For Christians, Holy Thursday is among the most sacred days of the year. It begins the Triduum and commemorates the Last Supper. In Catholic tradition, it marks the institution of the Eucharist and the founding of the priesthood. The Sacrament of Orders confers on an ordained man the charism of pastoral leadership. And priestly authority, properly exercised, warrants the fidelity and special respect of the faithful. This is why, when that leadership is misused, the effects on Catholic life are so destructive. The health of the Church demands a response. And for that reason, Holy Thursday offers us exactly the right lens through which to view, and judge, several recent events.
In February, as noted by Catholic News Service and other sources, Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., relator general of Rome’s Synod on Synodality, suggested that Catholic teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual sex acts was wrong. Hollerich has opposed some of the more problematic ideas advanced in neighboring Germany, yet he publicly stated that the “sociological-scientific foundation” of Church teaching on homosexual acts “is no longer correct.” Then, in a March 31 interview with Germany’s Stern magazine, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “not set in stone” and “one is also allowed to doubt what it says.”
One might reasonably argue that comments like those of Hollerich and Marx can be misrepresented or taken out of context. But at a minimum—and with the sunniest interpretation— they show a remarkable lack of prudence for men in their position, quite apart from the serious doctrinal issues they raise. Thus it’s no surprise that they might trigger a response.
On April 6, an American priest, Father Philip Bochanski, offered a public letter in reply. Bochanski is the executive director of Courage International, a ministry to persons with same-sex attraction who seek to live chastely according to the classic Christian teachings on human sexuality. His letter reads in part:
When each of us was preparing for ordination, like all of our brother deacons, priests and bishops, we made a public Profession of Faith and swore an Oath of Fidelity. When we took that oath, we swore in regard to such teachings that we would “hold fast to” the Church’s doctrine, “faithfully hand it on and explain it, and … avoid any teachings contrary to it.” We invoked the Holy Trinity and the holy Gospels to witness to our honesty and sincerity.
Your Eminences, I beg you, please be faithful to your oath.
To violate your oath over this teaching would do great harm to the very people you sincerely want to help. “Neglect of the Church’s teaching prevents” these brothers and sisters of ours “from receiving the help that they need and deserve,” as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1986. To claim that this definitive teaching can change raises false hopes among our brothers and sisters, and is sure to leave them feeling more overlooked and resentful each time the Church faithfully restates it. By reinforcing this misunderstanding of the divine ordering of sexuality, you encourage them to seek happiness in relationships that ultimately cannot satisfy, rather than to seek fulfillment in chaste friendships . . .
It has been my privilege for almost half of my life to serve Christ’s Church as a priest, and an immense joy for more than half of my priesthood to serve Catholics who experience same-sex attractions, and their loved ones. It is a great consolation to carry out this ministry with the support and encouragement of the universal Church and its eminent pastors.
Your Eminences, I beg you, please be faithful to your oath.
Bochanski’s letter preceded, by just a few days, an unrelated open letter to the German episcopate from (now) roughly 80 bishops in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Africa, and elsewhere. In it, the signers voice their strong concern over the direction of Germany’s “Synodal Path,” a multiyear and increasingly problematic national Church consultation marked by dissent from Catholic teaching and practice on a range of important issues. One of the key passages of the bishops’ open letter is this:
While they display a patina of religious ideas and vocabulary, the German Synodal Path documents seem largely inspired not by Scripture and Tradition—which, for the Second Vatican Council, are “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God”—but by sociological analysis and contemporary political, including gender, ideologies. They look at the Church and her mission through the lens of the world rather than through the lens of the truths revealed in Scripture and the Church’s authoritative Tradition.
The result, as the signing bishops warn, is confusion among the faithful—and “in a time of confusion, the last thing our community of faith needs is more of the same.”
So here’s a thought for this Holy Thursday. Over the past 15 months I’ve interviewed more than 100 Catholics for their thoughts on the health, direction, and future of the Church: bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated women and men, and laypeople. The bulk, logically, have been laypeople—moms and dads, married couples, parents of disabled and adopted children, scholars, donors, ministry workers, teachers, and many others—selected as neither “right” nor “left” in their theology, but simply believing and faithful in their practice, because that’s what finally matters.
I lean toward (a hopeful) pessimism by nature, so the surprise for me in those interviews has been the immense reservoir of goodwill and energy that persists not just among everyday Catholics, but priests and bishops as well. Still, there’s a lesson we might profitably take to heart this Triduum, because three things distinguished the laypeople I spoke with: a deep, moving, and undiminished love for the Church; a desire to trust their leaders; and (too frequently) a lack of trust therein. Or worse, anger.
Simply put: Ambiguity, dissent, and confusion from those called to authority in any community lead, if sustained long and baldly enough, in one of two directions for everyone else—ignoring the incompetents in charge, or heading for the exit.
Francis X. Maier is the 2020-22 senior research associate with Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, and a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.