'Shadow Council' Pushes Acceptance of Contraception, Homosexual Unions

NEWS ANALYSIS: This ‘narrative theology,’ based on lived experience — and the consequences of adopting it — is the real news of the May 25 closed-door meeting in Rome.

Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset
Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset (photo: Lee Pellegrini, courtesy of Boston College Chronicle)

ROME — A Catholic priest who participated in May’s closed-door meeting with the aim of urging “pastoral innovations” at the upcoming synod on the family in October suggested that acts the Church considers intrinsically evil — contraception and homosexual activity — cannot be considered so, given the individual’s experience.

Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset was among approximately 50 participants, including bishops, theologians and select media representatives, who took part in the May 25 invitation-only gathering, at the behest of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France — Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Bishop Markus Büchel and Archbishop Georges Pontier.

Only a few journalists were invited to participate in the meeting — under the condition that they would not attribute by name what they heard there. One participant told CNA they were barred from granting interviews, as “confidentiality has been requested about the discussions at stake.”

Nearly two months later, the German bishops’ conference released the text of the meeting’s talks, in French, German and Italian. Missing, however, was the final speech from Cardinal Marx of Munich and Freising.

The document’s introduction explained that the convention was divided into three parts: a reflection on Christ’s words regarding marriage and divorce; on sexuality as an expression of love and “a theology of love”; and on the gift of life and “a narrative theology” — theology based on personal experience.

Father Thomasset, a professor of moral theology at Centre Sèvres, a Jesuit university in Paris, introduced the “narrative theology” in his speech.

His paper was titled “Taking Into Consideration the History and Biographical Developments of the Moral Life and Pastoral Care of the Family,” and in it, he rejected the notion that any act can be intrinsically evil.

He maintained that “the interpretation of the doctrine of acts known as ‘intrinsically evil’ is seemingly one of the principal fonts of the difficulty currently encountered in the pastoral care of families, as it determines to a large extent the condemnation of artificial contraception, of sexual acts by the divorced and remarried and by homosexual couples, even when they are stable.”


‘Pastorally Counterproductive’

The understanding of some acts as intrinsically evil, Father Thomasset said, “seems incomprehensible to many and seems pastorally counterproductive.” He added that while it “justly insists on points of reference as the targets of the moral life, it neglects precisely the biographical dimension of existence and the specific conditions of each personal journey.”

He claimed a “narrative and biographical perspective obliges one to believe that moral evaluation does not cover isolated acts, but rather human acts included in a story,” and that, thus, “one should not be too quick to qualify a sexual or contraceptive act as intrinsically evil.”

Father Thomasset relied on a particular understanding of the primacy of conscience, saying that “the objective ethical references provided by the Church are just one item (essential, certainly, but not the only item) of moral discernment that must be operated within the personal conscience.”

“How are we to take into account the difference between an act of adultery and sexual relations within a stable couple of remarried persons?” he asked.

He commented that “it would be of great benefit to the elaboration of moral norms and of pastoral measures if there was an increased listening to the experience and the sensus fidei of couples who are seeking to best live out their call to holiness,” adding that “divine communication and its reception on the part of the individual believer are co-originating.”

Father Thomasset then proposed an interpretation of human moral acts “remaining within the context of Catholic Tradition, which would bear various consequences.”

The first of these consequences, he said, is that, “in certain cases, because of particular circumstances, the sexual acts of remarried couples would no longer be considered as morally guilty. This would open their access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.” In support of this, he cited a 1972 essay by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger, which has long since been retracted and repudiated by its author.

The other consequences: The use of contraceptives would not be morally wrong as long as the couple were married and “remain open” to welcoming life; and the “subjective moral responsibility” of sexual acts between homosexuals in a stable and faithful relationship would be “diminished or eliminated.”

“It’s about helping people live the [best way] humanly possible in a path of growth toward the desirable,” Father Thomasset wrote.


Indissolubility of Marriage

The first part of the “shadow council” included talks by theologians Anne-Marie Pellettier and Thomas Soeding, both of whom advocated “development” of the Church’s understanding of marriage as indissoluble.

Pellettier stressed that Christ’s words on divorce in Matthew 19 (“from the beginning, it was not so”) must be contextualized in the Jewish world to which he was speaking, and must be read through the lens of anthropology rather than as a juridical statement.

