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By Martin Bürger
The German bishops are launching what appears to be an offensive against key Catholic teachings on sexual morality.
At their recent spring assembly, they announced an authoritative "synodal" process focused on three key areas: the clerical abuse of power; the lifestyle of priests and bishops (which includes discussion of celibacy); and the sexual morality of the Church.
According to the final press statement
issued after the plenary meeting of all German bishops this week, the synodal way will include not only bishops, but also laypeople. Leadership in the process will be provided by the bishops' conference, as well as the dissident Central Committee of German Catholics (Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken
, ZdK), a huge lay organization made up of representatives from most Catholic organizations in Germany.
Members of the ZdK have publicly criticized Church teaching for years, especially regarding sexual morality and celibacy.
The president of the German bishops' conference, Cdl. Reinhard Marx, claimed that all bishops are aware that "the lifestyle of bishops and priests demands changes in order to show the inner freedom stemming from the faith." While "we appreciate celibacy as an expression of religious commitment to God," he said, the door is left open for changes. Marx called on the synodal process to "find out" in what way celibacy "has to be a part of the witness of the priest."
The German bishops appear convinced that key insights from theology and other sciences need still to be explored regarding sexual morality, including topics like contraception, cohabitation and homosexuality. The "personal meaning of sexuality" is not emphasized enough, according to the press statement. As a result, the morality preached by the Church "doesn't guide the majority of the baptized."
Marx failed to explain which other key theological insights need to be added to the Church's teaching on sexuality, nor did he mention that the teachings are rarely, if ever, explained from the pulpit in most German parishes. The Church, Marx insisted, "is often unable to speak on questions regarding today's behavior" in matters of sexuality.
Marx also touched on clericalism, saying it betrays the trust people have in religion. He called on the synodal process to decentralize power and create a new structure that is just and binding. While avoiding specifics, he explicitly mentioned the creation of administrative courts within the Church.
The preparation of the synodal process is already underway. Three events are being organized by three different bishops, culminating in a conference in September. The first forum will be on "Power, Participation, Separation of Powers," the second on "Sexual Morality," and the third forum will focus on "Priestly Lifestyles." Bishops, members of the ZdK and other laity will take part in the September meetings. The hope is that new resolutions will result in a "synodal" way.
Marx presented the new synodal process as standing in the tradition of the Synod of Würzburg following the Second Vatican Council. Würzburg took place from 1971–1975, where the German bishops, aided by priests and laity, tried to implement the reforms of the Council and adapt them for their country.
Among other things, the traditional Catechism class in public schools, guaranteed by law, was replaced by more vague religious education, which amounted to life coaching, at best. In recent years, especially following the German sex abuse crisis in 2010, when news exploded about priestly misconduct, a process of "dialogue" on Church teaching began, which prepared the ground for what is now the new "synodal way."
"We want to be a listening Church," Marx said. "We need the advice of men and women outside the Church."
In a press conference following the final press statement, Marx clarified that the bishops don't need to wait for Rome's approval before moving forward with any new ideas.
"[W]e don't want to wait anymore," he said. "At the same time, just because it's not technically a synod does not mean that the results of the process are not authoritative and binding."
The plenary meeting of bishops this week featured a number of speakers, including Eberhard Schockenhoff, a priest and professor of moral theology critical of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. During his presentation, he noted "anachronisms, contradictions and aspects out of touch with everyday life" in Church doctrine.
The bishops have not spoken out to condemn Schockenhoff's questionable theological claims.
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