German Bishops Rethink Catholic Teachings Amid Talk of ‘Schism’

Conservatives, particularly in the U.S., greet the prospect with alarm

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich (far left) during an audience with Pope Francis (right) at the Vatican last year

By Francis X. Rocca

Germany’s Catholic bishops will meet in Frankfurt on Thursday to launch their most ambitious effort yet in their role as the church’s liberal vanguard: a two-year series of talks rethinking church teaching and practice on topics including homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and the ordination of women.

Conservatives in Germany and abroad are greeting the prospect with alarm, and nowhere more so than in the U.S., whose episcopate has emerged as the western world’s foremost resistance to progressive trends under Pope Francis.

The tension between the groups epitomizes significant divisions in the church, which some warn could lead to a permanent split.

Earlier in January, a group of conservative Catholics from various countries, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. who has become one of the pope’s harshest critics, gathered in Munich to warn that the German initiative would result in “the constitution of a church separate from Rome.”

The event starting this week originated as a response to the scandal over sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests. A 2018 report on the crisis in Germany called for a more positive attitude to homosexuality and more attention to the challenge of celibacy. Catholic women’s groups later prevailed on the gathering to also address the question of gender equity in the church’s leadership.

The decline of the Catholic Church in Germany has accelerated amid the scandals and growing secularization. According to the church’s latest statistics, 216,078 people left the church in 2018—a leap of 29% from the previous year. A poll published in January by the Forsa Institute showed that only 14% of Germans trusted the Catholic Church, down from 18% the previous year. Trust in Pope Francis fell to 29% from 34%.

However, the church in Germany is prospering as never before in material terms, receiving a record €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) through a state-collected tax in 2018. German bishops are among the biggest financial supporters of the Vatican and of Catholic institutions in the developing world.

German bishops have enjoyed rising influence under Pope Francis, reflected in his policies of greater leniency on divorce and more autonomy for local church authorities on matters such as liturgy—moves long advocated by German theologians.

The leaders of the German synod, which will include representatives of Catholic laypeople, say they are offering it as a model for the church at large.

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, head of the German bishops’ news agency, estimates that around two thirds of the bishops—the threshold for passing a resolution—support the ordination of married men and women deacons and half are in favor of blessings for same-sex unions.

American conservatives say that for a branch of the church even to consider such moves poses a threat to unity.

“The German bishops continue move toward #schism from the universal Church,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said on Twitter in September.

A minority of German bishops share such fears—and look to the U.S. for support. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, leader of the German conservatives, traveled last summer to the U.S., where he visited various church institutions and met with some of his most prominent American counterparts.

“Everywhere, I encountered concern about the current developments in Germany,” the cardinal later told his diocesan newspaper. “In many meetings, the worry was tangible that the ’synodal path’ is leading us on a German special path, that in the worst case we could even put communion with the universal church at risk and become a German national church.”

Pope Francis himself has cautioned the Germans not to stray too far.

“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” the pope said in an open letter to German Catholics in June.

But after meeting with the pope and Vatican officials in September, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, chairman of the German bishops conference, said: “There are no stop signs from Rome.”

In fact, when Pope Francis has publicly entertained the possibility of a split in the church, it has been in regards to the U.S., not Germany.

“There is always the option for schism,” the pope said in September, in response to a reporter’s question about conservative American opposition to his agenda. “I pray that schisms do not happen, but I am not afraid of them.”

That lack of fear could be because only the pope can decide whether or not a state of schism even exists, said Adam DeVille, a professor of theology at Indiana’s University of Saint Francis.

“If things get too far out of hand one way or another, I can see him acting in extreme but selective cases,” to stop any separatist moves, Mr. DeVille said.

“All it would take would be the sudden forced ‘retirement’ of a couple especially outspoken or perceived troublemakers, in Germany or anywhere else, for the others to shut up, and fall docilely in line,” he added.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope says US critics use ‘rigid’ ideology’ to mask failings

Pope Francis addresses journalists during his flight from Antamanarivo to Rome, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, after his seven-day pastoral trip to Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius.

By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis said Tuesday he wasn’t afraid of a U.S. Catholic Church schism led by his conservative critics, but sees a “rigid” ideology opponents use to mask their own moral failings has already infiltrated the American church.

Francis said during an airborne news conference that he prays a schism in the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t happen. He nevertheless doubled down on confronting outspoken conservatives in the U.S. and beyond who oppose his outreach to gay and divorced people and his concern for the poor and the environment.

