Not every question asked at a synod news briefing elicits an answer one expects. Cardinals and bishops can be surprising.
When I learned that Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx was to be a guest at the press briefing on October 24th, I thought this was my opportunity to ask a question that I’ve had for a long time. If you’ve been reading Bondings 2.0 regularly over the past few years, you may have noticed that the Catholic Church in Germany way out in front of the rest of the global church in terms of respecting and welcoming LGBT people. Theologians, lay associations, bishops all have made headlines for their out-of-the-ordinary statements and gestures supporting LGBT issues and calling for more church dialogue in this area. Indeed, Cardinal Marx has been one of the leaders of this trend.
So when he appeared at the press briefing, I decided to try to ask him a question that has long been on my mind:
“Cardinal Marx, I chronicle LGBT issues in the Catholic Church, and I’ve noticed over the years that the German bishops, particularly you, have been way out in front of the rest of the Church on issues of equality, pastoral care, human rights for LGBT people. That’s been true even here at the synod. I wonder if you can tell us why you think that is so? Is it because of your theologians, because of an engaged laity, because your bishops have been listening pastorally, some sociological reason, or something else?”
I didn’t get the answer I expected. In a somewhat angry tone, Cardinal Marx seemed to resent the question being asked. Although, I was only able to capture some of his words through the English translator, my colleague Deborah Rose-Milavec of Future Church helped me out with her notes. While not a total verbatim, he responded along these lines:
“Honestly, we have not discussed this topic in Germany. The answers are offered by the catechism. I don’t think this matter plays an essential role here [at the synod], but sexuality does. Some want it to be discussed as a core issue. Some want to set it aside. This is not a topic at the synod. This is a synod on the young.”
I was quite surprised, as I expected a much more pastoral answer. From my perspective, it seemed like he was trying to avoid being labeled as being a leader for LGBT equality in the church. Later in the press conference, it was mentioned that at the synod the idea that LGBT issues are Eurocentric or Western topics was often raised by nations from the global South.
In answer to another question about LGBT issues, Marx said that the question of sexuality should not be exploited and used in an ideological battle, noting that there are “lobbies on all different sides” of the issue. He stressed that it was important to “identify a way that is understandable to everyone,” and he emphasized pastoral accompaniment as way to satisfy diverse cultures and understandings.
My only comment on this notion is that why do LGBT issues always have to be considered “ideological” in the church? While some LGBT people may be ideological, in my experience most LGBT Catholics are not pushing an ideological agenda. They simply want the abilities to receive appropriate pastoral care and to bring their faith and gifts to the church community.
I also have to acknowledge that perhaps a press briefing was not the best forum in which to raise the question that I did. Perhaps I would have received a better answer if I were in a one-to-one interview with Marx, where I could ask for clarifications and have some back-and-forth with him. But I thought that this might be my only opportunity to get an answer to a pressing question that I have had for a long time. Clearly, something different is happening in the German church to allow a robust discussion of LGBT issues when elsewhere the topic is usually given short shrift. I would love to have some insight into how and why this has been occurring to see if it can be applied in other locations.
Also speaking at the press briefing was Cameroon’s Bishop Andrew Nkea. A reporter from a conservative Catholic website directed a question to him about the possibility of the term ‘LGBT’ being used in the synod’s final document. She observed that Nkea had earlier stated that he and other African bishops would not approve a synod document that contained the term ‘LGBT,’ and asked him to confirm if that were true.
Nkea answered that his opposition to the use of the term was based on the idea that “if I go to my diocese with a document carrying ‘LGBT,’ . . . 99.9% of my people will ask ‘what is that?’ ” He lamented that “I would have to explain that to my people.”
My first thought on hearing that was, “And what would be wrong with that?” I am sure that the synod document will contain many words that Nkea’s flock and many Catholics around the world will not understand. A bishop’s job is to be a teacher. This could be an educable moment where he explains the importance of church teaching of “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” to LGBT people.
Nkea also explained that “At the synod, we are not solving the problems of particular continents. We are looking at a church for a global point of view. ” While that is true, it is a misstatement to think that LGBT people only occur in the West. Sexuality and gender are universal human experiences. They occur everywhere.
The Cameroonian bishop also mentioned that he was against the idea that Western financial aid to developing countries was tied to acceptance of LGBT issues. He offered as evidence for this notion the existence of the Maputo Protocol, but this resolution is about reproductive rights and the sexual health of women, not LGBT issues.
I thought this press briefing was instructive to understand some of the opposition to LGBT issues that exists in the synod, even from some people that we might consider allies. I think that the event provided a peek into what may appear in the final document. I don’t expect that ‘LGBT’ will be used, and I think that welcome and pastoral accompaniment will be the way the subject is treated.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 26, 2018
For good summaries of Cardinal Marx’s and Bishop Nkea’s remarks, read:
Vatican News’ report, “Synod of Bishops: God is an abstract thought for the young”