The Pope's Sex Problem: Catholic Survey Reveals Frustrated Flock
Part 2: The Pope's Sex Problem
Which is exactly what they did. The pastor received 116 completed surveys from his congregation. "Terms like compassion, respect, love, openness and forbearance were used very often," he writes in his evaluation. Many condemned Catholic doctrine as being "out of touch with reality."
The papal survey quickly spread throughout Germany. Lay organizations jumped at the opportunity to finally make their opinions known. The German Catholic Youth Federation (BDKJ), for example, produced a simplified form of the survey, which was completed online by about 10,000 respondents.
If thepope and his bishops were still harboring any illusions about their influence on young Catholics, they have now been dashed. "The church's sexual morals are irrelevant to nine out of 10 young Catholics," reads the BDKJ summary. "Sex before marriage and birth control are a given in their intimate relationships."
And hardly anyone feels guilty about it. For their grandparents' generation, premarital sex was tantamount to living a life in sin. In sermons, Grandma and Grandpa were taught to feel "tainted" after taking sexual liberties. Today, according to the BDKJ, 96 percent of people who are in "sexual relationships" without having been married in the church have no qualms about it. Young Catholics simply do as they please, and yet they still participate in the sacraments.
"I believe that if God had not wanted us to have sex, he certainly wouldn't have made it as exciting," writes a 20-year-old survey respondent.
But young people aren't the only ones protesting. People from all age groups vented their displeasure to the dioceses. The level of response varied in different places, depending on how user-friendly church officials made the survey. In Bonn, for example, 2,217 Catholics completed an online survey. In Upper Bavaria, on the other hand, there were "apparently substantial gaps in the official flow of information," say Katharina Hänel of a local chapter of the Catholic Women's League of Germany. In fact, says Sabine Slawik, a fellow member of the League in the Diocese of Augsburg, a number of pastors didn't even pass on the survey to their congregations.
'Many Issues Were Ignored'
Despite the differences, there was widespread unanimity in the evaluation of the survey. Rarely has an institution received such low marks from its members. "Even though they are not representative, the survey results create and amplify the impression of an unfortunate, calamitous situation," says Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz. The 77-year-old has long been Germany's leading proponent of open-minded Catholicism. "Actually, we've known about this for a long time," says Lehmann, referring to the deep divide between churchgoers and the hierarchy, "but many issues were ignored."
His staff has written a 156-page report describing the mood in the Mainz diocese. It is a rare document of alienation, revealing how even well-meaning Catholics are at odds with their church, beginning with its language, which is perceived as an "imposition." After sermons, some parishioners complained: "As a Central European, one feels set back by at least 100 years." Others refused to allow the church to interfere in their family lives, especially by "people forced into celibacy, who secretly father children but are not allowed to marry."
A question that asked respondents about their knowledge of the doctrine of "Humanae vitae" was also the source of great confusion. "Ten out of 10 random respondents thought it referred to an invigorating body lotion," reads a questionnaire received at the diocese in Mainz. In fact, the term refers to an encyclical letter written by Paul VI in 1968, titled "On Human Life," which banned the use of contraceptives, causing a deep divide between the official church and the faithful.
Since then, the Vatican has repeatedly engaged in heated arguments with German Catholics on sexual morality. In 1998, for example, Rome asked Catholic churches in Germany to stop providing pregnancy conflict counseling, a demand that disappointed many church members and liberal bishops alike. Pope John Paul II relentlessly insisted on a ban on condoms. People who are divorced and remarry are marginalized, and homosexuals are discriminated against.
The hardliners within the official church have consistently prevailed in the past, but now they appear to be fighting a lost cause, as parishioners refuse to toe the line on central issues of sexuality.
The most contentious issue is the church's strict prohibition of contraception, which almost all Catholics ignore. "The overwhelming majority explain their decision-making on these issues by referring to their responsibility to their partners," reads an assessment by the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.
