There are good reasons to be concerned about the German ‘Synodal Way.’ Many in the Vatican, including Pope Francis himself, are concerned about it. But since it is our duty as Catholics to cleave to the truth, we have to concern ourselves with what is really happening, and what is really being said, and not with an ideological distortion of the situation.
The plan for the ‘Synodal Way’ promises unfiltered discussion of some hot-button issues. Because the boundaries for discussion will not be policed in the way they have been in the past, we are going to be exposed to some controversial viewpoints. That’s all the more reason for demanding accuracy in reporting on the subject.
Earlier this month, the German Bishops’ Conference published a press release that is still causing some controversy. Here is my translation/paraphrase of the important information in the press release:
December 4 marked the end of an “expert consultation” on the theme of human sexuality, carried out by the Bishops’ Conference Commission for Marriage and Family with the goal of determining how to discuss human sexuality in both scientific and theological terms and how to evaluate it within the context of the Church. The point of departure for the consultation was the Synodal Way of the Church in Germany. The Commission wanted input from the viewpoints of sexual medicine, theological anthropology, and moral theology in order to discuss magisterial teaching on sexual morality and examine the history and background of Church teaching on sexuality. The consultation involved experts in sexual medicine, moral theology, dogmatic theology, and canon law.
The chairman of the Commission, Archbishop Heiner Koch, said that the Synodal Way should begin in an impartial way, without any fixed preconceptions, but not without a knowledge of the current state of science on the subject. There was consensus that human sexuality encompasses dimensions of passion, procreation, and relationship. There was also agreement that sexual preferences of either a heterosexual or homosexual orientation take shape during puberty, and that both are normal forms of sexual preference that cannot and should not be altered through any specific form of socialization. According to the thinking of the Church, this means that all forms of discrimination against homosexual people must be rejected, as has long been demanded in Church teaching and has also been explicitly emphasized by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia. There was controversy, however, over the question of whether the prohibition of homosexual acts according to Church teaching is in keeping with the times, as there was regarding the question of the permissibility of the use of artificial contraception in marriage and by unmarried couples.
Archbishop Koch and Bishop Bode emphasized the importance of a solid discussion supported by both human sciences and theology and highlighted the already discernible developments in Amoris Laetitia. For example, a sexual relationship after divorce and remarriage no longer always qualifies as a grave/mortal/serious [the language is unclear] sin in a blanket sense, and thus no longer demands a general exclusion from the reception of the Eucharist.
The results of the expert consultation will influence a forum of the Synodal Way on love and sexuality, which will begin its work in February 2020.
The CNA article on the press release, “German bishops commit to ‘newly assessing’ Catholic doctrine on homosexuality and sexual morality,” gets it somewhat right, although there is significance in what they choose to emphasize or de-emphasize. Certainly, the full context of the announcement is lacking. The CNA article begins,
The German bishops’ conference has committed to “newly assessing” the universal Church’s teaching on homosexuality, sexual morality in general, as well as the sacraments of ordination and marriage. The commitment comes at the beginning of a controversial two-year “Synodal Process” by the German hierarchy.
Following consultations in Berlin last week, the chairman of the Marriage and Family Commission of the German bishops’ conference declared that the bishops agreed that homosexuality is a “normal form” of human sexual identity.
The fact that the press release offered a report on a consultation, and not a declaration by the German Bishops’ Conference, is only clarified partway through the article. The headline and the opening paragraphs of the article give the impression that the German bishops are attempting a grand reevaluation of the fundamentals of Church teaching, with the first step being their declaration that homosexuality is normal. Further, CNA attributes the statement that “The sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero- or homosexual orientation” directly to Archbishop Koch, but the original press release implies instead that this was the consensus formed among the group of experts (perhaps along with the attending bishops, but it is not clear from the press release), and not a declaration on the part of the Bishops’ Conference. The reality seems to be that the bishops, at this point, are listening rather than proclaiming, and are initiating a process of dialogue and debate. Oddly enough, the LifeSite article on the press release, despite its clickbait headline (“German bishops proclaim homosexuality ‘normal,’ adultery ‘not grave’”), offers a more nuanced interpretation that suggests the consensus was reached among the experts at the consultation, and not among the members of the German bishops’ conference.
Adding to the potential for sensationalist misinterpretation, the CNA article states that “All participants, according to Koch, agreed that ‘human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust, of procreation, and of relationships.’ But “lust,” in English, and in a Catholic context, is a specific sin. In German, “Lust” can mean anything from pleasure to want or delight. This may have been a simple oversight, because Google translates it as “lust,” but it is not an accurate translation. Unfortunately, that mistranslation has appeared in other reports on the press release as well.
CNA’s somewhat distorted reporting was picked up by the Daily Mail, which distorted it further and sent it out into the non-Catholic world. In their article, they quote CNA and likewise portray the statement on homosexuality as some kind of declaration by Koch and the other bishops, but then claim that Koch “said the move had been made possible by Pope Francis’s book on marriage and family called Amoris laetitia.” We are thus to understand that this “move” of declaring homosexuality normal is attributable to Amoris Laetitia, but that is a total misinterpretation of the press release, if not an outright falsification. It’s quite a mess, and we should not be playing the telephone game here.
As it stands, the most controversial aspect of the press release is the report on the consensus that homosexuality is a sexual predisposition that is not dependent on environmental factors and should not be changed through attempts at re-socialization. This does not contradict the Catechism, which takes no position on the innateness of homosexuality but rather states that “[i]ts psychological genesis remains largely unexplained” (CCC 2357), but it does represent an opinion that may challenge some Catholics who maintain that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors like upbringing or abuse. That being said, we have to admit that scientific opinion is strongly tending toward the idea that homosexuality is at least partially innate, especially now that “conversion therapy” has received much justified criticism for the weak scientific evidence of its effectiveness and the damage it has inflicted on some people.
As the process moves forward, I will try my best to delve into the press releases with what little knowledge of German I have. I only wish there were professional sources to which we could turn for more reliable information.
D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.