15. Sex and the Vatican. Only a moral issue?

Sexuality is not an easy topic for any religious institution. In these matters, who is without sin, let him cast the first stone. Moralizing on others’ failures and nurturing superiority attitudes are not the right approach in addressing the problem. In this field our evangelical grass is not greener than others’. This past year, however, has been an annus horribilis (i.e. horrible year) for the RC Church as far as sex is concerned.

The RC Church has a serious problem with sexuality.

  1. It places the highest standards on its own clergy, i.e. mandatory celibacy, yet it is estimated that one third of RC clergy have a sexually active life. If you expect your own representatives to adhere to certain standards of sexual behavior, you are more easily subject to public scrutiny if your inner circle fails to comply.
  2. The RC’s moral vision entails the sacredness of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage and the condemnation of other sexual orientations. If you are vocal in telling people what is permissible and “right” regarding sexual practices, and what is “wrong” concerning abuses, then your own inconsistencies appear to be more heinous.
  3. Records of abuses and scandals within the RC Church have recently been spotted worldwide after decades of denial and self-protection. We live in a world that no longer keeps secrets, and society at large is now entitled to ask serious questions about the whole matter.
  4. The problem is at all levels: recruiting young people, training seminarians, supervising the sexual life of religious people, facing failures, promoting a transparent culture, etc. The credibility of the entire system is at stake.

            Last week the Vatican Congregation for Sacred Doctrine issued certain guidelines to the RC bishops in order to address the issue. For the Vatican, sexuality is not primarily a pastoral matter, but a doctrinal one and the institution charged to address it is the same that presides over doctrinal purity. The thrust of the guidelines asks local bishops to be more vigilant and collaborative, therefore implying that little vigilance and little collaboration have too often been the practice in the past.

Is mandatory celibacy biblical?

The problem is huge and complex. Yet, for Bible-believing people, the first and decisive question is simple: does the Bible teach or require celibacy to ministers of the church? The answer is as simple as the question: No. While considering celibacy a calling as worthy as marriage (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7), the Bible normally expects that elders, bishops and deacons be married (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:2-5; Titus 1:6). The RC tradition of mandatory celibacy stems from a dualistic and hierarchical distinction between a “higher” religious calling and a “lower” secular one. It is also a means to “control” the clergy and to safeguard the patrimonial heritage of the church from being dispersed.

There is no argument in favor of mandatory celibacy that is biblically conclusive. Therefore it should be open for change. The Bible seems to expect that most ministers be married and that few be single. Will the Bible be allowed to have the final word, which is also a better word than the RC traditional settlement? Will the “Biblical renewal,” that according to some observers is taking place within the RC Church, be allowed to modify this long-standing tradition? No sign in this direction can be seen for now. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have actually reinforced mandatory celibacy, making it even more difficult to change.

Is full transparency desirable?

Public opinion has also been struck by the self-complacent attitude that some RC bishops around the world have shown in dealing with abuses. Instead of denouncing and stopping them, there has been a general tendency to cover them up. The interests of the Church seemed to be greater than the suffering of the victims. The protection of the church was often preferred to the protection of the abused children. In a complex organization like the RC Church, failures are to be expected, but the impression is that the problem lied in the “chain of command” rather than in sporadic cases. There is a widespread code of conduct that puts the church first, above truth and above reality, as if the primary concern is to seek what the church can gain no matter the cost.

 Historically, the RC Church has been attacked by ideological and political forces and has developed a self-protective attitude, like most historical institutions have done. At the same time, it has built a high dogmatic view of itself, claiming to be the societas perfecta (i.e. the perfect society), or the indefectible Church, i.e. the Church that cannot err. It can judge others but cannot be judged by others. It can denounce the sin of the world, but the world is not allowed to denounce its sins. The sexual scandals and abuses show that it is time to become more humble and accountable, less reticent and self-complacent. If self-protection becomes absolute, then it becomes an idol. We are all, however, in danger of elevating our institutions to a place of idolatrous worship, i.e. ecclesiolatry, the worship of the church as an institution.

“Sex and the Vatican” is much more than mere gossip, and it’s more than a justice and moral issue. It is an opportunity for repentance, Biblical reformation, and public transparency. We all need that.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 30th May 2011

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14. Reform-in-continuity? Vatican II and the Roman Catholic Church

Vatican II is once again back in the global RC agenda. The most important event in the history of the XX century RC Church (1962-1965) is still a matter of dispute in RC circles. Was it progressive or traditionalist? Did it intend to reform the Church or to reinforce it? Was it doctrinally focused or more pastorally oriented? What is more important, its documents or its “spirit”? Was it primarily an “event” or did it initiate a “movement”? These are only a few of the questions that are still being debated, and the way one answers them is not just a matter of academic taste, but has heavy consequences on the whole RC project in the global world.


