Updated: Pope Benedict’s Dramatic Telegram to a Dubia Cardinal (Original Translation + Commentary)


Cardinal Joachim Meisner’s funeral was celebrated today.

Cardinal Meisner was one of the four Cardinals to submit a dubia to Pope Francis asking the pope to clarify several ambiguities raised by Amoris Laetitia.

I will let Fidem in Terra blog set the scene for what happened:


A message from Pope Francis was read out by Archbishop Nikola Eterović, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. To the surprise of those present, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Prefect of the Prefecture of the Papal Household, and Personal Secretary to Benedict XVI, read out a message by the Pope Emeritus.

The message from Pope Benedict was greeted with a standing ovation, I am told.

Here is what Pope Benedict wrote (I have asked someone I trust to create a translation based on the original German and Fidem in Terra’s English translation. If it is awkward it is because it is trying to stay extremely faithful to exactly what Pope Benedict wrote.) – emphasis mine:

In this hour, when the church of Cologne and faithful from further a field gather to say goodbye to Cardinal Joachim Meisner,  I am also with you in my heart and thoughts, and therefore gladly follow the wish of Cardinal Woelki to address a word of remembrance to you.

When I heard of the death of Cardinal Meisner last Wednesday, I did not first want to believe it. The day before we had talked with one another on the phone. His gratitude for the fact that he had been on vacation after he had participated in the beatification of Bishop Teofilius Matulionis in Vilnius on the previous Sunday (June 25) rang in his voice. The love for the Church in the neighboring countries in the East, which had suffered under the Communist persecution, as well as the gratitude for withstanding the sufferings of that time, shaped his life. And so is it is no coincidence that the last visit in his life was to a confessor of the Faith in those countries.

What particularly impressed me in that last talk with the retired Cardinal, was the loosened happiness, the inner joy, and the confidence that he had found. We know that it was difficult for him, this passionate shepherd and pastor, to leave his office, especially in a time in which the Church especially needs convincing shepherds who resist the dictatorship of the Zeitgeist and quite decisively from the Faith live and think. But what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he had learned to let go and lived ever more out of the deep certainty that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when sometimes the boat is filled almost to capsizing.

Two things recently certainly made him always more happy:

  • On the one hand, he has always told me how deeply he in the Sacrament of Penance, how young people, especially young men, are experiencing the grace of forgiveness – the Gift, they have indeed found the life that only God can give them.
  • The other, that always touched him and gave him joy, was the quiet growth of Eucharistic Adoration. At the World Youth Day in Cologne this was a central point for him – that there was Adoration, a silence, in which only the Lord spoke to the heart. Some Pastoral and Liturgical experts were of the opinion that such silence in looking at the Lord can not be achieved with such a huge number of people. Some were also of the opinion that Eucharistic Adoration was overtaken as such, by the Mass, since the Lord would want to be received in the Eucharistic bread and not be looked at. But that this Bread can not be eaten like any food, and that the Eucharistic sacrament “welcomes” all dimensions of our existence – that reception must be worship, has now become very clear again. Thus, the time of Eucharistic Adoration at the Cologne World Youth Day has become an interior event, which remained unforgettable not only to the cardinal. This moment since then was always inwardly present to him and a great light for him.


When, on his last morning, Cardinal Meisner did not appear at Mass, he was found dead in his room. His Breviary had slipped out of his hands: he had died praying, in the sight of the Lord, talking to the Lord. The kind of death that was given to him, shows once again how he lived: in the sight of the Lord and in conversation with him. So we can confidently recommend his soul to the goodness of God. Lord, we thank you for the testimony of your servant Joachim. Let him now be an intercessor for the Church of Cologne, and on the whole earth! Requiescat in pace!

Now, here is what is significant, I believe:

1) Pope Benedict must know that Cardinal Meisner was one of the dubia cardinals.

2) Pope Benedict describes Cardinal Meisner as “this passionate shepherd and pastor” — many of the progressive interpreters of AL have falsely charged the dubia cardinals of being somehow lacking in compassion or being bad pastors and shepherds for holding to the Church’s perennial teaching.

3) Pope Benedict paints a happy picture of Cardinal Meisner’s last days on this earth, which is perhaps surprising because, as Pope Benedict says, something has been upsetting Cardinal Meisner, namely the “dictatorship of the Zeitgeist(“spirit of the age”) which in Pope Benedict’s opinion, produces a) unconvincing shepherds, who b) go along with the spirit of the age and c) do not live and think “decisively” from a place of “faith“.

