ROME — A one-day study meeting — open only to a select group of individuals — took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University on Monday with the aim of urging “pastoral innovations” at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family in October.
Around 50 participants, including bishops, theologians and media representatives, took part in the gathering, at the invitation of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France — Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Bishop Markus Büchel and Archbishop Georges Pontier.
One of the key topics discussed at the closed-door meeting was how the Church could better welcome those in stable same-sex unions, and reportedly “no one” opposed such unions being recognized as valid by the Church.
Participants also spoke of the need to “develop” the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and called not for a theology of the body, as famously taught by St. John Paul II, but the development of a “theology of love.”
One Swiss priest discussed the “importance of the human sex drive,” while another participant, talking about holy Communion for remarried divorcees, asked: “How can we deny it, as though it were a punishment for the people who have failed and found a new partner with whom to start a new life?”
Marco Ansaldo, a reporter for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, who was present at the meeting, said the words seemed “revolutionary, uttered by clergymen.”
French biblicist and Ratzinger Prize-winner Anne-Marie Pelletier praised the dialogue that took place between theologians and bishops as a “real sign of the times.” According to La Stampa, another Italian daily newspaper, Pelletier said the Church needs to enter into “a dynamic of mutual listening,” in which the magisterium continues to guide consciences, but she believes it can only effectively do so if it “echoes the words of the baptized.”
The meeting took the “risk of the new, in fidelity with Christ,” she claimed. The article also quoted a participant as saying the synod would be a “failure” if it simply continued to affirm what the Church has always taught.
The closed-door meeting, masterminded by the German bishops’ conference under the leadership of Cardinal Marx, was first proposed at the annual meeting of the heads of the three bishops’ conferences, held in January in Marseille, France.
The study day took place just days after the people of Ireland voted in a referendum in support of same-sex “marriage” and on the same day as the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops met in Rome. Some observers did not see the timing as a coincidence.
The synod council has been drawing up the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the October synod on the family. Integrated into the document will be the responses of a questionnaire sent to laity around the world. Those responses, particularly from Switzerland and Germany, appeared to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Church adapting her teachings to the secular world.
Why the Lack of Publicity?
No one would say why the study day was held in confidence. So secret was the meeting that even prominent Jesuits at the Gregorian were completely unaware of it. The Register learned about it when Jean-Marie Guénois was the first to report the information in a story in Le Figaro.
Speaking to the Register as he left the meeting, Cardinal Marx insisted the study day wasn’t secret. But he became irritated when pressed about why it wasn’t advertised, saying he had simply come to Rome in a “private capacity” and that he had every right to do so. Close to Pope Francis and part of his nine-member council of cardinals, the cardinal is known to be especially eager to reform the Church’s approach to homosexuals. During his Pentecost homily last Sunday, Cardinal Marx called for a “welcoming culture” in the Church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.”
Cardinal Marx is also not alone, among those attending the meeting, in pushing for radical changes to the Church’s life. The head of the Swiss bishops, Bishop Büchel of St. Gallen, has spoken openly in favor of women’s ordination, saying in 2011 that the Church should “pray that the Holy Spirit enables us to read the signs of the times.” Archbishop Pontier, head of the French bishops, is also known to have heterodox leanings.
The meeting’s organizers were unwilling to disclose the names of everyone who took part, but the Register has obtained a full list of participants. They included Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the German bishops’ conference, who has been the leading figure behind the recent reform of German Church labor laws to controversially allow remarried divorcees and homosexual couples to work in Church institutions.
Among the specialists present was Father Eberhard Schockenhoff, a moral theologian. Faithful German Catholics are particularly disturbed about the rise to prominence of Father Schockenhoff, who is understood to be the “mastermind” behind much of the challenge to settled Church teachings among the German episcopate and, by implication, at the synod on the family itself.
A prominent critic of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), as well as a strong supporter of homosexual clergy and those pushing for reform in the area of sexual ethics, Father Schockenhoff is known to be the leading adviser of the German bishops in the run-up to the synod.
In 2010, he gave an interview in which he praised the permanence and solidarity shown in some same-sex relationships as “ethically valuable.” He urged that any assessment of homosexual acts “must take a back seat” on the grounds that the faithful are becoming “increasingly distant from the Church’s sexual morality,” which appears “unrealistic and hostile to them.” The Pope and the bishops should “take this seriously and not dismiss it as laxity,” he said.
Father Schockenhoff has also gone on record saying that moral theology must be “liberated from the natural law” and that conscience should be based on the “life experience of the faithful.”
He has also insisted that the indissolubility of marriage is “not seriously called into question” by admitting remarried divorcees to holy Communion, writing a book to push his thesis in 2011 entitled “Opportunities for Reconciliation?: The Church and the Divorced and Remarried.” He has further proposed that the term the “official Church” should be done away with because of a growing gap between the institutional Church and the Church of the faithful.
Also present were Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio lay community; Jesuit Father Andreas Batlogg, professor of philosophy and theology and chief editor of the liberal periodical Stimmen der Zeit (Voices of the Time) — the journal has devoted its June issue to same-sex relationships and the synod — and Salesian Msgr. Markus Graulich, prelate auditor of the tribunal of the Roman Rota, one of very few Curial officials to attend. Some of those participating, such as Msgr. Graulich, took part in the previous synod.
Also noted were the large number of media representatives. Journalists from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German broadcasters ZDF and ARD, the Italian daily La Repubblica and French-Catholic media La Croix and I-Media were also present. Their presence was “striking,” said one observer, who predicted they will be used to promote the agenda of the subject matter under discussion in the weeks leading up to the synod.
Monday’s meeting is just the latest attempt to subtly steer the upcoming synod in a direction opposed by many faithful Catholics. A statement on the study day released by the German bishops’ conference May 26 said there was a “reflection on biblical hermeneutics” — widely seen as code words for understanding the Bible differently from Tradition — and the need for a “reflection on a theology of love.”
Critics say this, too, is undermining Church teaching. By replacing the theology of the body with a “theology of love,” it creates an abstract interpretation that separates sex from procreation, thereby allowing forms of extramarital unions and same-sex attractions based simply on emotions rather than biological reality. Gone, say critics, is the Catholic view of marriage, which should be open to procreation.
The statement, which conspicuously failed to mention sin, ended by saying that “further discussion on the future of marriage and family is necessary and possible” and that it would be “enriched by a further, intensive theological reflection.”
This, too, is code for wanting a change in teaching, giving the impression that the doctrine in these areas is open to change. But for the Catholic Church, it is a settled issue.
“Imagine if the Church accepted homosexual relationships,” said one source speaking on condition of anonymity. “Ultimately, that is what these people want.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.