Cardinal Joachim Meisner: a fearless champion of orthodoxy to the end

Pope Benedict XVI (R) talks to Cologne's Archbishop Joachim Meisner on 18 August 2005 (Getty Images)

Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who has died aged 83, lived through some of the last century’s most dramatic events and remained to the end of his life a champion of Catholic orthodoxy.

Born in 1933 in the eastern city of Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland), Meisner grew up in a strongly Catholic family which settled in eastern Germany after the Second World War. Ordained a priest in 1962 and a bishop in 1975, his calling was to serve the small Catholic minority of East Germany, traditionally overwhelmingly Protestant and at the time under an anti-religious Communist government.

In 1980 Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Berlin, during the Cold War one of the most politically difficult dioceses in the world. Meisner used his freedom of travel to maintain contact between both halves of the divided city and to secure what freedom he could for his flock. A particular high point was the Katholikentreffen he presided over Dresden in July 1987, a festival drawing over 100,000 Catholics out of a total population in East Germany of only 800,000.

In retrospect, this was an early sign of the peaceful revolution which brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989.

By that time, however, Meisner – named a cardinal in 1983 – was no longer in Berlin. In the spring of 1989 Pope John Paul had appointed him Archbishop of Cologne, the largest and wealthiest diocese in Germany.

This appointment was highly controversial at the time, and faced considerable resistance within the archdiocese. The reason was that Meisner was the main representative of the declining – now almost moribund – conservative wing of the German hierarchy. While enjoying the esteem of Pope John Paul, and later taking part in the conclave that elected his old friend Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI, Meisner was clearly out of step with the increasingly strong liberal majority in the German bishops’ conference.

Nonetheless, Meisner remained steadfast in the beliefs he had grown up with. Outspoken and highly quotable, he could be relied on to outrage the German progressive consensus, often crossing swords with the country’s politicians, as well as taking conservative approaches to liturgy and religious art. In 2008 he co-authored a book on faith with another famous Catholic controversialist, the flamboyant aristocrat Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis.

Yet by the time of his retirement in 2014, Meisner’s style of Catholicism was much rarer in Germany than when he had taken up the Cologne appointment 25 years earlier.

Despite his advancing age, Cardinal Meisner did not go quietly into retirement. It was no surprise when last year he emerged as one of the four cardinals to publicly submit dubia asking Pope Francis to clarify ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia regarding the Church’s teaching on marriage.

At a time when the German Church is one of the main drivers for more liberal teaching, the fact of Cardinals Joachim Meisner and Walter Brandmüller raising their voices in defence of the Church’s historic teaching is a reminder that there was once a very different kind of German Catholicism.