… So if Cardinal Meisner was not such a person, but instead was someone who valiantly opposed the spirit of the age, and the Cardinal was known by Pope Benedict to have doubts about the majority interpretation of AL, doesn’t this present the conclusion that Pope Benedict shares Cardinal Meisner’s view? (More thoughts on this central question below)

4) The progressive interpreters of AL have been careful to constantly claim that their interpretation of AL is being placidly received by the pastors and people of God around the world. Those who disagree have pointed to the dubia and contradicting promulgations of AL diocese-by-diocese and parish-by-parish. Moreover, many people feel (as I do) that the Church is in fact at a very serious point of doctrinal and historical crisis precisely because of AL and Pope Francis’ refusal to answer the dubia submitted by Cardinal Meisner. And here, Pope Benedict paints a very shockingly serious picture of the current state of the Church: “in this last period of his life, [Cardinal Meisner] had learned to let go and lived ever more out of the deep certainty that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when sometimes the boat is filled almost to capsizing.

… this biblical analogy is not a happy picture! Nor is “dictatorship” a word someone who survived the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin would use lightly. Finally, Pope Benedict is not a man prone to exaggeration or hyperbole! Pope Benedict is painting a picture that, in fact, all is not well, and that Cardinal Meisner’s great faith allowed him to trust in God to protect His Church even when things look like they are almost the end.

But of course, couldn’t Pope Benedict be more generally referring to all the troubles of the Church and the world? For some clarity, we need to understand what Pope Benedict means by the “dictatorship of the zeitgeist.”

What does Pope Benedict mean by Zeitgeist?

Pope Benedict’s most famous phrase of his theological life was the term “dictatorship of relativism” by which he means, “the falsehood, asserted with power, that says truth cannot be known”. It is one of the biggest post-modern fallacies. But the “dictatorship of the zeitgeist” is something slightly different, and even more pernicious: it is the effort to use the pressures of the progressive, secular establishment to force the Church to abandon the truth.

John Allen in his biography of Pope Benedict (page 267) describes how Cardinal Ratzinger believes progressive theologians such as Charlie Curran and Hans Kung are guilty of being agents of the zeitgeist:

Even more pointedly (Allen, page 262) :

Therefore, when Pope Benedict says zeitgeist, he means something specific: the spirit of the age which attempts to change the Church’s teaching so that it mimics the shape of secular culture and loses its distinctive qualities, which are always traceable back to the biblical teaching of Christ and revelation itself.

On the question of AL and its interpretation, it is simply a given fact that the progressive view has far more in common with the zeitgeist of the age than does the historical, perennial teaching. It is unquestionable that a church which allows more publicly divorced-and-remarried people to receive Communion is a church that looks less like the historical Catholic church and more like progressive, lower-c christian churches and … most notably, looks more like the German Catholic church.

Remember  that the progressive interpretation of AL has its origin in the intervention of German Cardinal Water Kasper and the lobby of the German cardinals, and recall that the German church had already been practicing the progressive interpretation of AL even before AL was written! Pope Benedict is acutely aware of the situation of the church in Germany, and is conscientiously writing about how Cardinal Meisner stands out in contrast to its zeitgeist and Pope Benedict ends by thanking God not only for the Cardinal’s witness but for his “testimony” as well. (Meisner’s last testimony was the dubia.)

Cardinal Meisner, in Pope Benedict’s view, was a German shepherd who resisted the predominant dictatorship of the zeitgeist in his country AND WE KNOW that Cardinal Meisner’s last days –literally his most famous and last major public act– was to submit a dubia to Pope Francis related to AL and to stand by it until his dying day, opposing the zeitgeist of the German church and the wider forces of this age.

I share these thoughts because I continue to pray every day for pope Francis and pray that he will answer the dubia submitted to him.

I also pray that Pope Francis does this while Pope Benedict is still living.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Update — a reader points out that Pope Benedict also underscores the need to respect the Eucharist, because it “cannot be eaten like any food” — and he explains how Adoration is properly worship, just as receiving the Eucharist should be an act of worship. In other words, Pope Benedict is reminding us that everyone is welcome at Adoration, even those in irregular or unresolved situations, or who are trying to live out their faith in obedience to the teachings of the Church. Again, a fascinating choice of topic for Pope Benedict to bring up in the midst of eulogizing one of the four dubia cardinals.


