“The church must move”

When it comes to family and sexuality, Osnabruck Bishop Franz-Josef Bode believes the Catholic Church must rethink and approach people differently. An interview shortly before the start of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode is part of the leadership team of the dialogue process within the German Catholic Church. He is chairman of the Pastoral Commission of the German Bishops' Conference. On Wednesday, he had participated in the general audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square. The pope extended a greeting to Bode and the vicariate general staff who traveled with him, calling on them to pray the rosary for the success of the upcoming World Synod of Bishops on the family. In his address, Francis emphasized that the different charisms in the Church should be understood as an enrichment and a gift of the Holy Spirit, and not as a problem.

CBA: Bishop Bode, the Synod of Bishops is now all about marriage and the family. What do you expect?

Bode: I am curious. Great expectations have already been raised, for example, by the worldwide survey, which provided detailed information about life in marriage and family. There has also been a clear gap between the teachings of the Church and what many Catholics think and how they act. But despite all the differences, which first have to be established soberly, I hope that the Synod will make it clear that there are great similarities in the longings of people and the values that the Church represents.

CBA: For example?

Bode: Love, reliability, fidelity and the longing for an intact family. As a church, we can play a positive role here and encourage people to take the plunge into marriage and family life. In my former function as a youth bishop, I experienced and still experience how much young people long for reliable relationships, for a love that succeeds, and for family and children. This is where we have to start, take up the longings and convincingly communicate the values of the church. But knowing that many young people want to decide according to their own conscience how to live their longings. They don't want a church that only tells them what to do.

CBA: Are this attitude and the gap between doctrine and everyday life a typically German or. European marginal problem, as is sometimes heard?

Bode: I do not think so. Everywhere it is about the challenge of how life can succeed in love, sexuality and friendship. Certainly, this is not discussed as openly everywhere as it is here, but there are discrepancies in other countries as well.

CBA: Why is it so difficult for the church to reach people in this area??

Bode: We are reaching limits here. I can talk with young people about values and ideals, but when it comes to concrete norms and instructions for action, there is often a huge gap between their views. I believe we can change this if we also allow for stages and not just demand 'all or nothing'. If we accompany young people on their way and don't immediately say: either you stick to it or you're out, because everything else is sin. We must be more cautious and pay more attention to the independence of our personal conscience.

CBA: Other bishops warn against this, saying that if we deviate even a little from the doctrine and meet the people, the whole edifice will collapse.

Bode: There is, of course, the fear of a dam bursting. But we also have to take into account how much people's life situations have changed. If we don't dare to take new steps and are always afraid of a dam bursting, we run the risk of freezing.

CBA: A particular point of contention is how to deal with remarried divorcees. Specifically, the question of whether they should be allowed to take communion. There is sometimes heavy artillery being brought out at the moment, there is even talk of 'theologian warfare'…

Bode: Yes, it is on the table, this argument, whether we like it or not. Well-known theologians have spoken out, there are very weighty statements. And the pope seems to want exactly that: for the synod to have a lively discussion. We should not be too fixated on the reception of the sacraments. The question behind this is how we deal with life plans that do not succeed as they were intended, or that do not correspond to what we expect as a church. Of course, this is not the core ie of the whole marriage and family life. But people want to know how church deals with failure.

CBA: Do you see room for maneuver in pastoral care?? Could one be considerate of individual cases, for example, without immediately putting the entire indissolubility of marriage at stake?

Bode: One thing is clear: the indissolubility of marriage is not negotiable. It is given to us by Christ as a sign and image of God's love for us human beings. The question is whether it must always be the case with a second relationship under different conditions that we regard it as permanent adultery, which is why one can no longer go to communion. Or can't the new that has arisen in a second civil marriage also point to God's love and magnanimity in another way, not sacramentally? Is communion only a reward for those who are already 'perfect' or also a remedy for those who need help?

CBA: But the sacrament of marriage remains "until death do us part". If someone then enters into a second civil marriage and wants to take communion, then they must, as it is said, "live together as brother and sister. Is this demand realistic?

Bode: For me, the question arises here whether marriage is not being narrowed down too much to a single area. I cannot reduce marriage to sexual consummation. Doesn't the value of a marriage depend on many factors?? In my view, the demand for abstinence cannot be a practicable solution in the long run.

CBA: Now the extraordinary Synod 2014 is first of all a stocktaking, without any decisions to be made. The expectations, on the other hand, are very high. What can come out at the end of these two weeks, so that these expectations are not totally disappointed??

Bode: You can see how seriously the Pope takes questions about marriage and family, otherwise he would not convene such synods. And you have to see it as an overall process – from the surveys at the beginning, through the first synod and the whole year after that, to the second. In this way we have much more time to bring in differentiated points of view than if a final paper had to be ready after 14 days of synod. The pope wants a serious debate, and that simply takes time.

CBA: But do people have the patience to wait? Or do many no longer expect anything from the church on these ies anyway?

Bode: I fear the second is true for many. I know a lot of young people who are committed and at home in the church, but have long since stopped asking for church teaching on these ies. We have to state that soberly. And yet I am sure that it would also be an important signal for these people – and not only for them – if they felt that the Church is moving, that the bishops perceive these developments in their differentiation, do not immediately demonize them, discuss them quite seriously. The survey has already set a lot in motion. And why should we not be able to respond in a more differentiated way to people's life situations in the near future??

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Christina Cherry
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