Francis said he welcomed “loyal” criticism that leads to introspection and dialogue. Such “constructive” criticism shows a love for the church, he said. But he ideologically driven critics don’t really want a response but merely to “throw stones and then hide their hand.”

“I’m not afraid of schisms,” Francis told reporters while the papal plane was flying back from his trip to Africa. “I pray that there aren’t any because the spiritual health of so many people is at stake.

“Let there be dialogue, correction if there is some error. But the path of the schismatic is not Christian,” he added.

Francis’ comments are likely to inflame a heated debate roiling the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere. The pope’s mercy-over-morals emphasis irks some doctrine-minded Catholics who came of age during the conservative papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

During his flight to Africa last week, a French journalist presented Francis with a book about the pope’s conservative critics in the U.S. Francis acknowledged his right-wing opponents and said, “For me, it’s an honor if the Americans attack me.”

The book, “How America Wants to Change the Pope,” documents the growing criticism of Francis by a small wing of U.S. Catholics who question many of his positions. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy and warned of the risk of schism, or a formal separation from the Holy See.

Francis’ allies, including German Cardinal Walter Kaper and the head of Francis’ Jesuit order, have said the conservative criticism amounts to a “plot” to force the first Jesuit pope to resign so a conservative would take his place.

Asked about the criticism and risk of schism, Francis insisted his social teachings were identical to those of St. John Paul II, the standard-bearer for many conservative Catholics.

And he noted that church history is full of schisms, most recently after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s church meetings that modernized the church.

A group of traditionalist Catholics led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre rejected the reforms and grew into what Francis said was the “most well-known” of recent church schisms.

“I pray there are no schisms, but I’m not afraid of them,” he said.

Francis said all schismatics share a common trait: They allow ideology to become “detached” from Catholic doctrine and distance themselves from the faith of ordinary Catholics.

“When doctrine slips into ideology, there’s the possibility of schism,” he warned.

He lamented that many bishops and priests were already engaged in a “pseudo-schism” but said ideas won’t survive.

He claimed doctrinal rigidity, or “moral asceticism,” masked their own personal problems. It was perhaps a reference to how some of the church’s most notorious sexual predators – the late Legion of Christ leader, Rev. Marciel Maciel among them – preached a highly conservative brand of sexual morals.

“You’ll see that behind rigid Christians, bishops and priests there are problems,” Francis said, adding that such rigidity showed a lack of a healthy understanding of the Gospel. “We have to be meek with these people who are tempted to attack (because) behind them there are problems and we have to accompany them with meekness.”

Opposition to Francis in the U.S. reached a fever pitch in the last year following the publication of accusations by a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. that Francis, and before him a long list of Vatican and U.S. prelates, turned a blind eye to the sexual misconduct of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Francis didn’t name Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano during his news conference. But he praised critics who spoke to him directly with openness to dialogue.

“At least those who say something have the advantage of honesty in saying so. And I like that,” he said. “I don’t like criticism when it’s under the table, when they smile at you and then then they try to stab you in the back.

“That isn’t loyal. That isn’t human,” Francis said.

If you’re a gay or divorced Catholic, the American National Catholic Church might be for you

Rev. George Lucey leads St. Francis of Assisi Church in Glen Ridge. Rev. Lucey, who is openly gay, has been at the church for twelve years.

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For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.

The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.

“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.

Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.

The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.

Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.

The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.

Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.

The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.

Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.

“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”

“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.

Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.

“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.

“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”

Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.

The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.

Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.

These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014

The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.

A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.

For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.

Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”

He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.

“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.

She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.

Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.

The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.

“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Catholic bishops need a year of abstinence on preaching about sexuality

A view of St. Peter’s Square during a Pentecost Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, at the Vatican, Sunday, June 9, 2019.

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If Catholic bishops hope to reclaim their moral credibility after revelations about covering up clergy sexual abuse, the hierarchy might start by sending a simple but potent message: Church leaders should take a year of abstinence from preaching about sex and gender.

It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality

Instead, in the past month alone, a Rhode Island bishop tweeted that Catholics shouldn’t attend LGBTQ pride events because they are “especially harmful for children”; a Vatican office issued a document that described transgender people as “provocative” in trying to “annihilate the concept of nature”; and a Catholic high school in Indianapolis that refused to fire a teacher married to a same-sex partner was told by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that it can no longer call itself Catholic

There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the linchpin of Catholic identity at a time when bishops have failed to convince their flock that they are prepared to police predators in their own parishes.

