Two high-ranking Catholic bishops made headlines recently by calling for a change in Church teaching on homosexuality. On February 3, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Bishop of Luxembourg, said bluntly that Catholic doctrine on homosexuality is “sinful” and “wrong” because it is based on out-of-date understandings of sociology and biology. A month later, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg (in Cologne), the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, was equally frank. He said that a gay relationship is “OK if it’s done in fidelity and responsibility.” Although statements of this sort have often been heard in the Catholic Church since at least the 1980s, I was surprised to hear them coming from a cardinal and from the head of a bishops conference. Now, in response to these statements, another cardinal, George Pell of Australia, has called for the Vatican to discipline both bishops for their dissent. I do not agree with Hollerich’s and Bätzing’s call, but I want to understand them theologically in light of Pope Francis’s understanding of dialogue. I don’t think he will heed Pell’s request due to his belief in dialogue within the Church.

How we got here

First, some context: Cardinal Pell turned 80 last year and thus is no longer eligible to vote in the next conclave. He was an important financial advisor to Pope Francis, serving until 2019 as the first head of the new Secretariat for the Economy, which Francis established early in his papacy. The goal of the Secretariat for the Economy was to bring the notoriously problematic Vatican finances to heel, a process begun by Benedict XVI. However, Pell’s tenure was interrupted in 2018, when he was convicted of sexually abusing two boys decades earlier. Upon appeal to the Australian High Court (equivalent to the Supreme Court of the United States), Pell was acquitted, but not before serving over a year in prison. Pell has been defended by George Weigel, Carl E. Olson, and other conservative Catholics, who now view him as a hero. His call for punishing two liberal prelates will only increase his popularity among them.

Cardinal Hollerich was made cardinal by Pope Francis in 2019. In his comments on homosexuality, he refers to the early modern belief (called “preformationism”) that every sperm contained a tiny, yet complete, human being (called a “homunculus”), which only needed to grow. Hollerich seems to be mistaken on the facts, however. The main lines of Catholic sexual teaching go back to St. Augustine, long before the Enlightenment and the invention of the microscope. Scholastic theologians did not believe in preformationism. Rather, following Aristotle, they believed that human beings develop in stages, beginning in a “vegetative” state, then progressing to an “animal” state, and finally the rational state at around 40 days after conception. This process, and particularly the final stage of it, is called “animation” (ensoulment). While modern biology disproves both older understandings, the Magisterium has never made a pronouncement on the question of whether animation occurs at conception or whether it is delayed, including in the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (13, note 19).

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality is not rooted in scientific theories of embryology, but rather its understanding of the natural law, backed up by certain proof-texts from Scripture (e.g., Rom 1:26-27). The Church, relying especially upon the writings of St. Augustine, believes that marriage has two purposes or “ends”: procreation (prolis bonum) and lifelong fidelity (fidei bonum). The latter good has been primarily conceived of as a “remedy” for lust, with the proof-text being 1 Cor 7:2: “But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (RSV). The proof-text for procreation is, of course, Gen 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Interestingly, Paul does not mention procreation as a reason for marriage. Sex, in the Catholic definition, is the “work proper to marriage” (Gaudium et Spes 49) or the “act proper to conjugal life” (ibid. 51). As such, sex has the same two “ends” as does marriage. Homosexual relationships cannot fulfill the procreative end of marriage. Some people, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (a disciple of Pope Benedict XVI), have suggested that the Church can still find value in gay couples that practice lifelong fidelity, the other end of marriage.

Bishop Bätzing’s call for doctrinal change comes amid the controversial “Synodal Way” the German Church has been engaged in since December 2019. This event is not a synod of bishops, but a much larger process meant to include all Catholics in Germany. As such, it permits laypeople the right to vote, and last year it passed a resolution to accept masturbation, contraception, and the priestly blessing of same-sex relationships. If such a change were possible, it could only be done by the Church’s Magisterium, which is usually exercised by the pope, with the help of the Roman Curia. In extraordinary situations it can be done by convening an Ecumenical Council of bishops with and under the pope (Lumen Gentium 22). The Synodal Way acknowledges this fact, which somewhat undercuts the claims of those who warn that the German Church is headed toward schism.

Division, not schism

The truth that every Catholic knows but rarely speaks is that the division in the Church about sexuality has been around since the Second Vatican Council. It broke out in full after Pope Paul VI, rejecting the majority view of his birth control commission (see Humanae Vitae 5-6), reaffirmed the teaching of his predecessor Pius XI (Casti Connubii 54-55) that contraception is against the natural law insofar as every conjugal act must be directed to both ends of marriage. Paul VI differed from his predecessor, however, by omitting the proof-text of Onan using coitus interruptus (Gen 38:8-10), since Catholic biblical scholars had proven his sin to be a failure to uphold the Mosaic law of levirate marriage. The commission had concluded—along with most Catholic moral theologians at the time, including Fr. Bernard Häring, the leading moralist of the time and one of the drafters of Gaudium et Spes—that the totality of sexual acts in a marriage, not necessarily each individual act, need to be directed to procreation (see Humanae Vitae 3).