The Vatican's notion that couples should only live together and have sex after marriage is equally outdated. Living together before marriage "is an unmistakable reality today," notes the Diocese of Augsburg. The same conclusions are drawn throughout the alphabet of dioceses, ending with Würzburg, where "about 90 percent of all couples practice cohabitation 'ad experimentum'."
Hardly anyone among the faithful understands how the various prohibitions are supposed to fit together. To begin with, couples are not supposed to have sex before marriage. Once they are married, they are not permitted to use birth control. And if the marriage fails, the church has other objections.
Many Catholics are especially incensed over the treatment of people who have been divorced and then remarried, which, according to the wording of the survey, places them in "irregular marriage situations" and excludes them from communion. One respondent writes: "I have been living in one of these 'irregular' situations for the last 14 years, but no one has ever described my situation in such crass terms as this questionnaire. I'm shocked." Another person writes: "In the more than 30 years of my being divorced then remarried, the church has never shown an interest in me, my problems or my doubts about my faith."
Another group the church accused of committing sins also enjoys considerable support from the base: homosexuals. "Many Christians cannot understand this attitude," the staff of Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner concluded after reading the survey responses they received. In fact, Catholics in Cologne are all too familiar with their conservative archbishop's condemnation of gays and lesbians. Now Meisner can read about the consequences in the analysis prepared by his own priests, who conclude: "Many have already turned away from the church. And many are convinced that this is no longer acceptable."
Finally, many Christians took advantage of a unique opportunity to tell the pope how they felt about issues that were not even included in the survey. One is the vow of chastity for the clergy.
Peter Brandl, a pastor in Neunkirchen, in the Archdiocese of Bamberg, spent 10 days discussing the survey with members of his congregation. In the end, it was clear that his parish, St. Michael and St. Augustine, was not only demanding a new approach to remarried divorcees and same-sex couples. The parishioners also wanted to see the church do away with mandatory celibacy. "Everyone here agrees that it ought to be abolished," says Pastor Brandl. "It was very important to our parishioners to include this issue."
Unadulterated and Unadorned
The results of the survey are clear, from Neunkirchen to the St. Joseph Catholic Youth Group in Berlin. Now the question is whether a diagnosis so painful for the church will reach the pope in an undistorted form.
It's doubtful that it will. Some of the survey analyses by the bishops' staff members are filled with solemn prose. "Good and descriptive sermons should point out, once again, that the husband is the shepherd in the family, and that his duty is to be its spiritual leader," the Diocese of Augsburg wrote after surveying its base.
Lay representatives are alarmed. "We are calling upon the bishops to deliver the results of the surveys to Rome in unadulterated and unadorned form, as difficult as it may be for the bishops," says Christian Weisner, the national chairman of the "We are Church" movement.
The chairman of the BDKJ, Dirk Tänzler, also cautions church leaders "to ensure that the results they deliver to Rome are transparent." Elisabeth Bussmann, president of the Catholic Family Federation in Germany, says: "The survey unleashed a development that can no longer be stopped." And Alois Glück, head of the Central Committee of German Catholics, explains: "The survey was certainly hampered by methodological deficits. But the signal effect emanating from it is extremely important." He also perceives a strong discrepancy between church teachings and reality. "The key issue now is: What will Rome do with the results?"
That is precisely what the recipient of all of this information, Pope Francis, has yet to reveal.
At first glance, it seems that the pope has nothing to worry about. Millions of people have already flocked to his appearances, far more than those who came to see his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
His modest demeanor and often unconventional appearances have been the key to his popularity. Francis kisses the tattooed foot of a convict on live camera. He washes the feet of women, blacks and Muslims, to the dismay of many a cardinal. He embraces the disfigured Vinicio Riva, from Isola Vicentina, a suburb of Vicenza, dubbed the "wart man" by the tabloids, and pats his gnarled skin. He pays no attention to the footmen at the Vatican, preferring to carry his worn leather bag himself. During morning prayers, the Holy Father sits in the back rows of the Vatican chapel, like any other worshipper. And he drives himself to appointments in a used Ford Focus or a Fiat Idea.
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