Even before abuse scandals exploded into public consciousness a decade ago and more, many Catholics were tuning out the all-male hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality. Surveys show the vast majority of Catholics use birth control and nearly 70 percent now support same-sex marriage.

This isn’t simply a matter of the church’s image, however. When the Catholic Church describes sexual intimacy between gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” it fails to take into account how this degrading language contributes to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people; when it condemns even civil recognition of same-sex unions that don’t impede the church’s ability to define marriage sacramentally, bishops appear indifferent to the roadblocks committed couples without marriage licenses face in hospitals and other settings.

Unless church leaders are content to drive away a generation of young people, these positions are self-inflicted wounds. Millennial Catholics understandably ask why centuries of Catholic teaching on human dignity and justice about don’t apply fully to their LGBTQ friends, family members and teachers. Those who are raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people as the primary reason they leave, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

A document on gender identity released earlier this month from the Vatican’s congregation for Catholic education, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” underscores why we need a break from lofty church pronouncements on these issues. The document is right in its call for respectful dialogue with LGBTQ people, but the work itself fails to reflect that ideal.

The authors clearly didn’t spend time with transgender Catholics. There was no apparent effort to engage with modern science or contemporary medical insights about gender development. It feels as if it was written in a bunker sealed off from the world in 1950.

Ray Dever, a Catholic deacon who has a transgender daughter and who ministers to Catholic families with transgender members, called the document “totally divorced from the lived reality of transgender people.”

Dever added, “Anyone with firsthand experience with gender identity issues will confirm that for an authentically transgender person, being transgender is not a choice, and it is certainly not driven by any gender theory or ideology.”

While abstract Vatican musings on sex and gender are unhelpful, the church faces a more urgent crisis in the making in the firing of LGBTQ employees at Catholic schools. In a rare display of defiance, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis clashed with Archbishop Charles Thompson, who wanted the independently operated school to terminate an employee who is civilly married to a person of the same sex. The school refused, and the archbishop now says the school can no longer call itself Catholic. Brebeuf Jesuit’s supervisory body, the Midwest Province of Jesuits, said the decision will be appealed through a church process all the way to the Vatican if necessary.

“We felt we could not in conscience dismiss him from employment,” the Rev. William Verbryke, president of Brebeuf, told the Jesuit publication America magazine earlier this week, explaining that the teacher in question does not teach religion and is not a campus minister.

After the Jesuit school’s decision became national news, another Indiana Catholic high school announced it was complying with the archdiocese and dismissing a teacher in a same-sex marriage. Administrators at Cathedral High School called it “an agonizing decision” and wrote a letter to the school community. “In today’s climate we know that being Catholic can be challenging and we hope that this action does not dishearten you, and most especially, dishearten Cathedral’s young people.”

In recent years, more than 70 LGBTQ church employees and Catholic school teachers have been fired or lost their jobs in employment disputes. Heterosexual Catholics who don’t follow church teaching that prohibits birth control or living together before marriage, for example, are not disciplined the same way by Catholic institutions. The scrutiny targeting gay employees alone is discriminatory and disproportionate.

Efforts to narrow Catholic identity to a “pelvic theology” hyperfocused on human sexuality raise questions about what Christians should be known for as we seek to live the gospel. Are Catholic employees at schools and other Catholic institutions evaluated for how often they visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, treat the environment, confront inequality? All of these moral issues are central to papal encyclicals, centuries of Catholic social teachings and the ministry of Jesus.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in one of his first interviews after his election. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

A year of abstinence for church leaders preaching about sex would demonstrate a symbolic posture of humility that could substantively show those of us still left in the pews that the hierarchy isn’t completely clueless to the stark reality of the present moment.

During their silence on sex and gender, Vatican and local Catholic leaders should get out of their comfort zones and conduct listening sessions with married, divorced, gay, straight and transgender people. They should step away from the microphone and take notes. There would be disagreement, but the simple act of flipping the script — priests and bishops quietly in the back instead of holding forth up front — might help clergy recognize there is a wisdom in lived reality and truth not found solely in dusty church documents.

Taking risks and sitting with discomfort is part of a healthy faith. It’s time for our bishops to lead by taking a step back.

Complete Article HERE!

The Catholic Church is bursting with secrets. Investigating one will unravel them all.

Pope Francis in Rome on Feb. 14.

By Garry Wills

The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.

The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.

The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.

The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”

The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.

Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.

Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.

Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.

The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.

Complete Article HERE!