The Perfect Ecclesial Storm

Problems connected with family life have their basic root in the degradation of Catholic moral life since Vatican II. Catholics in large numbers – 80 percent we are told – have been living a contraceptive style of marriage for decades, and that perversion has led (as Paul VI predicted) to a lowering of general morality among married and single Catholics, an explosion of the divorce rate and marital infidelity in general, Catholic majorities approving of abortion and gay marriage, and – the latest phenomenon – addiction to pornography among Catholic boys and men. Radical theologians are already composing and signing petitions asking for a total overhaul of Church teaching on all sexual matters to liberate the Church.

The solution, according to some Church leaders, seems to be to take a more “pastoral” approach to these issues, but not to undertake a moral reform of the Church itself. Now, since Church leaders for decades have been basically silent on issues like contraception, the only more “pastoral” approach one can think of is to invite people not to think that such things are always morally wrong or mortally sinful, and thus not deprive the practitioners of the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The pastoral solution to divorce and remarriage has been to open the floodgates of annulments, to the point where it seems anyone can get one, if only he applies. Obviously many people in Germany won’t bother, so the Church leaders in Freiburg decided to invite people in adulterous unions to come home anyway and feel welcome at the Communion line. Rome stepped in to quash that invitation. But the Archbishop of Munich and Freising has declared that this effort is not over as far as the German bishops are concerned, no matter what Rome says!

Now does that archbishop really think that inviting adulterers to Communion will begin to refill empty German churches? Or does he think that softening the teaching on contraception, which will almost certainly guarantee that the 20 percent of Catholics who follow Church teaching on that issue will dwindle to near 0 – is likely to bring droves of German ex-Catholics back to the Communion lines?

Has this man paid no attention to what has happened in the Church of England that has followed such accommodating pastoral solutions since 1930? No, as a cynic I suspect the issue may be well be just monetary, an effort to get more ex-Catholics to check that income-tax box that requires the German government to direct part of the tax to the Catholic Church. Sorry, but that makes more sense to me than a serious hope that such pastoral action will restore the faith of former Catholics.

The Catholic Church in western countries is truly in need of serious moral reformation. The priest pedophilia scandals were signs of the times and they were just a tip of the moral iceberg of clerical moral issues. The Church’s bishops have sedulously covered up the much greater problem of homosexuality in the priesthood, and – in Europe especially – a growing problem of priests having ongoing immoral relationships with women. This might explain why the issue of married priests is on the agenda of some European hierarchies.

The perfect storm upon us is that all this is tied to bad moral teaching, like the notion of a “fundamental option,” which both John Paul II and Benedict tried to overcome. And we’re now at the point of believing in universalism of salvation on both the theoretical and practical level. The corrupting power of the “fundamental option” is that almost no sin can change it, once that option is directed to God. So contraception does not alter my fast track to heaven, nor does abortion, homosexuality, and any perversion you can think of, not even murder, genocide, and so forth. None of these things matters in the end.

And why don’t these things matter? Because, in the end, everyone is going to end up in Heaven anyway since God supposedly only cares about getting us to Heaven. For anyone to be lost would mean that God has failed in love, at least according to one prominent theologian of recent memory, one who was very popular among many conservative Catholics, and especially among the middle-aged members of the German hierarchy and other European hierarchies.

Professor Ralph Martin has recently written Will Many Be Saved?, a splendid book on this topic of universal salvation theology and its negative effects on evangelization, which one can only hope many bishops will read soon. That idea is not only communicated academically, but in many other practical ways as well, like the constant stream of funeral eulogies and homilies that canonize everyone – including very public sinners.

Like the popularized fundamental option approach to moral living, the notion of universal salvation deeply undercuts any real effort at moral reform in the Church. It rather easily convinces people that it really doesn’t matter how one lives, so long as one is kind to others and trusts in a merciful God. The Anglicans have not done very well employing a pastoral approach based on that kind of doctrine.

I am confident that next year’s planned Synod on the Family and Evangelization will avoid such nonsense. Mainly, I suspect, that will be because synods are increasingly made up of bishops from non-European churches who have witnessed the death spiral of the continental churches and the Anglican Church. They seem determined not make the same mistakes. In fact, one good effect of the Synod is already apparent: It has caused some of the Anglophile bishops to show their true colors.


Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at