The Pope's Sex Problem: Catholic Survey Reveals Frustrated Flock
The Vatican last year sent out a survey to Catholics around the world focusing on attitudes to sex and sexuality. The responses are now in -- and they show that the Church is badly in need of reform. Can Pope Francis meet such expectations?
Adolescents find it embarrassing to talk about sex with adults. Even more so when the adult in question is their Catholic priest.
About 20 girls and boys are sitting on leather sofas in the basement of St. Josef Catholic Community Center on the outskirts of Berlin. The walls are brightly painted and bags of gummy bears and chocolate are on a table in the center of the room.
Hannah, Jonas and their friends giggle when Harald Tux, a friendly, balding man with glasses, reads a questionnaire from the Vatican out loud. It's about premarital sex, and the officials in Rome want to know how these young Catholics in Berlin's Weissensee neighborhood feel about it. "Is contraception an option for you?" the theologian asks. The youths are already whispering, and they can't help but smile when Tux finally gets to the point: "If you used contraception, would you confess to it?"
"Huh?" a girl asks with a grimace. "It's not a crime," exclaims a boy in a hooded sweatshirt. They all snort with laughter.
The debate continues. "For our generation, it's also a question of responsibility. If you don't want to become a parent at 16 or 17, you have to use contraception," says Hannah. The 16-year-old and her fellow adolescents cite many other issues where they believe change is needed. "Homosexuals should also be allowed to marry, so that the church can be open to everyone," says Jonas. "The church doesn't have the right to interfere."
Last week, Germany's Catholic bishops held a two-day conference in the Bavarian city of Würzburg for the purpose of compiling and analyzing the responses given by Hannah, Jonas and other Catholics from all 27 dioceses in Germany. Their conclusions are bound for Rome. The project has likely led to more churchgoers expressing their opinions than ever before in 2,000-year history of the church.
In the past, the church has turned to its bishops to assess the mood in the grassroots, but their reports often contained more pious desires and wishful thinking than facts.
A Wave of Protest
But now the people of God have spoken. Church members around the world were asked for their opinions on the most controversial issues in Catholicism. They expressed how they feel about the strict prohibitions of their faith, on issues ranging from the family to sexual morality. In the coming weeks and months, their responses to the surveys will be processed and analyzed, and in October Pope Francis and bishops from around the world will discuss the results during an extraordinary synod.
SPIEGEL has taken a closer look at the mood in all 27 German dioceses. Some divulged very little information, while many others provided extensive data. Catholic family and youth organizations that were particularly involved in the survey also contributed.
The outcome is devastating for the guardians of pure doctrine. Even the reactions of committed Catholics reflect disinterest, enmity and deep displeasure. Many can no longer relate to the old dogmas and feel left alone by the church. Even in conservative Bavaria, 86 percent of Catholics do not believe it is a sin to use the pill or condoms, both condemned by the church.
A look into the congregations reveals that Rome could soon be facing a wave of protest unlike anything the Vatican has experienced in a long time.
For most Catholics, the deep divide between everyday reality and doctrine is not a recent phenomenon. But popes have shown little interest in this reality. Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, turned his back on modern life and insisted on upholding ancient dogmas.
Now the church is officially confirming its inner conflict, which creates the greatest challenge to Pope Francis in his young papacy. He must demonstrate whether he intends to heed the call of churchgoers and reform Catholicism, or stick to his amiable and extremely well-received, but ultimately ineffective gestures.
Changing Tone, Changing Substance?
In just a few weeks, on March 19, Jorge Mario Bergoglio will celebrate his first anniversary as pope. His modest behavior and surprising interviews have quickly turned the priest "from the end of the world" into a global star. Pope Francis, despite being 77, delivers his message with the enthusiasm of someone who has just fallen in love, using every channel at his disposal. He has taken such unconventional steps as donning a red clown's nose and eating meals with the poor of Assisi instead of his cardinals.
The man at the helm in St. Peter's Basilica is no longer a preoccupied professor but a PR genius. Bergoglio is following Ratzinger in much the same way US President Barack Obama followed his predecessor George W. Bush: as a man with an eye for the future, someone who promises to liberate people from the conservative doctrine of a controversial predecessor.
Or could it be that while the tone has changed at the Vatican, the substance remains unchanged? The Argentine pope has not eliminated or even softened a single dogma of his rigid church, even though he has the power to do so. As in the White House, it is near the end and not at the beginning of a term at the Vatican that a new pope demonstrates whether there is more to him that charisma and rhetoric -- and whether he can gain control over the machinery of his administration or become a pawn of the power-hungry elites surrounding him.
After almost a year, the period of getting to know the new pope is coming to an end. Now a factional dispute over the future of the church is taking place in the Vatican and within the branches of the world's largest religious community.
When it comes to the pope's position on sex, countless Catholics are eager to see more openness coming from their church, along with pastoral care that meets the demands of everyday life -- even as the Curia, with its hostile approach to change, defends old rules that often reflect the spirit of the Middle Ages rather than the New Testament.
In the middle of all this is an old man from Argentina who seems not to be entirely sure of what he can offer the base and what he can expect from his church hierarchy.
The way in which the survey came about is indicative of Bergoglio's struggles with his new flock. When his theologians wrote the questionnaire, it was under the assumption that the target audience would consist of bishops and other scholarly church leaders. The first of the 39 questions is already a challenge: "Describe how the Catholic Church's teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et spes, Familiaris consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today?"
Information from the Grass Roots
In late October, the Vatican sent the document to the German Bishops' Conference and its sister organizations around the world, but without specifying who was supposed to answer the questions. Was a response from lay committees, such as diocesan councils, which steadfastly champion the views of many bishops, sufficient? Should pastors have their say? Or was the church truly interested in the opinions of all Catholics? "The consultation must gather information from the grass roots and not limit itself to the level of the Curia or other institutions," Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Vatican's synod of bishops told the National Catholic Reporter last December. "Though involved in the process, they must cooperate by addressing themselves to the faithful, to communities, to associations and other bodies."
But after dispatching the survey, the church half-heartedly left it up to the dioceses to determine how to obtain the desired information.
The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, simply passed the survey on, providing no further instructions on who was to respond to the Vatican survey.
Zollitsch proved to be more decisive on another, albeit very important issue. In a letter to German bishops written by his secretary, he noted: "Questions 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8 will be answered by the central office." To save time, existing church positions were to be used.
In fact, this meant that particularly issues were being withheld from churchgoers. For instance, the set of questions under item 5 relates to gay and lesbian couples, while question 7 concerns contraception and abortion.
This somewhat clumsy attempt at censorship might have worked in a world with no Internet. But when the English bishops, who are not as timid, abruptly placed the entire questionnaire online, Catholics in Germany simply took matters into their own hands.
Pastor Klaus Zedtwitz from the Archdiocese of Freiburg in southwestern Germany is a case in point. On the evening of Nov. 1, the 63-year-old was browsing through news sites on the Internet when he happened upon a surprising story. The pope, he read, had commissioned a survey on family doctrine that was directed at the faithful around the world. Zedtwitz was thrilled. He promptly downloaded and printed out the questionnaire, and on the following Sunday, he addressed the subject during his sermon to his congregation, Am Luisenpark, in the city of Mannheim.
But Zedtwitz found that the Latin-heavy verbiage of the document from Rome was far too complicated. How could he expect his congregants to understand that the Curia was interested in common-law marriages when it asked about people living together "ad experimentum?" The Mannheim pastor wrote a simpler version, dispensing with both the theological tone of the original and the Bishops' Conference attempts at censorship. "There is something shady" about simply excluding sensitive issues, says Zedtwitz. "Why shouldn't Catholics be allowed to comment on gay and lesbian relationships? The specifications of the Bishops' Conference were too narrow for my taste." In his view, laypeople are certainly capable of forming their own opinions.
Stay informed with our free news services:
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2014
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles
MORE FROM SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL
German PoliticsMerkel's Moves: Power Struggles in Berlin
World War IITruth and Reconciliation: Why the War Still Haunts Europe
EnergyGreen Power: The Future of Energy
European UnionUnited Europe: A Continental Project
Climate ChangeGlobal Warming: Curbing Carbon Before It's Too Late