The sex talk: German Catholics have some uncomfortable news to share with the Vatican
When the Vatican reached out to bishops around the world last fall in hopes of getting feedback from the faithful on matters relating to sexuality, marriage, and family life, it caught a lot of people off guard. Not only was it out of character for the church to solicit this kind of feedback, but it is no secret that the questions they were asking were ones that people in the pews have a lot of opinions on—and not necessarily complimentary ones. As Bryan Cones put it in his January column in our magazine, “Frankly, the pope and the bishops may not like what they hear from the faithful on these matters.”
So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the results of the survey gathered by the German bishops, revealed this week, show that laypeople find the church’s teachings on these matters to be out of step with the realities of daily life. A statement from the German bishops’ conference called the survey responses “a sober inventory of what German Catholics appreciate about Church teaching on marriage and the family and what they find off-putting or unacceptable, either mostly or completely.”
More specifically, German Catholics agree with the church’s emphasis on stable marriages and family life, as well as its moral opposition to abortion. But when it comes to things like divorce and remarriage, premarital sex, or the use of artificial birth control, these teachings “are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases.” (The German publication Der Spiegel also takes an interesting look at the attitudes of German Catholics on these issues.)
Of course, these views aren’t just limited to Germany. Though U.S. bishops have not released any data from survey responses publicly, AP reports that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said that of the 4,000 Catholics who responded in his archdiocese, the majority “strive to practice their faith, but acknowledged the struggles and confusion they face in doing so." Those views were also reflected in a more informal survey of American Catholics recently conducted by the Parish Evaluation Project.
What Catholics should not expect is for these results to bring about a sweeping change to church doctrine—or really any change at all. Despite the impression some may have gotten about Pope Francis, he’s made clear that he intends to uphold the teachings of the church, not rewrite them. And while he seems truly interested in reforming the way the Vatican operates, he intends to do so methodically.
What Catholics can hope for is that the survey data will bring about a new dialogue on many of these subjects. If, for example, a married couple with three children is struggling financially and feels they cannot possibly provide for a fourth child, using artificial birth control may seem like a reasonable and prudent way to ensure the health and strength of their family. Until now, the church has simply said “no.” What would happen if the response instead was, “we understand your situation, we appreciate your efforts to raise a strong Catholic family, and we’d like to talk about ways we can help”?
Even without a change to doctrine, that type of pastoral approach to helping families navigate the real challenges of their lives would be a big shift for the church—and one that is likely to attract many more people than simply enforcing a set of rigid rules. In the church of Pope Francis, it may even become a reality.