Report from Munich on sexual abuse accentuates division in the Catholic Church on sexuality

VATICAN CITY (RNS) – Supporters of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI came to his defense last week after a report into decades of sexual abuse in his former archdiocese of Munich accused the retired pontiff of covering up and ignore the abuses of Catholic priests.

But some believe Benedict’s defense is less about his legacy and more about the growing polarization of the Catholic Church and its approach to homosexuality and priestly celibacy, issues that are now front and center in Germany.

“I don’t think the report is going to change people’s minds anyway” about Benedict, said Bill Donohue, longtime president of the Catholic League, a conservative watchdog and church promoter. .

Benedict “is hated by the Catholic left because he was the one who really applied the Scriptures of the Catholic Church as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Donahue said, referring to the prelate’s tenure during the pontificate of Saint John. Paul II as an enforcer of Catholic dogma, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was granted the title “God’s Rottweiler”.

“The impending schism in Germany is far more serious than that,” said Donahue, who said he was proud to be called “the Rottweiler of the Rottweiler.”

A report from the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, released Jan. 10, found that bishops who oversaw the diocese between 1945 and 2019, including Ratzinger, failed to punish clergy and laity who committed abuses. sexual.

More important to many Catholics, however, is the movement within the wider German Church that has involved the country’s Catholics in wide-ranging discussions about the most pressing issues facing the institution, including including sexual abuse, for nearly three years. The ‘synodal path’, as the talks are called, follows a 2018 report that outraged the country’s Catholics when it uncovered more than 37,000 cases of clerical abuse in Germany over a 68-year period, leading to a mass exodus of the faithful.

The discussions of the Synodal Path ended in early February under the shadow of the Munich revelations. Even after Benedict XVI responded with contrition to the accusations, German Catholics felt “disappointed,” said Claudia Lücking-Michel, vice president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and delegate to the Synodal Path.

While the Synodal Way addresses a wide range of topics facing the local Church, including the ordination of women and power structures, the issue of homosexuality “is currently at the very center of public debate,” said said Lücking.

The report, she said, “was the last straw that broke the cup.”

While many Germans identify clericalism – the abuse of power by the Catholic clergy – as the main culprit in the church’s systemic failure to respond to sexual abuse, some Catholic conservatives blame the presence of homosexuals in the church.

“We have a gay scandal here, not a pedophilia scandal,” Donohue said. “Clericalism may have something to do with why certain bishops were empowered, but it has nothing to do with why a man would lay his hands on a minor.”

The equating of homosexuality with pedophilia is strongly contested in discussions on the synodal way, according to Lücking. “Homosexuality has nothing to do with pedophilia,” she said.

While the majority of Catholics in Western countries agree that homosexuality should be accepted in society, the issue of homosexuality and priestly celibacy is more controversial in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. As the Vatican struggles to adapt Church teaching to modern understandings of sex and sexuality, the issue has the power to tear the global Church apart.

“This report and the whole sexual abuse scandal, a sad page for the church in Germany, is being exploited to create a new church,” said Reverend Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai, a Catholic priest from Cameroon who teaches theology and the philosophy. at Boston College.

According to Agbaw-Ebai, author of his thesis on Benedict, the Munich report offered Benedict’s detractors “their pound of flesh” and strengthened the position of those who want to push Catholic doctrine towards the demands of modernity.

The German synodal path is the surest sign of this thrust. On February 5, its plenary assembly approved four documents proposing a “reassessment of homosexuality” and challenging the Catholic doctrine banning the ordination of women and requiring priestly celibacy.

“The synod has changed,” Lücking said, “you can feel the difference in the plenary. There are more and more bishops saying that we have to act, we have to change, there is no other way out of the crisis.

On February 3, the current Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, supported a new study on priestly celibacy and told the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung: “For some priests it would be better if they were married.” .

Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg, meanwhile proposed that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality “is no longer correct”. Hollerich was appointed by Pope Francis to oversee the Synod on Synodality, an ongoing self-examination of ecclesiastical practices in dioceses around the world that will culminate in a summit at the Vatican in 2023.

The concern of Catholic conservatives is that the progressive stance of German prelates will influence Francis’ ambitious reform efforts for the Church as a whole.

In Germany “you have a rebellion going on,” Donohue said. “This synod process going forward is an open invitation for people to exploit any friction in the Catholic Church,” he said, adding that progressive Catholics “will use Benedict as another weapon in their arsenal”.


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But Agbaw-Ebai argues that “what is happening in Germany is clearly the result of Vatican actions and statements today,” underscoring Francis’ willingness to engage with the Catholic LGBTQ community early in his pontificate. .

The pope’s position on this issue, however, has been ambiguous. During a closed-door meeting with Italian prelates in May 2018, Francis suggested that bishops “keep an eye out” for homosexual tendencies among people entering the seminary, saying that “when in doubt, it is best not to let them in.”

Francis’ words appeared to echo a 2005 document issued by Benedict XVI stating that people with “deeply rooted” homosexual tendencies should be barred from entering the priesthood.

Donohue agrees that the pope, despite his outreach to LGBTQ Catholics, has done little to change the official Catholic position and has put a firm end to demands for the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex couples. “It’s one thing to be pastoral, it’s another to change doctrine,” Donohue said.

He said he buys Benedict’s prediction that the church is destined to shrink to a small group of true believers. Conservative Catholics are unlikely to be the ones to leave, he said, unless the Vatican adopts “radical teachings” like those being discussed in Germany. He criticizes the Vatican for having allowed the German Synodal Path to “regrettably raise people’s expectations”.

For Lücking, if the Vatican does not take up the proposals of the Synodal Path, then “the Catholic Church in Germany will become a minority, a sect”, but she says she still maintains the “illusion” that what is happening in Germany can still lead the way to progress.

“It may not be tomorrow or the day after, but it will happen one day,” she said.


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