“Catholic Tradition on indissolubility is actually based on a disciplinary interpretation of this text, despite its kerygmatic content,” she charged — that is, “the conjugal bond, in the terms in which Jesus expresses it, is strictly linked to the vocation of those who, with baptism, will be immersed in Christ’s death and resurrection.”

The French theologian stressed that today’s challenges “are a prolongation of the experience of the Catholic Church in the course of a history in which it has not ceased to firmly watch over indissolubility, while customs widely dismissed the principle accepted by Christian societies.”

She suggested that the current anthropological situation of secularization is “totally new” and “probably requires” a theological “development.”

Pellettier referred to the fruit of the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the Family, St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (The Christian Family in the Modern World), which noted that “spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the cross.”

She added, however, that “the Paschal Mystery should not appear to have failed when Christian couples live a laceration” and that a new challenge is presented by those baptized who “undertake — for reasons inseparable from their stories and always unique — a second union.”

“The truth is that conjugal life is full of stumbling blocks, far more than those which are admitted by the theology of marriage,” she maintained.

Soeding then stressed that while marriage is indissoluble, the synod being held in October should “develop, in fidelity to the will of Jesus, the doctrine, morality and law of marriage. The key lives in a theology of marriage and of the family which renews the link between faith and love, grace and freedom, ethics and law. The more clear and attractive the Christian model of marriage becomes, the sooner will it be possible to find ways for those persons who cannot celebrate such a marriage to be able to live within the Church as a happy couple.”


Different View of Catholic Marriage

Father Eberhard Schockenhoff, professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg, spoke about the “theology of love” and proposed a clearly sociological view, with quotes from the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and the Marxist sociologist Theodor Adorno.

In his speech, he focused on the difficulty of living a Christian life in today’s society. “In the first place, it should be admitted that love can indeed end,” he advocated. “If two persons make the definitive decision of a common project of life, this does not mean they cannot review their choice.”

The irrevocability of the choice to marry is, according to Father Schockenhoff, “founded on what love in fact wants,” and “the indissolubility of marriage is not a prescriptive aspect which is brought from outside; it is, rather, a request that spouses make to themselves, when they trust in their love.”

François-Javier Amherdt, a professor from Fribourg, stressed that a sexual act that happens outside the context of marriage “remains incomplete” and that “fecundity is needed to fully exercise sexuality.” So what to do with “sexual relations that fall outside the marriage covenant?”

Amherdt answered: One must discern “according to the situation. … We must sound a word of call, rather than of condemnation, according to a pastoral care of accompaniment.” He urged that not all situations of cohabitation should be regarded as the same and that, “on a moral and pastoral view,” these relations cannot be “completely discredited,” as “their deficiencies, moreover, in some cases, are due to pressures of context and to the lack of references to the education of sentiments.”

The “theology of biography” was further developed by theologian Eva-Maria Faber. She wrote that the Church has traditionally focused on marriage as a life of communion, “which sometimes leads to the spouses being considered only as a couple. The individual person, with his respective individual biography, is likely to remain excluded.”

Faber instead focused on individuals and their personal ambitions beyond the marriage and emphasized that “it is deplorable that even the theology of marriage of the Church often does not permit sufficient attention given to the individuality of spouses in marriage.”

She suggested a “biographical view of marriage, adapted to real situations and leading toward a corresponding spirituality of the marital state, which would also inform the language of the Church.”

Such a biographical view would mean that “the doctrinal and normative framework cannot enter into the merits of all individual situations; rather, it must remain open to the dignity and uniqueness of individual persons and situation,” Faber claimed. She also asked that there be developed “a practice of acknowledging also couples” who “do not meet the norm” of marriage’s indissolubility.



In the discussion which followed the presentations, it was emphasized that “it is incorrect” to call remarriage a “permanent sin” and that reconciliation is “irrenounceably a path for all men and for all situations of life.”

“The fact that for the divorced and remarried … who are also sexually active, there is no possibility of reconciliation, is a dead end,” the group concluded. “This situation must be overcome, in order not to further endanger the credibility of the Church when it speaks of the importance of reconciliation.”

The meeting’s participants also emphasized that the Eucharist’s role as “therapy and consolation” should not be overshadowed and hampered by its “symbolism of the unity of the Church.”

In the end, the proposal of the German bishops, and those who stand with them, is one of a human-centered theology: changing with the spirit of the times and affirming all situations and choices that become widespread.