Whose bourgeois morality?

We have met the bourgeois lobby, and it consists of German-speaking bishops.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, president of the German bishops' conference. (CNS photo/Sascha Steinbach, EPA)

In the latest round of debate over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, a fervent defender of the document sniffed at some of its critics that “the Magisterium doesn’t bow to middle-class lobbies” and cited Humanae Vitae as an example of papal tough-mindedness in the face of bourgeois cultural pressures. It was a clever move, rhetorically, and we may hope that it’s right about the magisterial kowtow. But I fear it also misses the point – or, better, several points.

At the Synods of 2014 and 2015, to which Amoris Laetitia is a response, the most intense lobbying for a change in the Church’s traditional practice in the matter of holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – a proposal the great majority of Synod fathers thought an unwarranted break with truths taught by divine revelation – came from the German-speaking bishops: prelates who represent perhaps the most thoroughly bourgeois countries on the planet. Thus one does not strain against veracity or charity by describing the German-speaking bishops as something of a lobby for middle-class preoccupations. Passionate defenders of Amoris Laetitia might thus be a bit more careful when dismissing as a middle-class lobby those who raise legitimate concerns about the ambiguities in the document; what goes around, comes around.

There was, of course, far more going on in the 2014-2015 German campaign to permit holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried than lobbying on behalf of the bourgeois morality of secular, middle-class societies. There was, for example, the ongoing, two-front German war against Humanae Vitae (Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning) and Veritatis Splendor (St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology). We are told, now, that a commission is examining the full range of documentation involved in the preparation of Humanae Vitae. One hopes that that study will bring to the fore what Paul VI realized when he rejected the counsel of many and reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to natural family planning as the humanly and morally appropriate means of regulating fertility.

For what Pope Paul realized – and what he had the courage to stand against, despite fierce pressures – was that a deeper game was going on beneath the agitations of various “middle-class lobbies” for a change in the Church’s position on artificial means of contraception. What was afoot was an attempt, reflecting currents in the German-speaking world of Catholic theology, to enshrine the moral method known as “proportionalism” as Catholicism’s official moral theology. And according to proportionalists, there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil act: every moral action must be judged, not only in itself, but by a person’s intentions and the action’s consequences.

This, Paul VI realized, would be a disastrous concession to the spirit of the age. But the proportionalists didn’t quit the field after their defeat in Humanae Vitae, and that brings us to Veritatis Splendor. John Paul II had spent the greater part of his academic and intellectual life trying to reconstitute the foundations of the moral life in a confused age dominated by (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a bourgeois culture and its laissez-faire concept of morality. He knew that the triumph of proportionalism and the vindication of its denial that some things are simply wrong, period, would gut the moral life of both its tether to reality and its human drama. And that, inevitably, would lead to unhappiness, misery, and social chaos. So in Veritatis Splendor, the most intellectually sophisticated and pastorally experienced pope in centuries reaffirmed, as the settled and unchangeable teaching of the Church, that there are intrinsically evil acts: that some things are just wrong, without exception, no matter the calculus of intentions and consequences.

And still the proportionalists wouldn’t quit; one German commentary critical of Veritatis Splendor went so far as to claim that the German-speaking world had a special, privileged responsibility for Catholic theology. It was a statement of breathtaking arrogance, not least because it was made by theologians whose local churches were largely empty of congregants, thanks in no small part to the bourgeois lifestyle of post-war Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

There are, indeed, “middle-class lobbies” in the Church, but they’re primarily the by-product of Catholic Lite and its destruction of Catholic life and practice. The sorry condition of German-speaking Catholicism is a case in point.

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About George Weigel 428 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. So I wasn’t the only one to notice that the German bishops who incessantly and loudly attempt to push the Church in a liberal direction are the same ones under whose watch the pews have emptied. I wonder what they would say if confronted with this discrepancy!?

    • Well, Dave, we know. Last year a report was produced by the German conference showing in data form the collapse of sacramental practice, attendance, and other markers of Catholicism. Cardinal Marx took it as a positive sign that “the Church in Germany continues to be a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted.”

