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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?




16 Responses

  1. Has the Vatican ever claimed really to speak “for the average Catholic”, though, as though it thinks it expressing present consensus opinion?

    I thought it considers itself speaking from the authority of apostolic tradition and is therefore not really obliged to heed what people think presently if it find it to contradict the historic sense of Catholic doctrine.

  2. Terence,

    Any idea how many of the theologians are Catholic clergy? Any idea on how many theologians there are in Germany? Any idea on what credentials one has to have to call oneself a theologian?

    • No, David, I do not have these answers, with any precision. Before writing this post, I did consider the questions, and attempted to find the answers. As far as I could tell though, they are all professional academic theologians, employed by the universities and also approved by the Church as “Catholic”. They are obviously not all priests (one of the leaders of the group is a woman), but many will be. Some will be lay people, some of the women will be members of religious orders. I have not found any breakdown of the proportions.

      There is a full list of the signatories on-line, and I expect that a detailed search of Google (Germany) would produce enough biographical info to do the analysis – but I don’t see that it matters enough to attempt it.

    • Terence,

      I was curious as to what kind of teaching authority these theologians represent, or think that they represent. I saw a couple of comments suggesting that these theologians are relatively unknown.

      I am wondering if the main purpose was not so much to expose Vatican theological myths as to suggest a change in theological emphasis. We Americans call it “marketing”.

      • The report at Suddeutsche Zeitung makes it clear that they are a fair cross-section of all German theologians – some well-established veterans, some young newcomers; some are even described as “conservative”. I don’t suppose that they “represent” anybody but themselves – professional, knowledgeable theologians. Nor do I suppose that the purpose is to suppose “myths”, but to point out weaknesses in current doctrine and clerical culture, which are visibly harming the church. They make this clear in the preamble to their statement, which begins with a discussion of the incalculable harm done to the church in Germany and elsewhere, by the sexual abuse scandal, and the factors that have contributed to it.

        Certainly, they are looking for a change in theological emphasis – they make that clear. I suspect that the dismissive reaction in some quarters comes form those who are terrified of any change in doctrine as a matter of principle – but the possibility of doctrinal change has always been part of Catholic tradition, as any look at history will illustrate. Pope Benedict himself has said as much – explicitly as a young man writing about Vatican II, and indirectly much more recently.

        In a public address last month, he spoke about St Joan of Arc. He noted that there are many similarities between her time and our own, and also very pointedly observed that she was condemned to death by theologians – who were clearly in error, as later generations were able to recognise. Surely this is a clear acknowledgement that at times, accepted theology may be misguided, and may need to change?

        It is important to recognize that the German theologians are by no means alone. I have heard it said, by people who should know what they are talking about, that a very substantial proportion of all moral theologians (possibly a majority) privately agree that the entire structure of sexual moral theology is fundamentally unsound, and needs substantial rebuilding.

        • Terry, thank you for this valuable overview of a valuable document from the German church. As of today, the count of theologians in German-speaking areas signing the reform petition to Rome stands at 254.

          In my view, one of the most significant aspects of this document is its opening statement, which notes that, as theologians, those drafting and signing the document recognize their important pastoral responsibility to address a moment of serious crisis in the Catholic church in Germany. In the past year, the numbers of Catholics officially resigning from the Catholic church in Germany and Austria were at record levels. As the theologians note, if this situation is not addressed pastorally–and by dialogue between church pastoral leaders, theologians, and the laity–the church will in all likelihood not recover from its present crisis.

          It is fascinating to me to watch the ill-informed and twisted reaction to this eminently pastoral document in the circles of the American religious and political right. Increasingly, right-wing American Catholics are taking their talking points from websites of the political and religious right, which are without any knowledge at all of the role theologians play in the Catholic church–and, in this case, of the demanding requirements for receiving a degree in theology in Germany.

          The silly ad hominem attacks among those of the American political and religious right, which try to question the expertise or credentials of these German theologians are astonishingly ill-informed. German theologians are among the most rigorously trained in the world, and as with all professions in Germany, they go through a credentialing process that puts the credentialing of theologians in many other countries to shame.

          There is also obviously little awareness among members of the American political and religious right that theologians play a significant function in the Catholic church as teachers called by the Spirit to assist the body of Christ in understanding scripture and tradition. The rather conservative Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, who was made a cardinal, in fact wrote a classic article describing the teaching role of theologians as a second magisterium that works in tandem with that of the bishops of the church.

