German Bishops Offer Nuanced Response to New Marriage Equality Law

Germany’s bishops have said they are “deeply saddened” by the legalization of equal marriage and adoption rights for same-gender couples in their country, but their response is more nuanced than what is being reported.


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Early last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she was dropping her opposition to marriage equality. Legislators passed the law Friday, including several who are members of the lay-run Central Committee of German Catholics.

After the law’s passage, Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin released a statement in his role as chair of the German Bishops Conference’s Commission on Marriage and Family. Koch said, in part:

“I regret the fact that the legislature has given up the essential content of the marriage concept in order to make it fit for same-sex partnerships. At the same time, I regret the fact that today’s decision gives up a differentiated perception of different forms of partnership in order to stress the value of same-sex partnerships. Differentiation, however, is not discrimination. A valuation of same-sex cohabitation can also be expressed by another institutional arrangement. It does not have to appear in the opening up of the legal institute of marriage for same-sex partnerships. The fathers of the constitutional law (Grundgesetz) have given marriage such a prominent place in our constitution, because they wanted to protect and strengthen those who as a mother and father want to give their children their lives. If, above all, the protection of relationships and the assumption of shared responsibility as a justification for the opening of the marriage are brought forward, this means a substantial re-balancing of the content and a dilution of the classic marriage concept.”

Koch said that a conversation about “the strengthening and promotion of the diverse communities of responsibility” was necessary, adding:

“As a church, we have respect for those same-sex partnerships in which mutual responsibility and care are taken over for many years.”

In light of marriage equality’s passage, Koch said the bishops would need to “present [their understanding of marriage] invitingly in public” and promote sacramental marriage as a separate entity.

Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg echoed this sentiment, according to PinkNews, saying, “I regret that our understanding of marriage and the state’s understanding are moving yet further apart.”

Before the vote, reported The Tablet, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German Bishops Conference, called the snap vote “absolutely inappropriate” and said marriage must remain defined as it is in the German constitution.

These statements need to be read in a very important context. German bishops have been some of the most supportive voices in the church for LGBT people. Indeed, both Archbishop Koch and Cardinal Marx attended Catholic Day festivities in Germany last year as LGBT groups were welcomed to participate for the first time.

At the Synod on the Family, Koch said the German contingent sought to advance the conversation on homosexuality as much as possible despite resistance from other regions. The German-speaking group of bishops at the synod stated that the church should apologize to people it has harmed, including lesbian and gay people. Cardinal Marx has also said the church should apologize.

But when lay Catholics in Germany called for the church to bless same-gender partnerships outside of marriage, bishops including Marx rebuked them sharply. Marx himself has both affirmed the love found in such partnerships, and also spoken strongly against understanding them as equal to marriage. Meanwhile, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck said such couples should be blessed.

The bishops’ response to Germany’s new marriage law is equally nuanced, yet it should be seen as a positive change in the church. It would be too far at this point to expect they would affirm marriage equality, but their statements reveal three noteworthy advances.

First, they recognize the need to legally protect same-gender couples even if they desire differentiated means of doing so. Second, Koch’s statement acknowledges the lasting “mutual responsibility and care” found in such relationships. Third, they admit the difference between civil and sacramental marriage. Going forward, Koch is clear that the bishops’ role is not to fight the new law, but to invitingly propose their understanding of marriage and hope it attracts people.

I await the day when bishops, recognizing the goodness and love which mark same-gender relationships, celebrate with their fellow Catholics when marriage equality laws are passed. Until then, I hope more bishops will look to Germany and try for less caustic, more nuanced responses.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 5, 2017

10 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    “Germany’s bishops have said they are “deeply saddened” by the legalization of equal marriage and adoption rights for same-gender couples in their country…”

    What kind of person is deeply saddened by the happiness of couples and families at the legalization that brings protections and stability to their loving relationships and to the status of the children for whom they care? I’ve seen the same kind of remarks from a bishop in this country, whom I know and admire. Meanwhile, couples – many of whom have been together for years – will joyfully marry each other legally, surrounded by happy children, family and friends. And these unmarried churchmen will stand to the side – naysayers expressing their disappointment and sadness.

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    We, as Catholics, are called to evangelization which includes sharing the sacraments. Is not the obligation then for the Church to bless same-gender marriages as well as heterosexual ones? A few of the German bishops seem to grasp some of the elements of marriage that are shared regardless of the gender of the participants, but can’t go the extra step to be open to blessing good wherever it occurs rather than cling to centuries of ignorance and abuse. What would Jesus do?

  3. obiwan0109
    obiwan0109 says:

    Good piece, Bob.

    It invites a follow on about the essential characteristics of marriage under the German Constitution’s definition, and a deeper examination of what the “essentials” are in the “constitutional/secular law” paradigm vs. the “theological” paradigm”. How do real world experience and real world values of conjugal partnership match or mismatch these contrary paradigms?

    Bernie Roache

  4. Dean Rosen
    Dean Rosen says:

    I believe the marriage equality movement or the same-sex marriage movement has been strategically remiss in not differentiating marriage–as a civil institution in a country that separates church and state, from holy matrimony which is a sacrament and is not touched by civil marriage equality. People confuse these two concepts, even Obama initially talked of marriage as a sacrament in his initial political opposition. We should continue to differentiate and bring back the term holy matrimony and give it to the Catholics who want to uphold tradition within the church.

  5. Tom Gaudet
    Tom Gaudet says:

    I wonder when the Catholic hierarchy will abandon its obsession over civil marriages, which have nothing at all to do with religion or the Catholic Church. The Church still maintains the right to withhold the Sacrament of Marriage from same-sex couples. However, it has no business telling the state what to do with the civil rights of its citizens. Clearly the hierarchy’s obsession with same-sex civil marriage stems only from the malicious intent to, as it has done for centuries, exert power and control over people. The hierarchy should learn that very few in the LGBT community are seeking it’s affirmation or embrace, and many of those who long ago left the Church have been no worse off for their departure. Many who have stayed are not paying attention to the hierarchy; they know the Church’s teaching on LGBT activity is simply wrong. The expectation that 21st Century Catholics are looking to the hierarchy as a credible authority on sexual morality is, today, nothing short of twisted, sad, and, frankly, laughable.

  6. Friends
    Friends says:

    Good points, John and Gary! But the deeper problem here is the needless conundrum (or “bugaboo”) of priestly celibacy. There is absolutely no reason or need for this practice to exist. In fact, married Anglican and Episcopal priests who feel called to convert to Catholicism are allowed to serve as Catholic priests — even if they also have a wife and family. We also have an ordained Senior Deacon at our Cardinal Newman Center — a UMass faculty member — who is married, with several grown children. Perhaps the question of Anglican and Episcopal priests who might also be same-sex married would generate a different set of issues, in terms of their qualification to become Catholic priests. This would be a whole other discussion topic. But I suspect that pathological sexual repression and denial are closely involved in the hateful and clearly aberrant behavior alleged against Cardinal Pell. His reported offenses — especially against children — would seem to be ample grounds for removing him from active ministry.


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