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German bishops: most Catholics reject Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality

February 04, 2014

Most Catholics in Germany have never heard of the term “natural law” and reject Catholic teaching on human sexuality, according to a report from the German Bishops’ Conference.

The report is a response to a series of questions sent to bishops’ conferences by the Synod of Bishops in preparation for the upcoming synod on the family. In November, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, pointed out that the questions asked by the Synod “are not regarding the doctrinal position of the Church,” but were intended to solicit information about pastoral practices and public attitudes in different societies.

“Most of the baptized have an image of the Church on the one hand that it is family friendly in its attitude, whilst at the same time considering her sexual morality to be unrealistic,” according to the German bishops’ report, which was released on February 3. “As a matter of principle, statements made at universal level are regarded as not being suited in terms of their linguistic style and their authoritative approach to be understood and accepted among the baptized.”

“In most cases where the Church’s teaching is known, it is only selectively accepted,” the report continued. “The idea of the sacramental marriage covenant, which encompasses faithfulness and exclusivity on the part of the spouses and the transmission of life, is normally accepted by people who marry in Church. Most of the baptized enter into marriage in the expectation and hope of concluding a bond for life. The Church’s statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried, and on birth control, by contrast, are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases.”

“Most of the baptized are also not familiar with the term ‘natural law,’” the report added. “Many baptized categorically refused to answer this question in their responses, stating that they simply had never heard the term before.”

The report also found that:

  • “Parents today make considerable efforts not to force children into anything, particularly with regard to religion. Conflicts are rather avoided than acted out in this area. What is more, parents themselves feel insecure when it comes to religious topics, so that they are frequently speechless when it comes to transmitting the faith, and delegate this topic to institutions such as kindergarten, the local church and school, even though they consider it to be important.”
  • “Almost all couples who wish to marry in Church have already been living together, frequently for several years (estimates are between 90% and 100%).”
  • “71.8% of all children who were born to Catholic mothers in 2012 were born in wedlock and 28.8% were born to an unmarried mother … Catholics in Germany accept unmarried couples living together without any major reservations. Only three percent adopt a strictly negative position in this regard.”

Those who have remarried outside the Church “do not consider their situation to be irregular,” the report added. “People in fact emphatically reject the terms ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ in this context because they are perceived as being marginalizing and discriminating, particularly vis-à-vis families which in any case are already facing difficult living conditions. They consider their separation and the establishment of a new relationship as morally justified, and on the contrary may even consider it to be wrong to remain in an unacceptable relationship.”

“There are also quite a number of couples among committed people in the parishes who are divorced and remarried, the report continued. “Many of them however undergo considerable suffering, particularly those who are committed members of the Church. They feel discriminated against and marginalized by being excluded from the sacraments, but also by being excluded from certain services and offices … Most Catholics, including those who live in intact marriages, are unable to comprehend the teachings of the Church in this regard, but demand that pastoral care should involve respect for the individual’s conscience-based decision and a merciful approach towards failure which also allows people to make a new beginning and be re-admitted to the sacraments, in particular to the Eucharist.”

According to the report, most Catholics question the annulment process:

The statements from the dioceses are unanimous that most Catholics whose marriages have failed do not concern themselves with the question of validity because they do not regard their marriages, which may have lasted for years in many cases, as “null and void”, but as having failed. They therefore frequently consider an annulment procedure to be dishonest. They expect the Church to enable them to start again in a new relationship … The canonical exclusion from the sacraments as a result of civil remarriage is perceived by those concerned as constituting unjustified discrimination and being merciless.

Despite the German bishops’ opposition to same-sex unions, “there is a marked tendency among German Catholics to regard the legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships and their equal treatment vis-à-vis marriage as a commandment of justice.”

Turning to Catholic teaching on contraception, the German bishops’ report said that “the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) on responsible parenthood is only known among the older generation … the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ birth control methods and the prohibition of the latter is rejected by the great majority of Catholics as incomprehensible, and is not adhered to in practice … Since a majority of practicing Catholics do not accept the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ birth control methods, they also do not make a connection between the selection of the birth control method and receiving the Sacrament of Penance or the Eucharist. The responses from the dioceses are unanimous that Catholics do not regard the use of ‘artificial’ birth control methods as sinful, and consequently also not as something to be confessed.”

Concluding the report, the bishops’ conference called for “perhaps re-admitting” those in an invalid marriage to the sacraments and offering “blessings for people in difficult situations”:

The responses from the bishoprics make it clear how great is the gulf between the baptized and the official teachings, above all when it comes to pre-marital cohabitation, those divorced and remarried, birth-control and homosexuality …

A new approach also appears to be indispensable in view of the evaluation of the “failure” of human relationships. As the responses clearly show, neither people in general today, nor the baptized, understand the thinking and the arguments of the Church concerning this question. This is a matter of fundamentally re-defining the place which the Church reserves for people whose marital relationships have failed and of constructively and productively tackling the question of perhaps re-admitting them to the sacraments. A fresh look needs to be taken at the significance of blessings for people in difficult situations, with these being kept clearly distinct from sacramental celebrations.


