Cardinal Hollerich and the Destabilization of Doctrine

The Luxembourgian cardinal, who is the relator general of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, has called into question not only foundational Church teachings on sexuality but the integrity of doctrine itself.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg. (photo: Courtesy photo / Edward Pentin)

Last month, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the relator general of the unfolding Synod on Synodality, stated that proposed reforms in the life of the Church “need a stable foundation.”

But just one week later, the prelate made it clear that Catholics should steer clear of him when seeking any kind of firm doctrinal footing.

During an interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA, Cardinal Hollerich stated that Church teaching related to homosexuality “is false,” because the “sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.” 

To be clear, the cardinal was responding to a rather clumsily posed question that suggested that the Church holds that homosexuality is a sin — with what exactly “homosexuality” meant in this instance left somewhat unclear. While the Church does maintain that same-sex attractions are “intrinsically disordered,” in that they do not direct the sexual faculties to their proper end, the Church is also quite clear that experiencing these attractions itself is not sinful; rather, it is the choice to act on them that constitutes a sin.

But Cardinal Hollerich didn’t clarify the question. He dove right in, using the prompt as an opportunity to suggest that the Church’s teaching related to same-sex acts — and, by extension, its teaching that human sexuality is ordered toward conjugal love between husband and wife, an image of Trinitarian life — is fundamentally flawed.

The statement was shocking, an instance of a prominent Church leader openly criticizing a moral doctrine that has been held by the Church quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus (always, everywhere, by everyone), siding with secularized culture on the contentious topic over orthodox teaching.

But perhaps even more troubling than the specific content of Cardinal Hollerich’s view is the underlying logic related to Church doctrine and development that prompted it, a concern amplified by the significant role the prelate is set to play in the synod.

On this analysis, Cardinal Hollerich wasn’t just attacking a discrete set of moral and anthropological doctrines. Instead, he was undermining the notion of doctrinal integrity itself, destabilizing the entirety of the Church’s body of teachings and calling into question the Church’s capacity to teach anything with authority, to communicate anything about Divine Revelation with accuracy.

Cardinal Hollerich claimed that the Church’s prohibition on same-sex acts (and again, it must be made clear, by extension its entire understanding of sexual morality) was initially rooted in scientific and sociological facts that are either now known to be incorrect or are no longer relevant. For instance, he asserts that sodomy was prohibited both because of a flawed embryology that held that a man’s sperm contained the whole human offspring (making same-sex acts akin to something like infanticide) and also because it was associated with pagan rituals. Neither element is relevant today, and therefore the teaching must be discarded.

On its face, the facts of this account don’t seem very plausible (even if it is true that the “homunculi” theory of embryology was predominant in some ancient contexts). But the deeper problem with this presentation is that the Church’s moral doctrine related to sexuality is not merely the product of ancient science nor sociological taboos — its source is Divine Revelation. 

It is contained in the creation account found in Genesis, affirmed in the epistles of Paul, and is based on Christ’s teaching on marriage as found in the Gospels. Crucially, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of sexual morality was handed on by the Apostles in the deposit of faith. It has been received and then developed by the Church in subsequent generations and has been repeatedly affirmed by the magisterium of the Church, most recently and comprehensively by Pope St. John Paul in his articulation of theology of the body. It is consistent with the natural law, and has been held as true across a variety of scientific and sociological backdrops.

Cardinal Hollerich’s move should not be completely unfamiliar to Catholics; abortion advocates have used a similar kind of logic to call into question the Church’s moral prohibition on that act. For instance, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said that St. Thomas Aquinas’s speculation that ensoulment occurs several weeks after conception is proof that the Church has no valid doctrinal position on abortion. But this is false — Thomas accepted the Church’s consistent moral prohibition of the practice, even as he used the scientific categories available to him in an effort to understand why the Church had always taught what it did.

St. John Paul II actually critiqued this Pelosi-esque logic in Evangelium Vitae, when he noted that “scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation [in Church doctrine] about the moral condemnation of abortion.” The same sort of critique seems to apply to Cardinal Hollerich’s analysis.

To be sure, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality has developed, and emphases have even shifted. In a sense, Church doctrine has changed. But this sense is a limited and particular one.  Whatever changes or developments have occurred, they’ve occurred in a manner consistent with the Church’s foundational understanding of sexual morality. Change occurs at the level of expression or emphasis or even extension, but not in the essential facts. 

As St. John Henry Newman noted, the Church’s doctrinal expressions change or develop so that they can remain the same at the level of principle, similar to how a tree might lose its leaves in the fall so that it can stay alive during the winter. Doctrinal principles can only ever be expressed in the human words and cultural resources of a given time, including its scientific categories. But while these expressions and categories might shift and even need to be replaced, the doctrinal principle, that divine truth that human words can indicate while never exhausting, does not.