          Most of all, it is difficult to understand the lack of any sense of pastoral responsibility among American Catholics who take their talking points from the religious and political right, and who seem oblivious of (or even gleeful about?) the serious crisis through which the Catholic church is passing right now, due to the pastoral malfeasance of its leaders. In nation after nation (Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Austria, the U.S., e.g.) people are walking away in droves. By February 2008, the figures in the U.S. were appalling: one in three adults raised Catholic in our country had left the church. One in ten American adults is a former Catholic. If all those who have left the Catholic church in the U.S. were grouped into a church, that church would be the second largest denomination in the country.

          The German theologians are to be highly commended for showing the pastoral responsibility one would expect of any faithful Catholic concerned about the future of the church, and, in particular, from theologians.

          • And thanks to you, Bill, for the update on numbers and the valuable background on the nature of the training and status of German theologians.

            My degree is in Mathematics, so I’m always partial to numbers – but it doesn’t take university level to spot that if 143 represented roughly a third, then 245 represents more than half. (100% = 143 x 3 = 430 approx. 50% of 429 = 215). Once some brave souls go public with a risky public statement, other more timid ones find it easier to follow. In exactly the same way, once Cardinal Schonborn made his observations last April about shifting the emphasis from homosexual acts to the quality of gay relationships. a series of other bishops followed up with similar thoughts.

            I am convinced that in the months and years ahead, similar thoughts on the need to reform some basic premises in current doctrine will become commonplace, accepted by most theologians and by many bishops.

  3. Terence,

    I’m not sure why, but the Old Testament passage of Elijah and the priests of Baal come to mind.

    There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church will have to reform if it wants to retain members. However, that accusation holds true for the Christian Church, and for religious institutions in general.

    I have no idea if these theologians are Catholic, Christian, agnostic, or even atheists. Their statement contains very little theological insight. Rather, I would classify it as a pastoral document, or even a social commentary.

    • I cannot understand why you do not know if they are Catholic – it is quite clear that they are. That is how they describe themselves, that is how they are described in the press – and in many cases, they are working in Catholic educational institutions. Why doubt it?

      Nor I do understand what you mean by “very little theological insight”. I’m not sure that it was intended to be “theological” in any formal sense, although it certainly says a great deal about the current state of eccesliology in the Church. Bor is it “social commentary”. It is rather, a commentary on the current state of the church, its structures nad internal rules. and the poor foundations of its official doctrines. Whether the document itself explicitly displays “theological insight” is irrelevant. What is far more important is that the signatories collectively, representing over half of all professional theologians in Germany and many more from elsewhere, between them surely do possess that insight. That is what we need to reflect on here.

    • Terence,

      It is a comment on the state of the Church. But, it is not clear to me if this is primarily a political statement, social comment, or what it is, or should signify to the Catholic in the pew.

      The document seems to be saying that the Catholic Church should be more like the Protestant churches if it wants to retain its membership. There can be little doubt about the truth of this statement. However, retaining membership is not the Church’s primary mission.

      I would agree that academic theologians are particularly well-suited to comment on theologies that are ill-founded. That doesn’t seem to be the case. They don’t seem to be speaking from any particular theological perspective.

      • David, it’s about far more than simply retaining membership. Far more importantly, it’s about returning the church to obedience to the Gospels, rather than the blind loyalty to the Vatican oligarchs.

  4. Terry, thank you for continuing to bring to our attention this powerful theological statement, with its deep, attentive roots in Catholic theology and scripture. I’m struck, in particular, by the following theologically powerful passage:

    The Church does not exist for its own sake. 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.

    This, of course, echoes the biblical proclamation of the reign of God on which the church is founded, since Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, but certainly never envisaged the church that grew up in response to that proclamation as its embodiment. And so the church lives always under the proviso of Jesus’s proclamation of the reign of God, which functions as a constant reminder that the church does not live for itself, for its power and comfort, but to serve the reign of God.

    Which it helps to make present in the world by exhibiting absolute respect for every person, and above all, solidarity with the poor and oppressed. It is a terrible indictment of many American Christians, including many American Catholics who now take their queues from a political and religious right with no understanding of traditional Catholic theology or the values of the Catholic tradition, that we American Christians too frequently imagine that we can give witness to the gospel while ignoring, and even deepening the stigmatization of, those on the economic and social margins of our world.