The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author


Thomas Peters, 33, grew up in Southern California and attended college in Michigan. He has two graduate degrees in theology. He began his award-winning American Papist blog in 2006, which went on to become one of the most popular Catholic blogs in America. He was one of a handful of Americans invited to the Vatican’s first-ever Bloggers’ Meeting in Rome. Peters has appeared in dozens of TV, radio and online media outlets over the years discussing the intersection of Catholicism and political activism, debating topics related to life, family and religious freedom, in addition to writing and speaking about the future of social media and online organizing. From 2010-2016 he served as an advisor to CatholicVote.org. He and his wife Natalie live in Washington DC. You can follow him on Twitter @AmericanPapist.


  1. We finally see Pope Emeritus Benedict’s courage in speaking out about the atrocity at the hands of this Papacy. (although he does not point fingers at anyone in particular) It was extremely brave for him to tell it like it is and I would assume that Pope Francis is not very happy with his reflections because the buck stops with him. Very very brave indeed because we all should know by now how the current Pontiff handles ‘negativity’ and ‘complaints’. Swiftly and harshly. (some may even say ‘brutally’, but not sure I would go that far)

  2. I find the closing phrase, “Come Holy Spirit” to be quite interesting. Is Pope Francis not guided by the Spirit? Is his decision to not answer the dubia not guided by the Spirit? Are his actions related to AL not guided by the Spirit? I’m very curious how the author has determined this.

    • Hello Anna L. Every Pope has always done everything under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When Pope Alexander VI took mistresses and fathered several children, that too was under the direction of the Holy Spirit. We Catholics should loosen up about marriage. Speaking for myself, inspired by Pope Alexander, asides from my wife I am sleeping with another woman. And that is Holy Spirit.

      • Marie Barzen on

        Hello Simon – Pope Alexander VI took mistresses & fathered children in spite & in defiance of the Holy Spirit NOT under the Holy Spirits guidance. Papal Infallability only protects Popes in matters of teaching in faith and reason. Thus the Cardinals Dubia seeks to clarify Amoris Laetitia

    • We can identify the guiding spirit through discernment based on Scripture and Tradition. Not all spirits are holy

    • Why are you surprised the author prays for the Holy Spirit when it’s quite clear there is a schism developing in the church? As for whether Pope Francis is being guided by the Holy Spirit in refusing to clarify the questions raised by AL – it’s a fair question. The CCC teaches that God entrusted the sacred depository of faith and the authority to interpret to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. So if the bishops are not in communion with Pope Francis and are questioning a teaching and seeking clarity, then who is being guided by the Holy Spirit? The Pope? The questioning bishops? Both? Neither? Come, Holy Spirit, guide Your Church.

    • Steve on Mare Island on

      I think and hope Simon is being sarcastic. A Pope is no different from any other person with respect to the regular guidance of the Holy Spirit–he hopes to be open and attentive to it, but his own sinful nature and failures of intellect or prudence are just as likely to get in the way of his receiving or acting properly on that guidance as would be the case for anyone else. The Pope is protected from error only when he is defining doctrine for the entire Church, something that is rarely done. Not even a Pope’s sermons and public addresses are protected from error, to say nothing of his press conferences and off-the-cuff-getting-off-the-airliner sound bites.

    • Anna, the Holy Spirit may guide, but there is no guarantee that any one person, even a pope, will listen or hear The Spirit’s guidance correctly.
      Also, as Mark and F M point out, not all inspirations come from the Holy Spirit. For example, something inspired Simon to dish you a load of well-aimed sarcasm, but it’s hard to say that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

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  4. Brilliant! Thank you!
    ANNA L.: He just told you that the spirit behind AL [and of many of Pope Francis’ condemnable acts] is the “spirit of the age” [“dictatorship of the Zeitgeist”] as opposed to the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit.

  5. Beautiful letter. Once again, skewed commentary. We don’t need your spin, Thomas Peters. It is enough to celebrate the life of the good Cardinal; and to reflect on the beautiful words of the Pope Emeritus. God bless our Church, guided by Pope Francis.

    • Well, then, Faith, why did you bother reading it? Whether you agree with Mr. Peters or not, his analysis was well done; and I appreciated it. I saw no spin from him, but plenty of attitude from you.

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    • Frankly I trust Pope Benedict way, way more than I trust Francis. He may have had a very good reason for stepping down he can’t divulge, but at least I know Benedict is faithful to Church teaching. Bergoglio, far from it.

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