German Church figures have criticised a bishop who pulled out of the ‘synodal path’ over alleged “dissent” in the reform process, accusing him of a “simplification” of doctrine and of issues involved in the discussions.

– Cologne auxiliary: synodal path forum on sexuality being built on “quicksand”

Last week, Cologne auxiliary bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp withdrew from the synodal path forum on sexual morality, denouncing that participants in the group were attempting to reformulate Catholic doctrine on foundations of “quicksand”.

Schwaderlapp alleged that the final forum working document was beset by two main problems: an assumption that human sexuality is “polyvalent” – meaning that there is no one right way of living out sexual urges – and the conviction that, because of that fact, Catholic moral doctrine is in need of “further development”.

Accusing forum participants of seeking to tear down the edifice of traditional Catholic theology on sexuality, the bishop protested that “‘further development’ can never mean destroying what is there: rather it should build on it”.

“In particular, the Holy Popes Paul VI and John Paul II made a binding statement that sexuality, from the point of view of creation, comprises two meanings that are inseparably linked: the transmission of life and the communication of love”, the bishop said.

– Theologian: tradition is a “process”, reform necessary so as not to risk “irrelevance”

But for his reduction of the “meanings” of human sexuality to just two – the procreative and the unitive – Schwaderlapp came under heavy criticism from moral theologian Konrad Hilpert.

In a piece published June 3 on the website of the Munich Forum for Theology and Church, Hilpert countered that although Schwaderlapp’s position may well be that of Paul VI and John Paul II, “no theologian or pope before 1960” insisted on the “inseparability of two meanings of the marital act”.

On the contrary, Hilpert said: the Roman Catechism adopted after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century actually mentions several motives and ends for marriage – including the wish for “companionship”, “the hope of mutual assistance”, “the desire of family” or even the enjoyment of “beauty” – and expressly leaves open the door to there being more.

Pointing out that Catholic hierarchies of the meanings of sexuality are based on traditional understandings of doctrine that theological research now considers problematic, Hilpert argued that the reduction of sexuality to “the transmission of life and the communication of love” is not “the constant teaching of the Church” but “only” the “very special anthropology and stylised reading” of that teaching undertaken by Karol Wojtyla, whose writings Paul VI drew on.

While the theologian praised the desire to preserve tradition as “legitimate and honorable”, he added that tradition is “necessarily a process that takes place in temporality and history and not outside of it”.

The assertion that doctrine is permanent “is at the least a simplification”, Hilpert explained, stressing that simply repeating traditional teaching on sexuality is not enough if the Church doesn’t want to risk becoming “irrelevant for people’s orientation and action”.

– Sexuality forum co-president: revision of doctrine necessary after revelations of child abuse

Hilpert’s criticism of Schwaderlapp’s position on the progress of the synodal path sexuality forum came after a co-president of the forum, Birgit Mock, also reproved the bishop from walking away from the discussions.

In the wake of 2019 revelations of widespread sexual abuse of children in the German Church, the synodal path – and in turn the forum on sexuality – was expressly commissioned with the task of “look[ing] at the possibilities of how the Church’s positions on sexuality and especially on homosexuality can and should be further developed”, Mock reminded Schwaderlapp.

The forum co-president also rejected the Cologne auxiliary bishop’s tacit implication that the group’s work was “not Catholic”.

“It is Catholic, especially when we struggle with each other, in our case about how we as a Church can credibly stand for successful relationships of love between couples”, Mock shot back, also hitting out at Schwaderlapp for his “not… helpful” decision to leak details on group discussions to the media before the forum has wrapped up its work.

Apart from Hilpert and Mock, another voice which has criticised Schwaderlapp for withdrawing from the synodal path has been that of editor of German Bishops’ news site, Christoph Hartmann, who in an opinion piece June 4 recalled the “ethical obligation” of revising Catholic sexual morality after studies have repeatedly shown that it is a contributing factor in child abuse.

The theology of sexuality may well be a “point of contention” between reform- and tradition-minded Catholics, with the latter perhaps being in the “minority” on the synodal path, but that is all the more reason for conservatives to continue in the discussions, Hartmann wrote.

“A majority of the members of the Synodal Way want changes; those who demand understanding for tradition must therefore also have an open ear for reform concerns. Only in this way can the discourse be fruitful”, the editor of insisted.

Novena’s full coverage of the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process:

German Bishops’ head wants world synod on ordination of women, blessings for gay couples

German ‘synodal path’: “The majority of the faithful will leave the Church if it fails”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.