      If you think I’m kidding, see https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2016/07/18/germany-mass-goers-priests-sacraments-decline/. He knows, and he says “Mission accomplished.”

    • The German bishops are likely undisturbed by empty pews. Like all ideologues, it is their way which must win. Consequences? Not so very important. It is the method of the political Left and the Catholic Left.

    • Yes, It’s like the proprietor of a business that has gone bust trying to tell the owner of a booming business how to run things.

  2. There is good news in all of this. Germany will lack a diocesan presence once they all die off and good religious groups (Dominicans, FSSP, ICKSP) can have fresh missionary grounds to harvest the Word. Versus going in there and getting flack from Bishops who clearly hate Christ’s message of conversion and would fight such “rigidity” towards repentance.

  3. Excellent premise G Weigel, that there are acts that are intrinsically evil. They can never be justified be it within the panorama of mitigating factors cited by the Pontiff in AL or otherwise by Pontifical fiat. A pontiff cannot repudiate Jesus Christ, and this is what the Church is suffering. A dilemma of epic proportion permitted by God to offer choice between salvation or perdition. And of course with the supporting cast of misled and misleading German Bishops Conference led on the path to denial of the Deposit of the Faith by Cardinal Marx [there are still a few good men in Germany like Bishop Stephan Oster of Passau]. If what is intrinsically evil verified by the Natural Law Within and more succinctly by Divine law then what Christ revealed and commanded is inconsequential to personal opinion. That absurdity is not only breathtaking. It’s malevolent evil in line with Lucifer’s objections to the Divinity as the exclusive Divine Sovereign Majesty. Any human act as previously said by Aquinas and confirmed by Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor must be ordered to God. Justice, what we owe to the other preeminently points to God.

  4. I sometime would like to read the back story on how Bergoglio became pope. There is such a discontinuity with his predecessors.

    • The backstory is where it all begins.
      The German bishops, et al, were repulsed at the election of Benedict, a faithful, holy man. Benedict was a true theologian and humble priest. He was not particularly forceful, unlike his predecessor.
      So be it. The vultures isolated Benedict. The convinced his secretary to turn on his Pontiff and steal from him.
      Benedict did not appear to have many allies or allies with strength to defend or advise him.
      BXVI’s enemies wore the man down physically and psychologically.
      Once the abdication occurred, the play was set. The actors knew their roles. Everything was planned.
      The Ste Gallen group had the Coup D’Etat they had long planned.
      Dan Brown could not have written a better script.

  5. Don’t forget the German Bishops have the “church tax”, which makes them incredibly wealthy despite empty pews. Unfortunately my own diocese is with its “strategic plan” following the German model of slowly replacing priest with paid “lay ministers.”

  6. I wish G. Weigel wouldn’t use the terms “bourgeois”. It’s bad enough the Cardinal looks down on what he calls “middle class”. I don’t like the snobbery, not because it hurts my feelings or makes me feel protective of others down the scale, but because those kinds of words should not even be used by a Christian who has been observing and learning from the human struggle (both the author and the Cardinal) We all understand that human dignity has little or nothing to do with economic status or with educational degrees, or whether you like hot dogs or steaks. Using those kind of terms implies that the writer himself buys, in some measure, the paradigm of class conflict.

  7. “… the most intellectually sophisticated and pastorally experienced pope in centuries ….” Normally I would chalk this up to the same “my time on earth is special” fallacy that gives rise to the Protestant expectation that the return of Christ will surely happen during *their* lives, and that America’s enemies are (of course) the ones who will usher in the Antichrist. Considering the author of this piece, though, it seems rather to be a case of “my book is special”, not very different from how Rod Dreher works a plug for his book into almost everything he writes. The truth is, though, that Pope St. John Paul — and the other Popes whom Weigel compares unfavorably with him — will be better evaluated from a greater distance, and by a generation better able to see the consequences of the good he did, the evils he tolerated (including a very mixed bag of bishops he appointed), and his outright blunders (such as kissing the Koran). Yes, John Paul II is a saint, but he is not the only Pope “in centuries” to be canonized.

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