Bad News from Deutschland

The Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will meet in Rome October  5-18 to consider the The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. The Vatican’s Synod Office put together a Preparatory Document that contains a series of questions about the current state of Church’s efforts to promote doctrines and practices – along with the various challenges she faces.

On February 3, the German Bishops’ Conference published a summary of the responses to these questions from all twenty-seven dioceses in Germany and “twenty well-known Catholic associations and institutions.” (Too bad we don’t have the list, which would be useful for forensic purposes.) The result is hardly pleasing, and in fact is outright distressing.

Here is a sample of what was presented in the Summary (with my notes in italics in parentheses):

  • “The Church’s statements (nota bene: statements, not teachings) on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried, and on birth control, by contrast, are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases.”
  • “Most of the baptized are also not familiar with the term ‘natural law.’”
  • “Natural law is also hardly elaborated on or detailed within the Church, and it is frequently decidedly rejected as being historically out of date and not compatible with modern ethical discourses. In particular, there is sharp criticism of a narrow, biological determinism – based on a view of “natural law” (dismissive scare-quotes) because it is said not to do justice to the Christian understanding of man.”
  • “Almost all couples who wish to marry in Church have already been living together, frequently for several years (estimates are between 90 percent  and 100percent). . . .In view of the ultimate binding nature of marriage (later responses allege that this doctrine is widely rejected in Germany), and in an awareness that a failed marriage means a profound life crisis, many in fact consider it irresponsible to marry without living together beforehand (living in sin seen as an antidote to marital break-up).”
  • “Most Catholics whose marriages have failed do not concern themselves with the question of validity because they do not regard their marriages, which may have lasted for years in many cases, as “null and void,” but as having failed. They therefore frequently consider an annulment procedure to be dishonest. They expect the Church to enable them to start again in a new relationship (why would they expect that?), for instance in analogy to the practice of the Orthodox Churches.”
  • “The canonical exclusion from the sacraments as a result of civil remarriage is perceived by those concerned as constituting unjustified discrimination and being merciless.”

  • “There is a marked tendency among German Catholics to regard the legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships and their equal treatment vis-à-vis marriage as a commandment of justice. The opening of marriage as such for same-sex couples, by contrast, is largely rejected. Large numbers however also consider it to be expedient and positive to offer a rite of blessing to same-sex couples.”
  • “The encyclical Humanae vitae (1968) on responsible parenthood is only known among the older generation. Its reception was limited from the outset to the prohibition of so-called “artificial” birth control methods (why describe them as “so-called”?). As clearly emerges from the appropriate responses, the encyclical is unknown among the younger generation.”
  • “The distinction between “natural” and “artificial” birth control methods and the prohibition of the latter is rejected by the great majority of Catholics as incomprehensible (not surprising if they were never taught about Humanae vitae), and is not adhered to in practice.”
  • “The responses from the dioceses are unanimous that Catholics (all of them, including the clergy?) do not regard the use of “artificial” birth control methods as sinful, and consequently also not as something to be confessed.”

The widespread rejection of Church teaching revealed by this report is a self-indictment of the Church in Germany. Obviously, very little has been done in the last fifty years to explain and promote Church teaching on marriage, family and sexual morality. Yet that does not seem to trouble the editors who assembled this report.

There is a total absence of regret or remorse. The question “How did we get to this point?” is never asked. No self-criticism by the German dioceses or Catholic associations and institutions surveyed; a sense of nonchalance that people are so easily falling into sinful patterns of behavior, and that they find Church teaching either laughable or offensive.

It is hard to imagine such a passive attitude regarding the rejection of fundamental teachings of the Church on marriage and human sexuality, if the editors were interested in promoting and defending them, which is the responsibility of all Catholics, especially the clergy.

Ask yourself this question: If the Vatican produced a survey on attitudes towards ecology that found that the majority of the baptized in Germany liked burning down forests and wantonly killing animals, would that information have been reported to Rome without a hint of condemnation, or even embarrassment, by the German Bishops’ Conference?

What we have here is a push to change Church teaching on sexual morality. Sociology trumps revelation and reason. The people have spoken, they told us what they want, and it is unjust to ignore or contradict them! The faithful in Germany are either blamelessly unfamiliar with Church doctrine, or they find it unconvincing, hence the teachings must be jettisoned.

The Synod risks becoming a contentious battleground. Yet perhaps it must be so for the good of the Church. The worldly spirit that treats Church teachings as mere opinions is destructive of faith. This spirit needs to be confronted and refuted. Church teaching is from God, and its truth does not depend upon what poorly formed Catholics think about it.

The Church’s defenders must be ready to stand firm and not give in to pressure such as that demonstrated in this document from Germany.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.