    When we attack the significant movements within our churches that call us to embody in our lives and behavior the fundamental Christian commitment to put the poor first, we undermine the church’s ability to function as a sacramental sign in the world of God’s universal love, and God’s preferential love for the poor. That sacramental principle is fundamental to the church’s life, as it points to the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus, which is a constant critique of the life of the church throughout history.

  5. It’s interesting to note the German Catholic bishops’ response to this theological document written by German Catholic theologians and signed by a large percentage of German Catholic theologians. Speaking through their conference secretary, Fr. Hans Langendörfer, SJ, the bishops note,

    In this memorandum many professors of Catholic theology contribute to the conversation about the future of faith and church in Germany….. For over twenty years, there has been structured dialogue with experts from the German bishops of various subjects of theology. These have worked well and are beneficial to both sides.

    Given this statement, it has been fascinating to watch right-wing political groups in the U.S., and those who take their cues from those groups (even Catholics who take their cues from groups whose fundamental beliefs are antithetical to key Catholic tenets) try to diminish the significance of this statement by attacking the theological credentials of the German theologians. Or by implying that they aren’t even theologians and that theologians have no real role to play in the magisterial function of Catholicism.

    The German bishops’ statement acknowledges that many professors of Catholic theology are making their voices heard in this statement. And they’re making a contribution:they’re contributing to a conversation about the future of the Catholic church in Germany.

    As the bishops’ statement also points out, this conversation between German Catholic theologians and German Catholic bishops has been ongoing and has been welcomed by the German bishops because it is beneficial to both sides: it displays the kind of constructive involvement of both bishops and laity in a conversation about the future of the church that is a hallmark of Catholicism at its best.

  6. As I keep thinking further about the many rich theological themes–deeply traditional Catholic theological themes–in this theological document, Terry, I’m struck by these Catholic theologians’ insistence that the church’s credibility depends on its being a sacramental sign of what it proclaims to the world.

    The fundamental, core Catholic proclamation is that God has entered the world in Christ to embrace the entire cosmos, and to draw all of us to redemption. There can be no authentically Catholic vision of the church that does not intend and actively work for the redemption of the entire cosmos and everyone in it.

    The gospels are full of parables and sayings that illustrate this point. A good shepherd leaves the 99 sheep who are safe to seek the one lost sheep. When those invited to the wedding feast do not appear, the host tells his servants to go into the highways and byways and bring anyone they see inside. The great commission Jesus gives to his gospels following his resurrection instructs them to go into all the world and make disciples of everyone.

    And so a church that turns its back on anyone and shrugs its shoulders as people leave betrays–at the most fundamental level possible–the pastoral charge given to it by Christ. It betrays at the most fundamental level possible the core meaning of what it means to be Catholic. For this reason, the German Catholic theologians state,

    The Church does not exist for its own sake. 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 liberating message of the Gospel.

    What the church proclaims, what it teaches, can be credible only when the church itself is a sacramental sign of what it proclaims. Our actions teach louder than our words. When parishes or members of the Catholic community ignore groups of brothers and sisters who have been made unwelcome or who have walked away, they radically undermine their proclamation of what it means to be Catholic.

    As German Catholic Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann of Würzburg said at the end of last year, re: the exodus of many German Catholics from the church, even one is too many. This is the authentic Catholic vision. Without it, we’re simply not really authentically Catholic at all.

  7. Terry, the newspaper Badische Zeitung is reporting today information that confirms your analysis that the revolution of which this theologians’ petition is a part is widening and deepening. In an article noting that the revolution is going wider and deeper, this German newspaper reports that a group of priests of the diocese of Freiburg–some 15 priests at present–are calling for dialogue based on the German theologians’ petition. This group includes the pastor of the Freiburg cathedral Claudius Stoffel.

    I believe some American Catholics who take their talking points primarily from right-wing political websites with little understanding of Catholic issues have tried to minimize the German theologians’ petition by claiming it lacks support of priests. This support in Freiburg is a significant thing, since there has been a huge exodus of Catholics from the church in that part of Germany, and one influential Catholic in that diocese has filed suit to try to get the German government to permit Catholics to withhold their church tax from the church without officially leaving the church.

    • Thanks, Bill. I had seen a link to the Freiburg priests’ list in an email news release from Wir Sind Kirche, and thought of writing about it – but with shaky German, and short of time, I didn’t follow up on it. Your information is helpful.

      Now to see if the momentum really does carry through to other countries.

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