If anyone wants to talk about “schism” in the Church with respect to sexuality, they should admit that we’ve been living in de facto “schism” for over half a century. Paul VI was so alarmed by the widespread dissent from his encyclical, even among priests and bishops, that he never published another encyclical, despite sitting on Peter’s chair for ten more years and having published eight encyclicals in his first five years.

Not much later, the Catholic discourse about sex expanded to include discussions of homosexuality, with the debate following similar lines. Although Catholics are divided and nearly everyone is entrenched in their own view, this division is not a true de jure schism, either theologically or canonically. Dissenting from a papal encyclical or a particular doctrine is not what is meant by schism, which is defined as refusing submission to the Roman Pontiff. If that counted as schism, conservative Catholics who reject anything concerning faith and morals (including environmental ethics) from Laudato Si’ or Fratelli Tutti would also be in schism. The penalty for schism is excommunication from the Church, and Cardinal Pell did not propose anything so extreme for these two bishops.

Dialogue for overcoming division

I cannot predict what Pope Francis will or will not do in any given situation, but I think it unlikely that he will discipline either Hollerich or Bätzing. In fact, I doubt the pope will say anything at all. The reason is that he practices what he preaches. One of the most enduring themes of his pontificate – which goes back to Paul VI’s first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam and the Council’s Gaudium et Spes – is dialogue. Some Catholics reject dialogue as if it were an empty buzzword or “corporate speak.” But dialogue is not “an empty buzzword.”

Dialogue refers to the Catholic principle of reciprocal listening. It is rooted in the dialogue that God initiated with the human race through divine revelation, which reached its climax in the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ (Dei Verbum 3-4). Those who are accustomed to think of faith as simply obedience and assent to propositions (I believe that…) do not appreciate the Council’s teaching in this regard. Faith includes both obedience and assent, but these are secondary to the act of faith, which is trust: entrusting one’s whole self to the God who reveals himself (Dei Verbum 5). God does not just reveal information, religious facts; he reveals his very self (Dei Verbum 2). All the “information” of our faith derives from and points back to his self-revelation. The reason it’s important to assent to any propositions, such as that God is love (1 John 4:8) or that he made us in his image (Gen 1:26), is that these beliefs bring us closer to God. They help us to entrust ourselves to him without reservation. And God, in turn, gives himself to us, indwelling our souls (John 14:23).

Because revelation is a dialogue between God and humanity, dialogue must also be the way of the Church, especially in the world of today. This applies both ad extra (relations with the world) and also ad intra (internal relations within the Church). Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized the Church’s engagement with the world and modern thought, such as in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. The reason the implementation of the reforms of Vatican II has been so challenging for the Church for the last sixty years is that engaging with modern thought and its day-to-day realities is difficult and complex. There will always be “conservative” believers who do not want to go too far in engaging the world, lest the Church be polluted and corrupted by “the changing dictats of contemporary secular culture” (to quote Cardinal Pell). Traditionalists take this to an extreme, saying the Council already went too far. They want the Church to remain in a siege mentality against the world, as it was during the anti-modernist phase under Pius IX and Pius X. And there will always be “liberal” believers who think the Church has not yet gone far enough, that we need to take our reflection deeper and institute yet more “opportune amendments” (to quote Pope John XXIII), reforming the Church’s out-of-date norms, doctrines, rites, and practices. For them, Vatican II was a good–but incomplete–starting-point for reform, whereas for traditionalists it went too far, and for conservatives it went just far enough and no farther!

Obviously Hollerich and Bätzing are “liberals.” They want Catholic sexual morality to be re-thought and updated considering modern understandings of sexuality. Pell is a “conservative,” who wants the Church neither to give an inch nor change a jot or tittle (cf. Matt 5:18). Pope Francis from the beginning of his pontificate has signaled his desire to overcome this wearisome and toxic dichotomy through the practices of dialogue, patience, and accompaniment laid out in the first part of Gaudium et Spes (chapters 1-4). He uses, to quote John XXIII’s opening speech to the Council, “the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity” (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia 16). But what does this mean in practice?

Listening in order to walk together

For starters, it means listening. The concerns expressed by Hollerich, Bätzing, and other liberal Catholics need to be heard and taken seriously on the assumption that they proceed from good faith. This means accepting that what they are saying is what they believe to be true in their consciences, even while maintaining disagreement (see Gaudium et Spes 16). Equally deserving of respectful listening are the conservatives and traditionalists, who believe that God has forbidden homosexual acts and contraception and that the Church must uphold these moral prohibitions absolutely. The process of listening requires generosity of heart and a mind disciplined and capacious enough to entertain various ideas without betraying one’s own convictions. This is hard for human beings to do, and sometimes we Christians, because we have strong faith convictions, are bad at it. As Pope Francis mentions again and again, we should look to Jesus as our model here, who was willing to eat and speak with all sorts of people. He was unconcerned about being perceived as “lax” or a sinner by the more pious among his contemporaries. At a minimum, we should avoid labeling our brothers and sisters in Christ with words that serve only to condemn and divide: “schismatic,” “heretic,” “apostate,” “dissenter,” “left-Cath,” “rad-trad.” Pope Francis does not label people in this way, just as Jesus would not “label” the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), even though in doing this he seemed to contradict Scripture and God’s Law (John 8:5).