Vatican II according to “left” and “right”

Generally speaking, there are two main schools of thought. For convenience we’ll call them “left” and “right.” On the one hand there is the interpretative school that sees Vatican II as breaking with the old traditional RC outlook and inserting a progressive trend within the Church. This has been the direction of theologians like Hans Küng and historians like Giuseppe Alberigo. According to this progressive interpretation, while Vatican II introduced significant “change”, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been silencing its potential in areas like ecclesiology, liturgy, and morality and imposing a rigid reading that squares with the traditional self-understanding of the RC Church. Curiously, this view was shared by traditionalists like Msgr. Lefebvre who charged Vatican II of betraying RC identity, having marred it with mortal doses of Protestant and secular poison. Therefore opposite reactions stemmed from the same interpretation of Vatican II being in discontinuity with the past.

The mainstream interpretative school, on the other hand, has insisted that Vatican II stands in substantial continuity with Vatican I (1870-1871), actually completing what was left unfinished, and doing so with the great tradition of the Church (e.g. Trent, the Marian dogmas, etc.). No “real” change has occurred but only a dynamic re-statement of the well established RC heritage. At Vatican II the RC Church approached the modern world in more “pastoral” terms, without modifying its basic framework. According to this linear reading, Vatican II at most brought an “aggiornamento” (i.e. updating) to the language and the concerns of the Church, while still maintaining and reinforcing her fundamental stance.


Ratzinger’s “hermeneutics of reform-in-continuity”

In recent years and months, the debate on Vatican II has been revived by different evaluations of what the present Pope thinks of Vatican II and how he is implementing it. Ratzinger was present at the Council and gave voice to the need for “renewal.” Yet in later years he has became a critic of reforming trends in areas such as liturgy, ecumenism and political involvement. As prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine, he fought against all tendencies that in his opinion were watering down the traditional beliefs and practices of the RC Church. Now that he is Pope Vatican II is at the center of his agenda.

Benedict XVI has been reflecting publicly on Vatican II since the beginning of his pontificate. In a 2005 speech he clearly set his course by saying that the Council needs to be read according to a “hermeneutics of reform-in-continuity”. He has been using and expounding the same expression ever since. According to the Pope, Vatican II breached the traditional RC understanding of the state and the temporal power of the RC church, thus acknowledging the value of religious freedom and a degree of separation between church and state, thus overcoming the subjugation of the state before the church. In this restricted sense it was a “reforming” Council. Benedict XVI, however, thinks that Vatican II simply reiterated the RC dogmatic system without altering it in any way. In this sense, the Council is in real continuity with Trent and Vatican I. Therefore Ratzinger is neither a “left” nor “right” wing interpreter. In reality these categories are totally inadequate in coming to terms not only with Ratzinger, but also with Vatican II. The RC understanding of historical development entails “reform-in-continuity”, “aggiornamento” without renouncing, addition without subtraction, expansion without purification. Unless one grasps this “both-and” approach he will fall prey to fragmented and insufficient accounts of RC. “Reform-in-continuity” is the genius of RC.


Overcoming the Evangelical puzzlement

Vatican II has been the crux of Evangelical theology as well. Understanding and appraising what happened at the Council is still a task worthy of attention. The best Evangelical treatment of Vatican II (Revolution in Rome, 1972, by David Wells) is a series of question marks that show just how puzzled Evangelical theology was in dealing with modern RC. Its chapters’ titles reveal the conundrum: “Authority: inward or outward?” “God: in the earthly or the heavenly city?” “Christianity: a broad or narrow definition?” “The Church: the people or the Pope?”. In approaching Vatican II some Evangelicals have taken the “right” wing interpretation saying that nothing has changed. The RC is semper eadem (always the same), they say. Others have followed the progressive view claiming that at Vatican II the Spirit of renewal blew in Rome, turning it upside down in gospel terms. Neither interpretation is correct. RC is more complex than the usual labels in that it is neither static nor reforming per se. It is always the same, yet in an expansive trajectory. It is a growing body, yet holding the same DNA. Unless we understand this point, we fail to grasp the basics of RC. It is time that Evangelicals learn to read Vatican II through appropriate lens. There is still homework to be done. With his hermeneutics of “reform-in-continuity”, Benedict XVI can certainly help in the task.


Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 24th May 2011




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