A German priest has critiqued systemic homophobia in the Catholic Church, doing so the day after Pope Francis recommended the church apologize to LGB people and others it had harmed.
Jesuit Fr. Klaus Mertes of Berlin, Germany, called the Catholic Church to re-evaluate how homophobia functions in ecclesial teachings and practice, reported Global Pulse. In an article for the academic journaltheologie.geschichte (“theology.history”), Mertes highlighted areas where homophobia is reinforced by church teaching, as well as where it influences the church’s work.
Mertes began by saying homophobia violates the commandment of charity, and that Scripture and early Christianity clearly witness to inclusive, equal relationships in opposition to today’s homophobia. Citing Galatians 3:28–“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”–the priest said modern adaptions could include that “there are no longer homosexual or heterosexual.” He continued:
“That the Church cannot bring itself to uphold the basic human rights of gay people, and that it even allows senior church representatives to champion cultural traditions which threaten homosexuals with death, contradicts the Gospel Message.”
Mertes examined how homophobia in the church influences its interpretation of Scripture. He noted that contemporary anti-gay prejudices “prevent an historical-critical look at the relevant passages” in Scripture and in non-canonical historical texts. Prejudice leads some to prefer a “fundamentalist Bible exegesis” at odds with the historical-critical approach endorsed during Vatican II. Scholars have repeatedly debunked the idea that any biblical condemnation of homosexual activity can be understood as a condemnation of the modern understanding of homosexual orientation and relationships.
Second, Mertes criticized church teaching as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He recognized not only the active homophobia in the Catechism’s explanations, but also sees it in ” blind spots and performative contradictions.” For instance, homosexuality is addressed in the Catechism’s treatment of offenses against chastity thereby suggesting that just being gay is an offense as are any longings and desires. Mertes wrote:
“This painfully affects the everyday experience of gay people in the Church. Instead of being assigned to the field of ‘chastity,’ the subject of homosexuality should be handled under the heading of ‘human rights.’
Where the Catechism does speak against anti-gay discrimination, the message is bizarre and gets “lost amidst discriminating statements” on homosexuality elsewhere, Mertes observed. Of the frequently cited Catechism section no. 2358, where the church is called to engage gay people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” Mertes said it is “patronizing and hurtful.” To those persons who believe homosexuality is a Cross to be carried, Mertes responded that it is not one’s orientation that is the Cross but the “aversion and hostility of homophobia” imposed upon someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The article, published in German and accessible here, noted other areas where anti-gay prejudices afflicts the church. Mertes criticized the Platonic and Aristotelian understandings of sexuality and gender which have negatively impacted church teaching and theology across the ages. He challenged lingering associations in the church of homosexuality with child sexual abuse; he challenged rumors of a “gay lobby” at the Vatican; he challenged the ways in which homophobia and misogyny function within all-male societies like the Catholic clergy.
Mertes concluded by recounting the story of the Australian couple that addressed the 2014 synod and spoke about their friends who have a partnered gay son. The Australian speakers were criticized afterwards for bringing up their friends’ support of the gay couple. Mertes commented on this criticism:
“This reflects the face of homophobia. They do not want the discourse. That is the problem. Because the discourse is like paste that no longer can be pushed back into the tube. Homophobia experiences discourse as threatening, and so it fights against it, instead of listening and arguing. But the scene from Rome also shows the power of the personal word: The discourse is not triggered by the ‘speaking about” in the third person singular, but by speaking in the first person singular (or plural). The most important contribution to the reduction of homophobia is therefore the discourse in the first person.”
This is not Fr. Mertes first time criticizing the church for how it approaches homosexuality. In a June interview, he said church leaders must reform the “deficient mindset” they hold on this issue and extolled LGBT Catholics who remain in the church despite oppression. Commenting on nations where bisexual, lesbian, and gay people face the death penalty, Mertes said he was “appalled that the church is so silent on this issue.” The German priest is well known, too, for being a whistleblower in Germany about sexual abuse at a Jesuit school in the country.
Much of what Fr. Mertes wrote in the journal article is not new, such as the Scriptural research or critiques of how church leaders understand clergy sexual abuse. What is striking, however, is the powerful and concise way in which he laid out a systemic homophobia in all areas of church life. When reading it all together, even LGBT people and their allies will be struck again by the deep problems in our church’s treatment of sexuality and gender.
Mertes’ two best contributions are, first, his recommendation that the church shift the lens through which it understands and engages homosexuality, moving from a focus on chastity to a focus on human rights. If an updated edition of the Catechism made only this revision, it would do much good. Second, the priest identified anew what LGBT advocates have long known, which is the power of personal narrative. Sharing stories and speaking in the first person invites connection and opens minds in the most powerful ways.
Homophobia is intensely present in our church, as Mertes made clear, but I am hopeful because, so too, are the loving and courageous witnesses of LGBT people and their loved ones who break down prejudices and build up justice.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry