The Catholic Church under fire

26 February 2013

The Catholic Church seems to be constantly in the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. The controversies surrounding the morning-after pill, child abuse, and the employment rights of those working for the church are making waves. The atmosphere has become so charged that the situation is becoming increasingly radicalized. Professor Dr. Stephan Goertz, holder of the Chair of Moral Theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), has taken a stand.

A few minutes ago, the Southwest German broadcasting corporation SWR was here. "We get a lot of media inquiries at the moment," says Professor Dr. Stephan Goertz. The German Bishops’ Conference was held in Trier only a couple of days ago to discuss the refusal of Catholic hospitals to provide the morning-after pill to raped women and also the surprise resignation of the Pope.

These are exactly the sort of issues that galvanize the media, and the JGU Professor of Moral Theology is ready to respond to their questions. "Although I do feel ambivalent about it," he admits. "It can be the case that only a ten-second section of an interview is actually transmitted and you never know what ten seconds that will be. So you have to be very careful about what you say."

Do all roads lead to fundamentalism?

There is a book on the table in his office that addresses the current issues surrounding the Catholic Church: Fluchtpunkt Fundamentalismus? [Do all roads lead to fundamentalism?] is the title of the 560-page theological anthology that Goertz had a hand in editing. The work is dedicated to the moral theologian Professor DDr. Antonio Autiero, in whose Department of Moral Theology at the University of Münster Goertz once worked. Among the many authors who contributed to the book is also Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz.

There is little doubt that there are fundamentalist trends within the current Catholic Church. And the fundamentalists are happily given airtime by the media, particularly as far as their attitude towards the morning-after pill is concerned. "As a theologian, you see all this and you get pretty annoyed," says Goertz, switching on the coffee machine in a corner of his office and slightly later producing two steaming cups of coffee which he places next to the new book.

"Radical right-to-life supporters have been going to Catholic hospitals, pretending they have had unprotected sex and then asking for a prescription for the morning-after pill. They then denounced the hospitals that agreed to prescribe the pill to the Church." The pressure being exerted by the Church's fundamentalist wing worries the Mainz-based moral theologian. "It would be disastrous if Catholicism allowed itself to be forced into a particular corner by such people."

The controversy about the morning-after pill

"Moral issues are not simply black and white. We need to take the gray areas of life into account." This is exactly how Goertz sees the problem. When confronted by a pluralistic society and its very different lifestyles, certain Catholic circles do bury their heads in the sand. This conservative attitude, born of misunderstanding and insecurity, results in a hardening of moral attitudes so that these no longer do justice to the reality of life.

Hence, Goetz proposes that when it comes to the contentious issue of refusing to give the morning-after pill to women who have been raped, it is the real situation of those women that should actually be at the core of concerns. "We must help them and answer questions: What can be done? How does the morning-after pill work? There is no logical reason to withhold the morning-after pill as a means of contraception. It is not justifiable to base your outlook solely on specific doctrines and ignore what is actually happening to people."

The ecumenism of fundamentalism

The term of 'fundamentalism' can be traced back to the 19th century, when it was originally applied to the Protestant movements in America that strictly adhered to the concept of inerrancy of the Holy Scripture. "In the last 30 years, we have also seen the rise of fundamentalism within the Catholic Church. This is a reactionary attitude primarily opposed to three central concepts: individual freedom of conscience, free theological debate, and modern gender relations." This type of fundamentalism not only exists within the Catholic Church; it has also infiltrated Islam. "There is a kind of ecumenism of fundamentalism in the form of a tendency to be anti-modern."

And it is this tendency that Goetz vehemently opposes. "We need to move on and should not concentrate our efforts on preserving a particular status quo. The old view of creation is a static one, but God created a world in which history takes place, in which developments occur. It is theology's task to devise methods of conveying the message of the gospels to the corresponding society of the time."

The church and modern culture

The moral theologian provides an example: the position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. Homosexuality was first condemned as a sin and then, at a later stage, denounced as a disease. Goertz demands a next step: to stop denigrating homosexuality and to accept it as a natural variation. "This is a step that we simply must take. Anyway, this is what we as theologians propose, but it seems that the Catholic Church is not yet ready for this."

Goertz sees it as the main responsibility of theologians like himself to promote the debate within the Catholic Church. There is a central issue that needs to be looked at time and again: "How does Catholicism view the values of our contemporary world?" Considerable progress has been made in the areas of the rights of children and gender equality. "However, it was not the Church that put these things on the agenda. Acceptance of the concept of equality is still a problem for us, as it is for Islam."

The Catholic Church cannot elude the legacy of the Enlightenment forever. "Even religion has to be willing to face up to criticism if it is to be credible. Today's society has standards that apply to everyone so people are no longer prepared to allow the Church to be an exception to the rule. When cases of sexual abuse are reported, the Church can no longer say: 'Don't worry, we'll deal with this internally.'"

Opposed to an inhuman morality

The Catholic Church must continue to open itself up to the modern world. "The challenge in a pluralistic world is to provide a solid justification for living according to one's faith." The retrogressive forces are taking the wrong path. "To counter the unforgiving tyrannical morality of fundamentalism, we are championing the concept of freedom, the principle of the autonomy of the individual, and, most especially, we are calling for charity and compassion. This is the most important facet of our argument."

"Fundamentalism ultimately does not need theologians or universities. Theology always throws up questions. And should there come a time when we as theologians no longer have permission to ask questions, then things will be in a bad way." However, Goertz is optimistic: "The German Church has a strong commitment to academic theology."

He is curious how the Church will read the new book. "We are all eagerly awaiting reaction," states the moral theologian, concluding a fascinating conversation.