Respectful listening requires patience. If you only want to get your way in the Church—whether that be a liberal, conservative, or traditionalist version of “my way is God’s way”—you will not be able to dialogue in the way that the Church asks us. Those who are impatient, perhaps claiming the excuse that this is “too important” to wait on or dialogue about, fail to think with the Church. Pope Francis plays the long game, because the Church plays the long game, and above all God plays the long game! Instead of converting the world in an instant by his omnipotence, God has chosen to spread the Gospel slowly, over two thousand years and counting, with many fits and starts. We cannot say this is contrary to his will, because it was he who chose to create us with the capacity to reject himself. But he always speaks to our hearts, nudging us with his grace. Imitating God, let’s be patient with all our brothers and sisters, including the bishops and cardinals.

Finally, Pope Francis speaks of “accompaniment,” walking side by side with people. This is also called “synodality,” the etymology of which means “on the path together” (synodos in Greek—which sounds more poetic than its mere denotation as a meeting!). Francis keeps saying he wants the whole Church to be more synodal and less top-down, less “hierarchical” in the sense of the pope giving commands to subordinates. In this he follows the teachings of Lumen Gentium on episcopal collegiality, which revised the inadequate pre-conciliar theology that saw the bishops as branch managers and “vicars of the pope” instead of true vicars of Christ (Lumen Gentium 27). Synodality expands upon episcopal collegiality in that it brings in the whole People of God, not just the clergy.

In the light of synodality, it would be ideal for Cardinals Hollerich and Pell and Bishop Bätzing to sit down together and talk about this face to face. Not a public debate geared towards the watching global Catholic audience, but a private dialogue. We Catholics are all are in this together, and all sides should be able to sit together and discuss church teaching, including sexuality, with charity and without compromising our own convictions. The goal of such dialogue is not to win or find some imaginary compromise, but to better understand one another, so that we may better love one another as Christ commanded. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NRSV). Unfortunately, many are unwilling to do this, preferring to excommunicate the other side, declaring them to be not real Catholics and guilty of schism. This is the hardest challenge that faces the Church in trying to implement the pope’s desire that we be synodal: showing our love for one another.

Discipline for dissent

I do not believe Pope Francis will (or should) impose disciplinary measures against Hollerich or Bätzing, because to do so would be inimical to dialogue and synodality. When you impose a punishment upon a subordinate, you are not engaged in dialogue. You may still listen to them, but you cannot walk with them, since you are now judge rather than sibling. Francis takes dialogue and synodality too seriously to endanger that and frustrate his own goal. He has told bishops that he wants them to use “parrhesia,” which means frankness and openness in speaking plainly. I do not say this because I believe Francis agrees with these two bishops. On the contrary, he has made it clear that he is a “son of the Church” and accepts the Church’s traditional understanding of human sexuality. It’s just that he also believes the Church needs to be more welcoming and accommodating of individuals in “irregular” sexual relationships.

For decades, conservative Catholics longed for John Paul II to “crack down” on dissent, while liberal Catholics complained about those specific theologians who were censured by the Vatican under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, both sides were convinced (one with glee and schadenfreude and the other with dread and loathing) that Benedict XVI would carry out this fantasy. It quickly became obvious that the “crackdown” would not happen, because Benedict saw his new role as Bishop of Rome in a very different light from his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He quickly signaled this to the world by inviting Fr. Hans Küng to lunch with him. Küng, above all others, represented the punished “Concilium” theologians. In one simple gesture (evocative of Pope Francis), Benedict symbolized that theological dialogue within the Church would continue. This was not merely a truce, but a shared meal between brothers, symbolizing the Holy Eucharist.

This is the plan that Pope Francis has lived out. Although from a theological perspective, he seems to remain on the “Communio” side of the Church, upholding the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict on sexuality (and on the impossibility of the ordination of women), he does so in a dialogical way. He invites everyone to the table and does not retaliate against those who disagree. I think he believes that most of us act in good faith, even when we’re wrong or at odds with Church teaching.

Although some unserious people have tried to paint Pope Francis as a “dictator” who seeks to impose “liberal” ideas upon the Church, he has not done that at all. What he has done is change the emphasis in the Church’s with respect to the “pelvic issues” and other hot-button topics like just war and the death penalty. Whereas Benedict and John Paul II drew a sharp line between the Church’s official teaching and theological ideas at odds with it, Francis puts more stress on dialogue. The lines haven’t changed—as is obvious to every liberal Catholic who has become disappointed with Francis—but the emphasis, posture, and “tone” have changed. While some dismiss these things as unimportant, “the medium is the message.” Francis believes, and I agree with him, that by changing the way of living and being Church, a great deal is changed, even while the doctrines remain the same.


Image Credit: Cardinals attend a service led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica in a 2018 file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

Dialogue Must Be the Way of the Church
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