This is the understanding of doctrine and its development advanced by Newman, whose insights on the topic were incorporated into the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum. It is consistent with the contributions to fundamental theology put forward by illuminating 20th-century Catholic thinkers, like Maurice Blondel, Yves Congar and Cardinal Avery Dulles.

But is it the understanding of doctrine held by Cardinal Hollerich? He has given us reason to doubt.

It was very telling that in his admittedly brief remarks on the subject, Cardinal Hollerich never gave any indication of what the principle or core of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality even is. He simply asserted that because of scientific and sociological factors, the Church’s 2,000-year-old understanding of human sexuality — which is intertwined with nearly every other aspect of the faith, including our understanding of God, created as we are in his image and likeness, and of the Church, which St. Paul described to the Ephesians with marital imagery — is flawed. Flawed not in its expression, but in at the level of principle, to the point where a grundrevision — a German word Cardinal Hollerich used that means a revision of the very grounds and basis of the teaching — is demanded.

In History and Dogma, Blondel criticizes this kind of historicism as providing a reductionistic, “mechanical explanation” of the Church’s doctrinal development, in which a succession of historical facts replace the spiritual reality of the life of the Church, more consistent with blind evolution than organic development. As Blondel wrote, “The truth of Christianity is not to be found in an idea extracted from a fact analyzed in isolation, nor in the fragmentary interpretation of the successive moments of history, but in a view and appreciation of the whole, in the concrete realities, in the person of Christ and the Church which prolongs it.”    

Cardinal Hollerich prefers his analysis of isolated facts over the witness of the life of the Church.  From this perspective, it is hard to see the doctrines of the Church as little more than positivistic norms, with no basis in nor contact with divine and objective truth. Instead, doctrine can be revised wholesale on the basis of deeply ambiguous and antinomian criteria, like whether or not they contribute to “authenticity.” 

This, in fact, is the approach of Terrence Tilley, author of Inventing Catholic Tradition, and an influential theologian who holds, in a cruel twist of irony, the chair of theology at Fordham University named for Cardinal Avery Dulles. Tilley’s understanding of tradition and doctrinal development is antithetical to Cardinal Dulles’ own, and indeed, the orthodox understanding of the Church, stemming as it does from a fatally flawed epistemology. But Tilley’s and related approaches are widespread among certain Catholic academics, journalists and apparently cardinals.

These same figures have decried other Catholics for approaching the unfolding Synod on Synodality with hesitancy, if not concern. But with a figure like Cardinal Hollerich serving in such an important capacity, indeed having oversight and influence over the synod’s entire direction and the summary of its conclusions, these worries have likely only heightened. 

Some might say that Cardinal Hollerich made his comments merely as an individual theologian, a personal opinion that does not necessarily indicate a compromised ability to play a leading and impartial role in the Synod on Synodality. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger already modeled the proper approach a theologian should take when asked to serve the Church in some official doctrinal capacity, suspending his own speculative work when he assumed the position of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Cardinal Hollerich is not only the synod’s relator general, he is the president of the European Union’s episcopal conference. With these responsibilities, his words cannot be taken as private opinion, but indeed as the way he understands Church doctrine and intends to use his position to shape it accordingly. Cardinal Hollerich says this “grundrevision” must be made so that the Church does not “lose contact” with present day civilization, but he seems willing to sacrifice the Gospel itself for continued worldly relevance—a present day instance of “Clever Hans,” the German folktale figure who Cardinal Ratzinger used to illustrate the Church’s temptation to slowly give away her treasure—the truth and life that Christ has handed on to us through the generations—for the sake of comfort.

Last week, I suggested that we add “activism” to the list of dangers the Holy Father has identified as threatening the synod. In light of Cardinal Hollerich’s alarming revelation, I suggest we add another: discontinuity, or even destabilization. 

Those Catholics who genuinely desire for the synod to be a fruitful period of communal discernment should consider how Cardinal Hollerich’s role in the process, or at a bare minimum the fact that his heterodox statements on sexual morality have gone uncorrected, threaten that laudable goal. Taking decisive steps to address the confusion that Cardinal Hollerich’s comments and leadership in the synod have caused would go a long way toward restoring trust and confidence in the process. Failing to do anything will likely do the opposite.

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Francis vs. Cardinal Hollerich

EDITORIAL: The Pope’s comments regarding women’s ordination in his interview with CBS put a damper on the movement to alter the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and diaconate.

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Kamala Harris’ Record on Catholic Issues: What You Need to Know

Harris has consistently promoted abortion, scrutinized Catholic judicial nominees, and opposed pro-life pregnancy centers and activists. She has also embraced gender ideology as well as transgender and contraception mandates that have, at times, jeopardized religious freedom.