Cardinal George Pell lifted his head above the parapet again last week, making his first major intervention in Catholic Church politics since publishing his three-volume prison diaries last year.
The cardinal’s remarks to KTV, the German Catholic television agency, relate to the stance that leading German bishops have taken on sexual ethics – in particular, their exhortations to the Church to change its teachings on homosexuality. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg has said the current teaching is “erroneous” and that the “sociological and scientific basis” of what was “formerly condemned as sodomy” is “no longer correct”. Georg Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg and president of the German Bishops’ Conference, went much further, emphatically stating that same-sex relationships are not a sin and that the Catechism of the Church should be changed to reflect this.
The confrontation between Pell and these German prelates reflects a severe division that is currently growing within the Catholic Communion.
Bätzing, who strongly criticized Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after the publication of the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl report in January, told German television that the former pontiff should apologize to survivors. And Benedict XVI’s successor at the Munich see, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who was also criticized in the report, recently celebrated a Mass “marking twenty years of queer worship and pastoral care” in the Church.
Having gone much further than Benedict, much faster, to atone for his role in covering up the abusive priests (he renounced state honors and offered his resignation to the Vatican), Marx used his homily at Mass of celebration to expose his vision of an “inclusive” that “includes all those who want to walk in the path of Jesus”.
These are the clergymen that Pell has set his sights on. He now urges the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor body to the Holy Office of the Inquisition, to intervene and condemn Bätzing and Hollerich.
Pell’s argument is that to follow the shifting dictates of contemporary secular culture, as their remarks seem to do, would be “a course of self-destruction for the Church.” Moreover, “the Catholic Church is not a loose federation where different synods or national gatherings and prominent leaders are able to reject essential elements of the Apostolic Tradition”.
The “rejection” of the Germans, seen from this angle, “is a rupture, incompatible with the ancient teaching of Scripture and the Magisterium, incompatible with any legitimate doctrinal evolution”. Pell continues: “None of the Ten Commandments is optional; all are there to be followed, and by sinners”.
A Church divided against itself will fall
Pell’s words are a far cry from Pope Francis’ famously self-deprecating question “who am I to judge?”, which many hoped marked the transition to a new relationship between the Catholic Church and gay people. And many Australian Catholics will find what Pell has to say in poor taste, coming from a man they believe could go much further in expressing empathy and compassion for surviving victims of clerical abuse.
Victorian police charged former Pell colleague Gerard Ridsdale with two more historic abuse counts just earlier this month. Pell’s close association with Benedict XVI, who continues to insist that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the public acceptance of homosexuality are to blame for the Church’s abuse crisis, will only help. nor to persuade liberal minds of the correctness of either man’s position. After all, which of the Ten Commandments is exactly about homosexuality?
And yet, Pell is not entirely wrong. The tortured fate of the Anglican Communion, especially during the ill-fated rule of Rowan Williams (2002-2012), shows that a Church that allows different constituent congregations to forge their own doctrinal paths on moral issues can struggle. The autocephalous nature of Anglican churches encouraged some to promote directly opposed teachings by the rulers of others – and to install rulers whose sexual ethics were also anathema to their confreres.
A cynic might say that what holds the Anglican Communion together is money. The American Episcopal Church and the Church of England have it; African churches do not, although they have many souls. Still, the long-term future of such an arrangement – which depends not on God but on Mammon – is surely bleak.
And Pell’s remarks may raise another pertinent argument: the Catholic Church must see itself as constituting not only the present living members, but all humanity, present, past and future. There is potentially hypocritical arrogance towards Christians who insist that the ethics of their generation must replace those of all other generations simply because they consider themselves more enlightened.
A universal church must reflect a universal consensus, even if many of its members find this consensus unsavory. The only argument that could temper this is the one that asserts that the Church has never been an organization that works by consensus. As Benedict XVI once said: truth is not determined by a majority vote.
As long as the pope can rule on doctrinal matters ex cathedra, he keeps the last word. Yet, it should be noted that neither Benedict nor Francis chose to do so – perhaps because they were far from certain that the congregations would follow where they were going.
The Brief History of Gay Christians
Some Catholics will probably also think that Cardinal Pell’s invitation to the Inquisition’s successor organization to intervene and censor prominent bishops is also not a good idea. After all, Inquisition censorship hasn’t gained a great reputation for the Catholic Church over the years. But my concern is primarily as a historian, and so my final section here emphasizes that Pell’s understanding of the relationship between the Catholic Church and homosexuality is, again, to put it mildly, one that has been and continues to be actively contested. .
Many Christians know the story of how Augustine and a number of other early Church Fathers introduced very negative sexual ethics into their teaching. Ironically, this teaching did not come from the existing Judeo-Christian tradition that Pell invokes in his statement, but from Neo-Platonic beliefs about the impurity of sex and the depravity of desire.
For Augustine, as indeed for several earlier Church Fathers, sex was a problem but perhaps also an opportunity. Concupiscence – the term was deliberately pejorative – brought humanity down to the level of the beasts and was therefore evil, immoral and sinful. But giving up sex was a recruiting tool that could differentiate pious Christians from their pagan brethren.
The fourth volume of Michel Foucault’s famous book History of sexuality talks about it at length. And medieval historians, alongside Harvard theologian Mark Jordan, have also been at the forefront of demonstrating how Church teachings on homosexuality were constructed not only long after Christ’s life, but even long after the time of Augustine.
John Boswell has argued that the Church was not truly hostile to same-sex relationships – at least not until the 11th century, when a vocal minority took over its institutions and sought to transform them through violent persecution. Italian Cardinal Peter Damian (about 1007-1073), who viewed homosexual sex as the embodiment of lust, was instrumental in this process and in inventing our modern notion of “sodomy” as a sexual crime committed primarily between men. Other medieval authors, however, continued to see sodomy as a broader category involving all sexual intercourse for the purpose of pleasure rather than procreation.
When understood in these terms, Cardinal Hollerich’s words take on a different meaning than Pell attributes to them, and Pell’s criticism of them seems misplaced. After all, if ‘sodomy’ refers to sexual acts undertaken for pleasure rather than procreation, then the vast majority of Catholics in a modern nation like Australia could easily be called ‘sodomites’.
Pius XII already endorsed the “rhythm method” of birth control in 1951, which effectively allowed Catholics to have sex for pleasure as long as they did not completely rule out the possibility of procreation. And in 2020, the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, went further when he advised Catholics to choose the birth control removal method over condoms.
Hollerich’s intervention, and perhaps also those of Bätzing and Marx, will appear to many Catholics simply as advancing the debates in which these earlier statements were situated. Pell’s intervention, on the other hand, could be seen as taking the Church back to a darker time.
Miles Patten is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at the Australian Catholic University and Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University.