Germany’s religious superiors of men’s and women’s communities released a statement that calls for a more expansive understanding of sexuality and, specifically, a rethinking of the church’s treatment of same-gender couples. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s Cardinal Raymond Burke compared these couples to “kind murderers” in his most recent interview.
The German Conference of Religious Superiors prepared the eight-page statement for that nation’s bishops as part of their broader preparations for the upcoming Synod of Bishops. In it, the 430 superiors, who represent the country’s 22,800 religious, note that most lesbian and gay people feel unwelcome. The National Catholic Reporter quoted from the document:
” ‘Christians of homosexual orientation talk to us quite openly about how they feel that they are just not accepted,’ the statement said.
“Many gay people aspire to a Christian lifestyle and to lifelong, faithful partnerships, but they cannot accept that the church requires them to remain celibate. More and more Catholics in city parishes no longer think that blessing gay partnerships would push Christian marriage into the closet, the statement said. They deplore that so many gay people are leaving or have long since left the church because they feel unaccepted, it continued.”
More generally, the statement appeals to church leaders to trust the faithful, who understand sexuality as “important and precious” while jettisoning unhealthy ideals from the past. The superiors state:
” ‘The faithful in the core sectors of our communities specifically appeal to those responsible in the church to put greater trust in them…They would certainly welcome more help in decisions of conscience but are critical of pastors who interfere with a heavy hand’. . .
” ‘Our church must be an inviting church. Public interest in the questions of marriage, family and sexuality have been aroused by the Episcopal Synod’s dialogue process. Let us humbly and courageously use this opportunity to find new, long overdue answers to these questions together…This is a good pastoral chance to do so — let us use it with the strength that God gives us!’ “
Directly challenging the more progressive and inclusive views of the German leaders is Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis. In his recent interview with a conservative Catholic news outlet, Burke spoke about the discussions around marriage and family arising around the synod process. Burke, who was removed by Pope Francis from a high-ranking Vatican position last year, expressed lament at the “confusion” created by these discussions and the fact that situations, like Bishop Johann Bonny’s call for the church to bless same-sex unions, have gone “undisciplined.”
At one point, he denigrated faithful same-gender partners, people who are divorced and remarried, and non-married cohabiting couples. When the interviewer mentioned that such people sometimes display kindness, generosity, and dedication, Burke responded:
“It’s like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter took Burke to task:
“No, Your Eminence, it is NOT like that. A person who is gay and tries to find a companion with whom to live life, or a woman whose first marriage failed and she is trying to make a new life, these people are not like a murderer. And, in +Burke’s twisted view of the world, it is the murderer who can confess her sins and be re-admitted to communion…It is twisted.”
Mark Silk of Religion News Service notes that it is unlikely Burke will be welcomed to participate in this October’s Synod and is stuck lobbing criticisms from outside the walls through his ceremonial post with the Order of Malta.
These widely divergent statements from the Germans and Burke indicate the growing tension among church leaders on sexuality issues. There are those, like the German religious superiors, capable of admitting the church’s past and present failures in pastoral care; they desire new ways of being church and being ministers emphasizing welcome and mercy. Then there are those like Cardinal Burke clinging to outdated, indeed harmful, theologies, and more appropriately at times, ideologies, which fail to account for the dignity of every person, the goodness of all families, and modern thought.
For the former group, LGBT advocates should give thanks and build upon this new openness. For the latter, we must pray that God’s Spirit imbues them with the humility and courage called for by the German superiors to enter a new age of confidence in the People of God.
While it is easy, and admittedly quite tempting, to write off Cardinal Burke’s extremist rhetoric, we must remember he and those who follow his leadership are members of our church, too. If we pray that all may be truly welcome, our prayer must include Burke and his followers, even when they carry a damaging extremism. This does not excuse their prejudice, but rather, it should encourage us to re-double our efforts to educate those who are harmed and stunted by homophobia and other damaging prejudices.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry