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The peddling of “dialogue” and the denial of doctrine

Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters)

Have you heard the recent news about a prominent Cardinal being taken to task for criticizing two bishops who insist that Church teaching on slavery is “wrong” and that “the sociological-scientific foundation” of that teaching, on what “one formerly condemned as enslavement,” was “no longer correct”?

No? Of course not. I made it up. No bishop would be crazy enough, stupid enough, or beholden enough to radical ideologies to denounce the Church’s teaching on slavery, which is (despite secular cries to the contrary), consistently clear and unequivocal (see CCC 2414, etc).

However, sodomy and homosexuality are different matters altogether. As most readers know, two European bishops—Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and Bishop George Bätzing (current president of the German Bishop’s Conference)—recently came out (so to speak) against Catholic doctrine regarding homosexuality. Hollerich, in an interview in February, stated, “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct,” and:

What was condemned in the past was sodomy. At that time, it was thought that the whole child was contained in the sperm of the man, and that was simply transferred to homosexual men. But there is no homosexuality in the New Testament. There is only the mention of homosexual acts, which were partly pagan ritual acts. That was, of course, forbidden. I think it is time for a fundamental revision of the doctrine.

Bätzing, who is continually in Church news for all the wrong reasons (and who is a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisers and president of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy), apparently thought he needed to top Hollerich in the “down with doctrine” contest. From a March 31st CNA report:

Earlier this month, Bishop Georg Bätzing, Marx’s successor as chairman of the German bishops’ conference, agreed with a journalist’s assertion that “no one” adhered to the Church’s teaching that sexuality should only be practiced within marriage.

“That’s true,” Bätzing said. “And we have to somewhat change the Catechism on this matter. Sexuality is a gift from God. And not a sin.”

He was speaking after participants in the German “Synodal Way” voted in favor of draft documents calling for same-sex blessings and the revision of Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

Plenty could be said here; for instance, if “sexuality is … not a sin”, does Bätzing have any qualms about incestuous relationships, or sex with consenting minors? If so, why?  But let us keep to the straight and narrow here, as that is certainly part of the point.

Cardinal George Pell, on March 11th, responded to the comments made by Hollerich and Bätzing. In an interview with a German television station, as reported by veteran Vatican journalist Edward Pentin, Pell “called on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to intervene and pronounce judgement on the wholesale and explicit rejection of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics” of the two European prelates. Further, he exhorted them to “rediscover the promises of Jesus” and to embrace more closely the “undiminished deposit of faith”, and “not to follow the changing dictats of contemporary secular culture.” Outrageous!

Then, in short order, Pell noted that Hollerich and Bätzing have both rejected “the ancient Judaeo-Christian doctrines against homosexual activity” and in doing so have undermined and rejected Church teaching on marriage as “the exclusive union of a man and a woman.” He pointed to the March 9 letter by the Nordic Bishops Conference in response to the German synodal squishiness, but said “a clear Roman reprimand, following all due process, is needed.” He made brief but important remarks on the Church, divine revelation, authentic ecclesial unity, apostolic teaching, and the hierarchy of truths (for the sake of those who take such matters seriously).

He then stated:

This rejection is a rupture, not compatible with the ancient teaching of Scripture and the Magisterium, not compatible with any legitimate doctrinal developments. The Cardinal respectfully concluded by repeating his request for Roman intervention. Not one of the Ten Commandments is optional; all are there to be followed, and by sinners. We cannot have a special Australian or German version of the Ten Commandments. Nor can we follow Bertrand Russell, the English atheist philosopher who suggested the Ten Commandments might be like an exam—where only six out of ten questions need to be answered. Christ welcome and mixed with sinners, but He called us to repentance. So a Mass for special groups can be a good thing, provided Christ’s teaching is presented regularly, the need for repentance is preached, and the Sacrament of Penance, Reconciliation regularly available.

I quote at length because it’s not clear that Dr. Adam Rasmussen, in a 3200-word-long nothingburger of a March 23rd essay, bothered to go beyond the short, rather skewed, and less than helpful “news” piece written by Nicole Winfield, who often seems intent on forgetting more than she actually knows about the Catholic Church. Winfield, in my reading, is clearly aiming to write clickbait, rather than just state: “Catholic bishop encourages other bishops to uphold clear, traditional, CCC-approved, stamped-in-stone, nothing-to-see-here Church doctrine”.

But, of course, when it comes to homosexuality, any and all sense of reality is tossed out the window, cyber-wailing commences, and feverish dances of denunciation and deflection break out like hives at a honey farm.

I would have ignored the essay by Rasmussen (who is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology & Religious Studies), except he notes that Cardinal Pell—famously railroaded in Australia for sexual abuses he didn’t commit, found guilty, imprisoned, and then finally acquitted—”has been defended by George WeigelCarl E. Olson, and other conservative Catholics, who now view him as a hero. His call for punishing two liberal prelates will only increase his popularity among them.”

Readers should take a look at my July 6, 2017 CWR editorial, provocatively titled, “Is Cardinal Pell ‘the quintessential scape-goat’?” and including this hero-worshipping remark: “Yes, it is true that Cardinal Pell may be guilty of some or all charges. But I’m inclined to think he is probably ‘guilty’ of being blunt, occasionally insensitive, orthodox, and unwilling to bent to the whims of those who would prefer he go away. He has expressed readiness, even eagerness, to clear his name.”

Oh, and guess what? I was right. So there’s that.

But here are three key points that Rasmussen eventually conveys in his lengthy tour through the thesaurus: Hollerich and Bätzing are indeed “liberal” and even wrong, but Pell is “conservative”, so he’s just as wrong; Pell and Co. (“conservative Catholics”) are wrong because they fail to bow low enough before that greatest of virtues: “Dialogue”; and Pope Francis is the epitome of that great virtue, the Doctor of Dialogue. In sum, in Rasmussen’s words:

Obviously Hollerich and Bätzing are “liberals.” They want Catholic sexual morality to be re-thought and updated considering modern understandings of sexuality. Pell is a “conservative,” who wants the Church neither to give an inch nor change a jot or tittle (cf. Matt 5:18). Pope Francis from the beginning of his pontificate has signaled his desire to overcome this wearisome and toxic dichotomy through the practices of dialogue, patience, and accompaniment laid out in the first part of Gaudium et Spes (chapters 1-4).

Further, and this is just as important (if only touched on briefly by Rasmussen), Hollerich and Bätzing are being “true in their consciences,” and that must be respected. But, as I’ve explained at length before, “Conscience is not the ground of moral authority; nor is it the final judge when it comes to what is actually moral and true.” Besides, “bishops are “constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith and have been made pontiffs and pastors” (CCC, 1558). And, strictly speaking, Hollerich and Bätzing have indeed veered directly into either Heresy Lane or Apostasy Avenue: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith” (CCC, 2089). That’s impossible to spin otherwise.

And yet, for Rasmussen, Dialogue is the Answer. Thus he says the following, apparently confident it is a positive remark: “I cannot predict what Pope Francis will or will not do in any given situation, but I think it unlikely that he will discipline either Hollerich or Bätzing. In fact, I doubt the pope will say anything at all.” It’s good to know that Rasmussen and I do agree 100% on this point. Francis will not do anything. Count on it.

But, to be clear, this is not because Francis is so deeply invested in Dialogue that he won’t exhort, correct, or otherwise cast negative vibes towards Hollerich and Bätzing. Because, in fact, Francis is perfectly fine being negative, harsh, critical, demeaning, damning, and outrightly mean towards Catholics he considers “rigid” and too traditional (Exhibit A: Traditionis custodes). And if you, dear reader, shirk from standing close to those folks, what about the sorry, sad tale of the Pope harshly criticizing Catholics in Chile and other South American countries who have been dismayed by Francis’ stubborn refusal to address sexual abuses by his favorites?

Put bluntly, Rasmussen’s bloated essay is simply an exercise in Francis adulation that ignores two facts: Cardinal Pell did absolutely nothing wrong in addressing the public falsehoods put forth by two other bishops, and Francis is not at all the great Doctor of Dialogue. The fact is, Francis attacks the easy targets (although far too often without fairness or facts) and almost never addresses the falsehoods and capitulations flooding forth from Germany and other western European countries.

He does nothing at all; he says nothing at all. And silence is not dialogue, by any basic standard.

Furthermore, such silence is not a virtue; it is not a strength. And if Francis was this quiet about a bishop supporting slavery, everyone would be outraged.

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