By Robert Leicht
Karl Lehmann’s withdrawal from the chairmanship of the German Bishops' Conference is a deep rupture.
The resignation of Cardinal Lehmann of Mainz, Chair of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference is a deep rupture in the history of German Catholicism - hardly less profound than at the time, 1987, when he was elected to that office. It was then a sensation that the German Bishops deviated from the ritual of alternating voting the Archbishop of Cologne and the Archbishop of Munich-Freising into this office.
Karl Lehmann was nor metropolitan nor archbishop, but just came from Mainz, which in ancient times once had been an Archdiocese. Now that even cardinals supported his chairmanship of the Bishops' College was made bearable because the national bishops' conferences have no separate legal status and can require actually nothing from the Diocesan bishops. They are, so to speak, "subordinated directly to the Emperor" in Rome.
Now things should return to the old track. Particularly since the Pope in the person of Reinhard Marx, sent a bishop to Munich-Freising, who could be trusted with the chairmanship of the Bishops' Conference.
But what was it that was so special about Karl Lehmann, that he obtained the chairmanship at the time and since then the heartfelt respect of so many people?
Lehmann stood in the post-Conciliar time for a line of German Catholicism, for all its loyalty to Rome (how could it be otherwise?) that sought out free space and bridges. Leeway for concrete solutions in the German post-war society, with its near-parity between Catholics and Protestants, between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, and bridges to other dissidents. Lehmann was the guarantee that everything that was embodied in men like Cardinal Julius Döpfner or Karl Rahner of a modernity secured by tradition, could continue in the next generation.
Moreover, he was a living example of how solid and the subtlest theological science can go hand in hand with practical pastoral care and reasonable policy. Whoever had the privilege, to walk quickly through Lehmann private library, in which even in a full room could be found works from the "Frankfurt School" and from the Suhrkamp Verlag (everything read, everything read, ladies and gentlemen), and saw him taking from their shelves even remoter Protestant writers from the United States whose location he unerringly knew, suspected how industriously and without rest Lehmann expanded and constantly renewed the mental and spiritual foundations for his daily business.
A bad (mental) construction job was never for him. What most annoyed him obviously poor work by intellectual standards in the highest ecclesiastical decrees. The issues and problems he took seriously, that meant for him: to penetrate them to their foundations! His colleagues teased him mildly about this, with such quips as: There was still no book published that Lehmann had not read.
Overall, Lehmann made heavy work of it: When, he sought a way out in the case of Küng, but not just in Rome, it damaged both him and Küng himself. If he - along with his colleagues in Rottenburg-Stuttgart and Freiburg - tried to create new, small ways for the pastoral care of divorced and remarried couples, from Rome only dog whistles came back. When he conspicuously examined admitting as guests non-Catholics to the Eucharist, Rome just announced a separate document and thereby crushed the project.
The most significant were his efforts of bridge construction in the dispute over the question of whether the German dioceses should continue to participate in pregnancy problem counseling. The Bishops' Conference seemed to have found a way of doing this (even with the backing of the Cardinal Secretary of State in Rome). But then the Cologne Cardinal Meissner, splitting ranks, went yelping with the case to even higher Roman office.
Further Karl Lehmann was still, only in the last resort, so to speak, appointed Cardinal. However when he got the German Bishops under his chairmanship, he was on this occasion just sent home by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with a warning letter. One should not just be pleased, but also get a grip of oneself.
Whether there is a connection? In any event, since Cardinal Lehmann obtained office, he lost status as a quiet rebel. Since then, the Protestant-Catholic talks became more slow moving. Because you could no longer see Lehmann as the messenger between Rome and Wittenberg - or because the German Protestant Church due to Ratzinger’s constant interventions only - ex negativo – sharpened their own image, as well as rediscovering the "ecumenism of image". Was this not the case : More image, less ecumenism? And now, even in the latest dispute over the stem cell issue, in whose course denominational differences play a role, a quasi-triumphalism is being confessionalised. In such processes, certainly insurmountable structural problems always play a role: Rome remains Rome, just as Luther remains Luther. Why not?
Karl Lehmann never looked into his chest. This means- doctors have recently taken a glance, after cardiac rhythm disorders had given pause for thought. But it would not amaze me if there was deep in Lehmann’s heart disappointment about the rumours that despite his attempts at bridge building (most recently before the Fulda Episcopal Conference once again reaffirmed, and also at a symposium in honor of his partner and adversary Wolfgang Huber), finally granite walls were found, on the Roman as well as on the Protestant sides (although that is indeed the material from which otherwise bridges are made).
Now he pulls himself back. He has recognized that his time and opportunities in that office have been exhausted. After the post-Conciliar epoch, Karl Lehmann now finally has post-Conciliar time. This is clear, we recognize that we had with him and what we now have to loose. Journalists are usually tough little devils. Karl Lehmann succeeded time and again, to break these seemingly hard shells. Thank you and respect, mon èvêque!