German Bishops Admit Most Catholics View Sexual Teachings Unrealistic and ‘Merciless’

In a groundbreaking move, Germany’s bishops have released results from a survey conducted for next fall’s Synod on Marriage and Family Life. The results reveal just how wide the gap is between how Catholics live and the hierarchy’s teaching on issues of sexual ethics. Further, the bishops’ report is unusually blunt in its conclusions.

Reuters reports that the bishops admit most German Catholics either reject the hierarchy’s views on a slew of sexual issues (including same-gender relationships) or were unaware of teachings in the first place. The article notes:

“The results will not be news to many Catholics, especially in affluent Western countries, but the blunt official admission of this wide gap between policy and practice is uncommon and bound to raise pressure on Pope Francis to introduce reforms.

“Bishops in Germany, one of the richest and most influential national churches in the 1.2-billion-strong Catholic world, have been pressing the Vatican to reform, especially over divorce.

“A statement from the German bishops conference called the results ‘a sober inventory of what German Catholics appreciate about Church teaching on marriage and the family and what they find offputting or unacceptable, either mostly or completely.’ “

Also notable, is that many German Catholics hold to the ideal of marriage and family life as positive elements in society. When it came to the issue of same-gender relationships and legal recognition, the article states:

“There was a ‘marked tendency’ among Catholics to accept legal recognition of same-sex unions as ‘a commandment of justice’ and they felt the Church should bless them, the report said, although most did not want gay marriage to be legalized…

“The German bishops suggested the Church should move away from what it called its ‘prohibition ethics’ of rules against certain acts or views and stress ‘advisory ethics’ meant to help Catholics live better lives.

“In sexual morality, it [the Church] should find a way of presenting its views that does not make people feel it is hostile to sex.”

Germany’s bishops also strongly urged Vatican officials responsible for the Synod to consult with lay people experienced with family life, and were forceful about needing to welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics.

This report follows a recent letter by that nation’s leading Catholic theologians which said the Church needs a new paradigm from which to discern sexual morality and called for increased pastoral care for LGBT people and their children.

Leading German magazine, Der Spiegel, has also released an article called “The Pope’s Sex Problem” analyzing the survey results from all twenty-seven dioceses in Germany. [Editor’s note:  Thanks to Terence Weldon, who blogs at QueeringTheChurch.com for referring us to this article.]  The article also described the German bishops’ process in conducting the survey. When the Vatican released the 39-question survey, the German Bishops’ Conference chair sent it to dioceses without instructions for further dissemination.  Der Spiegel reports:

“The chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, simply passed the survey on, providing no further instructions on who was to respond to the Vatican survey.

“Zollitsch proved to be more decisive on another, albeit very important issue. In a letter to German bishops written by his secretary, he noted: ‘Questions 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8 will be answered by the central office.’ To save time, existing church positions were to be used.

“In fact, this meant that particular issues were being withheld from churchgoers. For instance, the set of questions under item 5 relates to gay and lesbian couples, while question 7 concerns contraception and abortion.”

However, Catholics in Germany became aware of the survey questions because the Bishops Conference of England and Wales had made the entire survey available on the Internet, and they responded in great numbers. Der Spiegel notes that the German Catholic Youth Federation received 10,000 responses, the Catholic Women’s League organized in several regions, and one pastor received 116 from his parishioners alone. Of these efforts, the magazine states:

“Despite the differences [in collection procedures], there was widespread unanimity in the evaluation of the survey…’Even though they are not representative, the survey results create and amplify the impression of an unfortunate, calamitous situation,’ says Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz…

” ‘Many Christians cannot understand this attitude [of condemning homosexuality],’ the staff of Cologne’s Cardinal Joachim Meisner concluded after reading the survey responses they received. In fact, Catholics in Cologne are all too familiar with their conservative archbishop’s condemnation of gays and lesbians. Now Meisner can read about the consequences in the analysis prepared by his own priests, who conclude: ‘Many have already turned away from the church. And many are convinced that this is no longer acceptable.’ “

Surveys, polls, and ancedotal evidence abound which reveal how affirming Catholics are of LGBT people and their relationships, but this development shows that a national group of bishops are finally acknowledging this reality. Now, it is an open question how these results will reach Rome and inform the coming Synod, with groups as diverse as the progressive reform organization “We Are Church” and the more traditional Catholic Family Federation asking Germany’s bishops to leave the results as they are: transparent and unfiltered.

Whether or not this report will impact the Synod’s deliberations on marriage and family life may not be known until October, but by simply getting Church leaders to admit widespread disparities exist between teaching reality, advocates for healthier, more Gospel-infused sexual ethics have already scored a major victory in Germany.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

QueeringTheChurch.com: Cardinal Schonborn: Church must adjust to reality of co-habitation, divorce and remarriage

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11 thoughts on “German Bishops Admit Most Catholics View Sexual Teachings Unrealistic and ‘Merciless’

  1. defenceofdemoskratos February 4, 2014 / 10:39 am

    Did the German Bishops actually use the term “heartless” or not? You have not included that particular quote in your article.

    • newwaysministryblog February 5, 2014 / 5:32 am

      The term “heartless” was the term used by the newspaper reporter to describe how lay Catholics’ views are described in the report. The actual term used in the report was “merciless.” I have corrected the headline to be closer to the original text. The original headline (as well as the revised one) does not state that the German bishops view church teaching in this way, but that German bishops acknowledge that German Catholics feel that way. I hope that clarifies.

  2. Friends February 4, 2014 / 9:48 pm

    Once again — and rather amazingly, given the traditional view of German intellectuals as pedantic and ponderous — it seems that the German theologians are positioning themselves at the cutting edge of a “common sense” understanding of Catholicism, to which most of the world will respond with great enthusiasm. These German bishops are far more sympathetic to the new initiatives promoted by Pope Francis than they are to the extreme right-wing positions held by far too many American bishops. What IS it about the American Church that causes it to be so stubbornly retrograde — both socially and theologically? It remains a complete bafflement to me.

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