Theologians’ Revolt Exposes a Vatican Myth

When I quoted Charles Curran last week with his statement that “the majority” of moral theologians want to see some revisions to Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, I could not have anticipated how quickly I would be seeing some evidence that Curran may even have understated the problem. At the end of the week, coinciding beautifully with the Egyptian”Day of Departure”, the German press published a statement by 143 theologians, titled “The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure”, which called for fundamental, far-reaching reforms in the structure and moral theology of the Catholic Church.  In doing so, they dramatically demolished an important Catholic myth: that Vatican doctrine and disciplinary rules dictate the beliefs and conduct of the Church.

They do not. It has long been clear that Vatican pronouncements on sexual ethics and on the requirements for admission to the priesthood do not reflect the views of ordinary lay Catholics. It is now obvious that they also do not reflect the views of their own professional theologians. I suspect, indeed, that the Vatican oligarchs no longer believe their own pronouncements themselves. True Catholic belief, as reflected in the real life beliefs of real people, and not abstract words in a rule book, has been substantially reformed. All that is now required is an admission of the fact. What is now becoming clear is that, just like the Emperor’s New Clothes, the idea that the Vatican controls Catholic minds and speaks for their belief, is – a myth.

The revolt of the German theologians has attracted remarkably little attention in the Mainstream English press, which has largely been content simply to headline the calls for the ordination of married men and women, and some cursory references to the other reforms which were specified. This is a mistake: the document is far more important than  just a few academics making yet another call for changing the rules on ordination. It is, instead, a  demand for a wholesale restructuring of the entire culture and structure of the church, in which the specific reforms asked for are just some particular consequences, not the main thrust at all.

To grasp the full importance of this statement, we need to consider not just the few sentences that have been generally quoted, but the full statement with its own internal emphasis; the numbers and diverse backgrounds of the signatories, and the wider background of deep-seated unhappiness in the Catholic church that followed the revelations of sexual abuse last year, as well as a thorough overhaul of traditional thinking on homosexuality now under way in the Christian community as a whole.

The Key Reform.

What I found the most important and encouraging aspect of this statement is not just the call to end compulsory celibacy, to ordain women, and the other overdue and vitally necessary specific reforms, but rather the insistence on the urgent need to reform the entire culture of the institutional church. This is trumpeted right in the title of the statement – “The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure”. We need, they say, to get away from the legalistic emphasis on moral rigour, and the rigid hierarchical structure, and replace it with – guess what? The Good News of the Gospel.

The church has the mission to announce the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church can do this only when it is itself a place and a credible witness of the good news of the Gospel. The Church’s speaking and acting, its rules and structures – its entire engagement with people within and outside the Church – is under the standard of acknowledging and promoting the freedom of people as God’s creation. Absolute respect for every person, regard for freedom of conscience, commitment to justice and rights, solidarity with the poor and oppressed: these are the theological foundational standards which arise from the Church’s obligation to the Gospel. Through these, love of God and neighbor become tangible.

Now, it often seems as though the Gospels are the last thing that rule-book Catholics would like to consider, but really, these German theologians are right. Wouldn’t greater attention to the Gospels be a really good idea?

It’s not just a change in culture that these theologians are demanding. They also want a fundamental change in church structure, one that goes right back to the practice of the earliest church – participation by the laity in the selection of their bishops and pastors. Now, just imagine the transformation we could expect in bishops’ pronouncements if they suddenly discovered that their jobs depended on support from the people they are supposedly serving, as well as automatic loyalty Vatican bureaucrats? They also ask for a synodal structure for decision taking at all levels.


I summarise below the specific reforms that are asked for. Please note the order of importance, and how the detailed items that have been generally reported, on ordination and acceptance of gay couples or remarriage after divorce, are not in fact the prime concerns, but are given as examples which flow from more important general principles.

1. Structures of Participation

The faithful should be involved in the naming of important officials (bishop, pastor). Whatever can be decided locally should be decided there. Decisions must be transparent.

2. Community:

The faithful stay away when they are not trusted to share responsibility and to participate in democratic structures in the leadership of their communities. Church office must serve the life of communities – not the other way around. The Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry.

3. Legal culture:

Acknowledgement of the dignity and freedom of every person is shown when conflicts are borne fairly and with mutual respect. It is urgent that the protection of rights and legal culture be improved. A first step is the development of administrative justice in the Church.

