Cdl. Brandmüller: “The moral doctrine of the Church can be changed only if human nature changes.”

The President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences responds to recent statements by German bishops

Cdl. Brandmüller: "The moral doctrine of the Church can be changed only if human nature changes."

(Rome, In February 2014, after the publication of controversial statements by a German bishop about the need to change Catholic moral teaching, Armin Schwibach interviewed Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences about current problems in a broader perspective. Excerpts from that interview follow.

A. Schwibach: In an interview with the editor of the Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung, the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, started a not-so-new discussion about “morality”. The bishop emphasized, first of all, that this is not about “fundamental changes of doctrine”. Nevertheless, it is essential to strengthen the individual awareness of responsibility, so as “then to respect also a decision made in conscience”.

Moreover the bishop addressed three larger issues and declared that is no longer opportune to regard a second marriage as a mortal sin and to refuse to admit the remarried to the sacraments permanently. It is likewise indefensible, he said, to treat premarital sexual relations generally as a serious sin. The distinction made by Pope Paul VI between natural and artificial methods of regulating birth is in Ackermann’s opinion “also rather artificial”, and no one understands it any more.

In all these areas he sees “a need to change the morality and sexual ethics” of the Church. Your Eminence, can the Church’s moral doctrine be “changed”, and if so, when and how?

Cardinal Brandmüller: First a remark: It is astonishing, that for so many of our contemporaries all moral doctrine is reduced exclusively to sexual morality. How many problems there are, however, with truthfulness, justice, the defense of human life, and so on! There ought to be a lot more talk about that!

But now concerning the question of whether the Church’s moral doctrine must or can be changed: The moral doctrine of the Church can be changed only if human nature changes. For the Church’s moral teaching follows from the nature of the human being as a person who is both body and soul. Conclusions about the concrete way in which a human being should live his life must be drawn from these basic facts. Then comes the Gospel, which elevates the human person, and thus also his actions and his responsibility, to the level of a child of God. Now, neither human nature nor God’s commandments and the Gospel have an expiration date. Someone who nevertheless makes the aforementioned demands for a change in Catholic moral doctrine finds himself in contradiction with God’s Word.

As for talk about “conscience”: Strengthening the awareness of personal responsibility and enabling the individual to make a responsible judgment in conscience have been the goal of the Church’s pastoral ministry from the start. The conscience is the final subjective norm for human action; this is a classical Catholic teaching. It must be added, that such a binding judgment in conscience is possible only if the individual’s conscience takes the objective norm as its guide. Conscience is not a judgment that sets norms, but rather a judgment that interprets norms, a judgment or human faculty that applies a norm that is always valid for everyone to the individual case in question and decides it accordingly. […]

A.S.: Both the statements by the Bishop of Trier and the publicized results of the questionnaire distributed by the Holy See with a view to preparing the Instrumentum laboris [working document] for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, made it clear that the Church—and not only in Germany— apparently has a major problem in communicating her understanding and her teaching about marriage and sexuality, about what the family is and what makes the family important. A significant percentage of Catholics seem neither to accept elements of Catholic moral teaching nor to see its relevance.

How can or should this communications problem be solved? Cardinal Marx [Archbishop of Munich and Freising] opined that the Church should not speak about morality in terms of “catalogues of sins and indexes of penalties”. Rather it is a question of helping people to be able to “shape” their lives according to the demands of the Gospel and to arrive at “well-considered” decisions in conscience.

Cardinal Brandmüller: Who on earth nowadays still talks about catalogues of sins and indexes of penalties?! And is there such a thing as “badly-considered” decisions in conscience? In this connection we find again and again the phenomenon of language being spoken by someone with ecclesiastical authority that is hazy and nebulous and leaves much to be desired in terms of precision and clarity. Thus we may hear formulas with which one can neither agree nor disagree, and so everyone then takes from them whatever suits him.

It is urgently necessary for clear concepts to be communicated in the Church’s proclamation of faith and morals. Of course, right away we have to say also that this communication should use a language that appeals not just to the ear but also to the human heart, a language that sympathetically enters into the concrete situation of the hearers and is capable of leading them to a real understanding of the Church’s message. A quotation from Goethe should be written in the notebooks of all bishops, priests and religion teachers today: “In a time of vacillation, anyone who is inclined to waver makes the problem worse.”

Furthermore, one thing must not be forgotten in all these “moral questions”: there is a big difference between the objective judgment of an act or a way of acting and the subjective responsibility of the person who is acting—something that is usually overlooked. Even Saint Augustine says: Hate the error, but love the sinner!

One more thing should be said: if someone with full authority to proclaim the faith in the name of the Church should ever become convinced that he is unable to advocate Church teaching authentically, intellectual honesty demands that he draw the consequences.

Translated from German by Michael J. Miller

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.