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  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 06, 2014 4:27 PM ET USA

    Stjohnneumann, when Msgr Bill Smith told that story, it was a bishop from NY who asked the question and Pope JP II's response was "many will be saved by invincible ignorance but there will be Bishops in hell because of invincible ignorance". Ouch!!!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 05, 2014 9:04 AM ET USA

    It would seem that the consensus of the comments is clear. Despite the apparently seamless presentation and the superficial clarity of the report the entire thing is more like a mask covering the duplicity of most of the bishops.

  • Posted by: Athelstan - Feb. 04, 2014 11:27 PM ET USA

    The situation in Germany clearly reflects the Bishops' and their priests' failure to teach the laity. The laity are ignorant, and the fault must lie heavily on the hierarchy who will stand before the Tribunal of God at the Last Judgment. Have they no fear? If so, it must be because they have no faith.

  • Posted by: unum - Feb. 04, 2014 8:47 PM ET USA

    The corporate Church of the 21st Century in Germany (and in the U.S) apparently believes that they were called to financial management and political action by Christ instead of teaching as Jesus did. The failure of the clergy to even mention Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, much less actually teach the benefits of living by the natural law is legend - in the U.S. and elsewhere. The laity are lost sheep because they have no shepherds.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 04, 2014 7:40 PM ET USA

    Referring to that last sentence that begins, "A fresh look. . . ," a fresh look needs to be taken at Michaelangelo's painting of the Last Judgment, particularly the bottom part.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Feb. 04, 2014 7:37 PM ET USA

    Although Germany's situation may be among the worst in the world, due to their seemingly rebelling clergy, I think we can expect similar numbers to repeat elsewhere. The situation is so bad that I cannot even opine. Only God can help us.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 04, 2014 6:40 PM ET USA

    I cannot imagine that the report would be any different if made on the Catholics in America. I just wonder how the Bishops didn't bring this up with Pope during their ad limina. Or perhaps they forgot to mention this. A loss of faith due to a lack of faithful teaching is a possible cause. Much prayer for Bishops and priests is needed.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 04, 2014 6:30 PM ET USA

    This is hardly the first time Germany has faced this situation. Once before, after 1932, many German bishops soft-pedaled perennial Church teachings about about the indivisibility of the human family. Catholics in the pews took their cue from this and supported and joined Nazi organizations like the SS. It took a very bloody war to put an end to the bishops' pusillanimity and their flock's heresy back then. What will it take this time around?

  • Posted by: St.John Neumann - Feb. 04, 2014 6:14 PM ET USA

    At a meeting of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a priest who was present reported that one of the NY bishops asked Bl.Pope John Paul II if it was true that people did not go to hell because of invincible ignorance. He responded, "only those priests who teach invincible ignorance go to hell." After that, the Msgr said, no one asked him any more questions!

  • Posted by: ILM - Feb. 04, 2014 5:00 PM ET USA

    It brings to mind Christ musing in the Gospels: ‘when I return will I find any faith at all’. What is God to do with us?

  • Posted by: filioque - Feb. 04, 2014 3:22 PM ET USA

    As ye sow, so shall ye reap. No teaching leads to no believing. Will the bishops, in Germany or the U.S., acknowledge that?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 04, 2014 1:13 PM ET USA

    The German Bishops tell us a lot about the attitudes of their flock. They don't tell us, however, how often they (the Bishops, that is) and their priests have preached the Church's full and complete teachings on pre-marital cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, birth-control and homosexuality. I'd be willing to bet that the attitude of their parishioners is directly related to how little emphasis they have given these teachings over the last few decades.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 04, 2014 12:56 PM ET USA

    Uh, change German to read United States and you pretty much have the US input also.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 04, 2014 11:32 AM ET USA

    tl;dr, here's a summary. German bishops: we failed to teach the faith except for where we effectively undermined it. Surveys show that, in Germany, the faith is dead. Since we cannot possibly be at fault for the faith's demise, we propose re-defining as 'the faith' that which people currently believe. We are certain that surveys will then show that the faith is vibrant and alive in Germany. Problem solved.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Feb. 04, 2014 10:55 AM ET USA

    To be ignorant of the concept of natural law, is to be defiant of common sense, common human decency, and causes the mindset that continues to avoid thinking about it, effectively atheistic. The bishops have been accommodating atheism among Catholics for way too long.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 04, 2014 9:47 AM ET USA

    This "report" coming from Roman Catholic bishops is really strange. No references there to the Scripture and Tradition, no mention of Christian commitment or of the Commandments. No word about sacrifice or sacrificial love. And, most importantly, there is nothing in the "report" about eternal life and Salvation, which seem to be substituted by sexual gratification. It's a little too Oprahesque in its substance (or lack of thereof).