German Bishops Agree: Sexual Doctrines Must Change!

Consider the following Catholic views on sex and marriage:

  • Most Catholics disputed the Church ban on artificial means of birth control (only 3% of couples rely on natural family planning)
  • Most Catholics disputed the Church ban on premarital sex (Almost all couples who wish to marry in church have already been living together)
  • Most Catholics disputed the Church ban on gay sex (most approve legal recognition for same – sex unions)
  • Most Catholics criticize rules barring the divorced from remarriage in church.

All of this is familiar, and unremarkable – except for the source. Similar statements have been familiar to ordinary Catholics from formal opinion surveys, and from anecdotal evidence in discussion with parish peers, for years. Among lay Catholics, this is routine. But these statements do not come from secular opinion polling, or from any progressive group of church reformers, but from the German bishops themselves, as they have digested their results from the global survey on marriage and family. (Reported by Reuters, “German Bishops Tell Vatican: Catholics Reject Sex Rules“)

Robert Zollitsch, Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Chairman of the German Episcopal Conference

So: German bishops have finally woken up to what has been obvious to the rest of the world, for years. What of it?

The really interesting bit, is two points of significance in the Reuters report on the bishops’ findings, going beyond the bare facts presented above: In a separate investigative report into the findings across German dioceses, Der Spiegel on-line reported very similar results yesterday (“The Pope’s Sex Problem: Catholic Survey Reveals Frustrated Flock“) However, in an analysis of these results, and reports of feelings on the ground, the magazine also noted fears of some Germans that the bishops would hold back from reporting the findings honestly in their submission to Rome.

This has clearly not been the case: the summary of the findings as reported by Reuters are broadly in line with the much longer report at Der Spiegel – and there’s more. Although the extraordinary synod on marriage and family has been presented from the start as a forum to debate pastoral care, and not an occasion for doctrinal change, the German bishops have seen the writing on the wall, and drawn the obvious conclusions from their results: doctrine must change, from prohibition based rules, to advisory ethics:

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.”

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 should find a way of presenting its views that does not make people feel it is hostile to sex.

We must still wait for the responses from other parts of the world, but already we know from Cardinal Schonborn, that the views of Austrian Catholics are similar. We also know from published opinion polls, that the views of English, Irish and American Catholics are too. Results from the rest of Western Europe are likely also to be broadly in line. It’s less clear what will come out of the consultation in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, but these regions too, are likely to agree with at least some of the findings.

When news first broke of the global consultation on marriage and family, I predicted that because this would lay bare the huge gulf between Vatican teaching on sex, and Catholic belief and practice on the ground, the consequences would be far greater than Pope Francis and his advisors may have anticipated. Although the synod was not called with any intention of changing teaching, it seemed likely to me that it would demonstrate the need to revise it. It is becoming clearer than ever that I was right. Change must come – and must come in consultation with those most directly affected,Re ordinary Catholics with real life experience of loving and committed sexual relationships.

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