jews!!!”  Theo was forced to join the Hitler Youth. When the war was over and the Americans had secured the town, along with the huge ammunition factory in the woods just west of town, my cousin Theo marched over to the Hitler Youth Leader’s home, dragged him out and rubbed his face in the same mud puddle!

Theo told me how his father and mother had always been good to the poor Jewish peddlers and rag pickers who passed by. They could always get a bite to eat at our family’s farm on the edge of town. The family was mocked by the anti-Semites who had taken over the town. The cousins were called the “weisse Juden” —  “white Jews.” 

Cousin Theo told me how frightening it was in that little town when, on Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned down the town synagogue and broke all the windows of the Jewish homes. Though they weren’t Jews, the windows of the family’s farmhouse were all broken and the family spent a long, terrifying night in the barn. This still didn’t stop Theo’s father who was arrested toward the end of the war when it was discovered that he had continued to help Jews. He survived only because the war ended before he could be deported to a labor camp.

I have a friend, up in years now, who owns the Volkswagen dealership in town. Once, as a boy, he saw a party member beating an old Jewish woman in the street. People stood and stared. But Ludwig, too young to know any better, jumped on him yelling, “Why? What did she ever do to you?”  I remember how at the age of 80 he sat weeping, as he told me the story of his best friend and the friend’s grandmother who had walked all the way to Holland hearing that you could still get a boat out. They arrived late, and walked the 300 miles back to Neustadt. They were gone by that evening. A conscientious citizen had called the authorities to let them know that some undesirables were back in town. Of three hundred Jews in the little town of Neustadt only three survived the war.

I think of ordinary people like Father Franz Stock, a priest who risked his life in Chartres, France serving the prisoners of the Nazis. At great personal risk he smuggled messages in and out of the prison. After the war he did the same for German prisoners of whom he was now one. He established a seminary in the post-war Allied concentration camp, all this despite a serious heart condition that he hid until it killed him in 1948.

I think of Franz Jaegerstaetter who believed that the Nazi war effort was immoral and refused to go. He was very saddedned after a discussion with the local the bishops who refused to confront the moral questions he had asked. Even the local priest tried to talk him out of his objection to Nazism when he visited Jaegersaetter in the local jail. He was martyred in 1943.

I have lived a life surrounded by heroes. I cannot count the Vietnamese I knew in a former parish who were interned for their Catholic faith, or the Polish and Cuban heroes I have known. I have a Romanian friend who resisted the Marxist Ceausescu government and still resists the religious intolerance that remains in his homeland.  I could go on and on.

My life has been irradiated by heroes, like the heroes who have children when it is not convenient or cost effective, heroes who have been imprisoned by resisting the murder of the unborn. Heroes surround me. A hero is nothing more than an ordinary man or woman who cannot talk himself out of doing the right thing.  The Nazis believed that there were uebermenschen and untermenschen (supermen and underlings). The uebermenschen were natural heroes, the untermenschen were lesser beings bound to follow the uebermenschen. Not much could be expected from the untermenschen.

Walter Kapser seems to still believe this when he says that the ordinary person is not called to heroism in marriage. Faithfulness and permanence can’t really be expected of the weak, of the untermenschen. Perhaps the beloved homeland of my cousins and ancestors would not have lost its soul had there been more ordinary people who thought they could be heroes.


Rev. Know-it-all


  1. There are plenty who choose to live the church's teaching on marriage, I know of two examples in my own family. They would tell you they are not particularly heroic, that the support of their family and their church family makes it possible. I love your definition of what a hero is, one of the best I've seen.

  2. You must all be perfect, even as my Father is perfect.

    Perhaps Cardinal Kasper could admonsih our Lord to preach the Word of Kasper.