4. Freedom of Conscience:

Respect for individual conscience means placing trust in people’s ability to make decisions and carry responsibility. ….. The Church’s esteem for marriage and unmarried forms of life goes without saying. But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.

5. Reconciliation:

Solidarity with “sinners” presupposes that we take seriously the sin within our own ranks. Self-justified moral rigorism ill befits the Church.

6. Worship:

The liturgy lives from the active participation of all the faithful. Experiences and forms of expression of the present day must have their place. Worship services must not become frozen in traditionalism.

The Signatories.

Two things matter here – their number, and their variety. The total represents something like a third of all Catholic theologians in  Germany, and a few others from Switzerland and Austria. We should not conclude from this that the remaining two thirds disagree: it is known that there were others who agreed with the appeal, but did not wish to be associated with it publicly. Others may have agreed with some of the items, but not all. The diversity of backgrounds is also impressive. (The full list of signatories is available on line). Commentary in Suddeutsche Zeitung states that these include established old-stagers in the movement for Church reform, but also younger theologians and some who are generally regarded as conservatives. This is a large and broadly based group, which deserves to be taken seriously.

The Reaction

I found the response of the German bishops to be fascinating. On the one hand, they have welcomed the “dialogue” with the theologians, and have promised to discuss the document in a March meeting.  On the other, they have responded meekly to some of the clauses by replying somewhat meekly, that they are against “Church teaching”. This is reminiscent of the US bishops’ response to the publication of Salzmann & Lawler’s “The Sexual Person”. They attacked the book by saying they could not accept the conclusions, which contravened Church teaching – but made no serious attempt to engage with the evidence or reasoning that led to the conclusions. This it the first feature that leads me to conclude that many of the defenders of orthodoxy do not  in fact agree with the teaching they are trying to protect. They are not engaging with arguments because they cannot (not with any real conviction) . The only reason they continue to promote it , is because it is the official teaching – and so they are just doing their job. But teaching can be changed – as it has previously been on married clergy, on usury and on slavery, as is well known. Less well known is that the modern horror at cohabitation before marriage overturns Church teaching and practice of three quarters of its history, on marriage as a process, not an event. ( I will have more on that later). So why is there no apparent attempt to reform the teaching from within the Vatican?

The reason, I submit, is the same as that which prevented Pope Paul VI from accepting the majority report of the papal commission on contraception: he took fright at the prospect of embarrassing the church with what would look like a change in church teaching. The Vatican has made such a show for so long of proclaiming a (fictitious) constant and unchanging tradition, that the thought of admitting any change was just too scary to contemplate. He was afraid that any such suggestion would diminish the prestige of the Church. Instead, as is well known, he simply brought the whole structure of Church teaching on sexual ethics into ever-increasing disrepute. The formal teaching is now widely discredited, by lay Catholics and many moral theologians. Avoiding the obvious need for substantial revision does not protect the reputation of the church. It simply increases the problems that will be faced when finally the future, and reality, are confronted fully – as, eventually, will happen.

The Broader Background and Impact

The impact of this appeal will not be limited to Germany. As the authors stress in their introductory remarks, the urgency of reform has been made plain by the trauma caused to the Church by last year’s revelations of abuse. This trauma was not limited to Germany, but applied worldwide. Likewise, the disconnect between the official teaching and the practice of real life Catholics is also a world wide phenomenon. (In many parts of Africa, the rule on celibacy is widely ignored, even to the extent of some bishops paying for the education of their priests’ children).

Beyond the Catholic Church, there is a widespread reassessment of the traditional Christian hostility to homoerotic relationships, as shown by the increasing willingness of Protestant churches to ordain openly gay or lesbian partners in committed relationships, and by a growing acceptance by Biblical scholars that traditional interpretations of the clobber texts could be mistaken. (I will be expanding on both of these claims shortly).


The appeal by the German theologians is of obvious importance for the specific reforms they ask for in rules on ordination and sexual ethics. They are of far greater importance for the fundamental message underlying them – the urgent need for a far-reaching and fundamental change in the very structure and culture of the Catholic Church as a whole: it needs to take on realistic levels of participation and decision making, and the replacement of a preoccupation with legalism and moral rigour with a real concern and respect for the individual person, including respect for freedom of conscience, and welcome and inclusion for all.

A return to the Gospels, in fact.

Now, wouldn’t that be nice?




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