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German Catholic Bishops Embrace Heresy

In proclaiming blessing for same-sex couples, Germany's bishops break with Scripture and 2,000 years of authoritative teaching
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Well, this is shocking, but not surprising, if you follow me. Father Jerry Pokorsky writes:

An astonishing news item in the Wall Street Journal reports: “At a meeting in Frankfurt, German [Catholic] church leaders voted 168 to 28. . .to adopt a draft statement on sexuality that includes a resolution saying that ‘same-sex partnerships who want to take the risk of an unbreakable common life. . .should be able to see themselves placed under the blessing of God.’”

A priest who has campaigned against longstanding Church teaching rejoiced at the vote, even though it directly contradicted several statements by Pope Francis, saying it was “a milestone in the journey toward a church without discrimination, a church full of respect for the diversity of love and partnerships.”

This concern for “the church” rings hollow. Every priest promises God – through his bishop – to pray the Breviary. On the 27th Sunday of the liturgical year, priests (including, presumably, the German bishops) should have read this passage from Pope Saint Gregory the Great:

Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

Identifying the wolves that threaten his flock is among the many duties, in conscience, that a priest shares in obedience to his bishop. If bishops object to such teachings, they ought to announce – out of mere honesty – that they don’t think their priests should be praying the Divine Office anymore.

It isn’t a surprise that the vast majority of German bishops do not think homosexual acts are sinful. Their studied ambiguity on the subject has been on display for years. It isn’t even surprising to suspect that a considerable number of German bishops may be active homosexuals. Anyone who celebrates “the diversity of love and partnerships” should not object to the suggestion that “celebrating diversity” is code for “celebrating sodomy.”

But it’s astounding that the vast majority of German bishops are willing to deny their apostolic authority. Their votes, in effect, sever them from the Church and declare that they are not qualified to make pronouncements on Christian marriage. “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame.” (Phil. 3:18) So we need not waste our time on them. Despite the noise they make, they are both incoherent and irrelevant.

Read it all.

I don’t see any way around it: this is schism. You might hate what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality, and sexuality in general, but the tradition is absolutely clear, strongly rooted in Scripture, and has been clear for two millennia. There is no way you can do what the German bishops have done without repudiating unambiguous church teaching.

What will happen to German Catholics now — those who wish to remain Catholic, as opposed to schismatic? What will they do?

I have written here before about a German Catholic layman who approached me in Rome in 2018, after I gave a Benedict Option talk. He told me that he and his friends — he was middle-aged — expect the institutional Catholic Church in Germany to collapse in their lifetime. He said that they — meaning him and his Catholic friends — were preparing themselves and their families to keep the life of the Church going after this happens.

Every time I hear some news of craziness coming out of the German Catholic Church, I think of this man and what he said.

It should be the case that for Catholics — and remember, I am not a Catholic — the fact that the Church authoritatively proclaimed a teaching ends the discussion. The challenge facing faithful Catholics regarding the Church’s teaching on homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) is how to live it out in today’s world. The teaching itself cannot be up for grabs. If the Church, and if Holy Scripture, was wrong about the sinfulness of homosexual acts, what else is it wrong about? Can the German bishops possibly not see that they have abolished their own authority here?

More deeply, I think that Christians today don’t think deeply enough about why the Church (by which I mean Christian churches that adhere to the traditional, Scriptural claim) teaches what it does about sexuality, including homosexuality. Back in 2013, in a widely-read essay I wrote here at TAC (“Sex After Christianity”), I said:

When they were writing the widely acclaimed 2010 book American Grace, a comprehensive study of contemporary religious belief and practice, political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell noticed two inverse trend lines in social-science measures, both starting around 1990.

They found that young Americans coming into adulthood at that time began to accept homosexuality as morally licit in larger numbers. They also observed that younger Americans began more and more to fall away from organized religion. The evangelical boom of the 1970s and 1980s stopped, and if not for a tsunami of Hispanic immigration the U.S. Catholic church would be losing adherents at the same rate as the long-dwindling Protestant mainline.

Over time, the data showed, attitudes on moral issues proved to be strong predictors of religious engagement. In particular, the more liberal one was on homosexuality, the less likely one was to claim religious affiliation. It’s not that younger Americans were becoming atheists. Rather, most of them identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” Combined with atheists and agnostics, these “Nones”—the term is Putnam’s and Campbell’s—comprise the nation’s fastest-growing faith demographic.

Indeed, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, the Nones comprise one out of three Americans under 30. This is not simply a matter of young people doing what young people tend to do: keep church at arm’s length until they settle down. Pew’s Greg Smith told NPR that this generation is more religiously unaffiliated than any on record. Putnam—the Harvard scholar best known for his best-selling civic culture study Bowling Alone—has said that there’s no reason to think they will return to church in significant numbers as they age.

Putnam and Campbell were careful to say in American Grace that correlation is not causation, but they did point out that as gay activism moved toward center stage in American political life—around the time of The Nation’s cover story—the vivid public role many Christian leaders took in opposing gay rights alienated young Americans from organized religion.

In a dinner conversation not long after the publication of American Grace, Putnam told me that Christian churches would have to liberalize on sexual teaching if they hoped to retain the loyalty of younger generations. This seems at first like a reasonable conclusion, but the experience of America’s liberal denominations belies that prescription. Mainline Protestant churches, which have been far more accepting of homosexuality and sexual liberation in general, have continued their stark membership decline.

It seems that when people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?


Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

Read it all. 

I developed the point further in this passage from The Benedict Option:

In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says the body

was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodge in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods of from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone. 

Early Christianity’s sexual teaching not only comes from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul, but more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.

In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal.

Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule-breaking, but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself.

The Christian who lives in reality will not join his body to another’s outside of the order God gives us. That means no sex outside of the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ. In orthodox Christian teaching, the two really do become “one flesh” in a way that transcends the symbolic.

If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition.

“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes the Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man.

“As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.

Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.

Easy divorce stretches the sacred bond of matrimony to the breaking point, but it does not deny complementarity. Gay marriage does. Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend, but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female. Everything in this debate (and many others between traditional Christianity and modernity) turns on how we answer the question: is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire?

Understand what I’m saying here: the German Catholic bishops are not only rejecting an authoritative, binding teaching of the Magisterium, but they are also denying what traditional Christianity teaches is the structure of reality itself. This is why sex matters. The world doesn’t see it this way, but the Church is not the world. Well, outside of the German Catholic episcopate, it’s not.

UPDATE: A Catholic priest e-mails:

Just fyi, as bad as it is, only about one-third of the “leaders” referenced in the story were bishops. It was unclear or perhaps unreported how many bishops voted in favor of the proposal. A little quick math suggests that if all opposing and abstaining delegates were bishops, then at least a bit more than half the bishops present voted in favor.  As I said, it’s bad enough.

Yes, thank God it’s not as bad as I thought from reading Father Pokorsky’s report … but it’s almost as bad. Here is a more full account of what happened. The measure will likely be voted on by all the German bishops in 2022. So, no schism yet, but it’s drawing much closer.