Thomas Andonie is the president of the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (Federation of German Catholic Youth), an umbrella organization of Catholic youth organizations from all over Germany. He also has a passion for justice in the church. Given his office, it was no surprise that Andonie was selected by the German Bishops Conference to be the nation’s youth auditor at the synod on youth. Given his passion for justice, it is no surprise that during his spoken intervention at the meeting, he used part of his 4 minute talk to raise the question of LGBT inequality in the church.
In his talk to the 270 bishops and 34 youth auditors, Andonie brought up three ecclesial justice issues: clergy sex abuse, the role of women in the church, and sexual morality. As part of the last topic, he mentioned gay and lesbian people and relationships:
“A large number of young people rejects the sexual morals of the Church, especially its attitude towards same-sex partnerships and premarital
sexual intercourse. They understand very well what the Church demands of them, but – as baptized and confirmed Christians – they simply hold a different view. Values such as faithfulness and responsibility for one another are particularly important to them. Only if the Church is prepared to acknowledge these realities of life will it be able to engage in a new dialogue with young people on these important questions.”
[You can read his talk in English by clicking here.]
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Andonie about his synod experience and his ministry of helping to renew the church. The 28-year old who left a job in public administration to head the youth federation of 660,000 members, credits his faith commitment and social justice interest to the Kolping Youth organization, an international Catholic group, which combines church ideals with working to transform society. The Kolping group helped him to answer some of life’s big questions: “what is my heart for? where can I find meaning? What do I want to be?” He found that the organization helped him connect a lot of dots about the things he was pondering in his youth. In his new job, as the president of the youth federation, he is involved with work for change in society, politics, and church.
As the quotation above suggests, Andonie sees LGBT issues in the larger context of the church’s sexual morality. The problem, he thinks, lies with the doctrinal concern about sexual activity, not taking into account the relationship between the couple. The church should “not be in the bedroom, but in the living room,” he said, explaining the two different concerns. What’s important is not “the two hours involved in sexual activity, but the seven days of the week” in which people’s full lives and relationships play out.
For Andonie, the question of same-sex relationships is the same as non-married heterosexual relationships. “They can be responsible, respectable, faithful, and equal relationships,” he said. “The people involved take responsibility for each other, with faith, and so the relationship has value.” In terms of cohabiting couples and same-sex couples, “the church must have respect for them, too.”
The youth auditor said that not only were LGBT relationships discussed in the synod, but cohabitation was also a topic. In regard to same-sex relationships, he said that he could see that “the bishops were struggling” to understand the perspectives of the young, progressive auditors. They were hampered from accepting a more positive, welcoming approach to LGBT people, he thought, because of the church’s doctrine forbidding same-sex relationships and sexual activity.
At the synod, “there was a great fear in the room to talk about issues of sexuality,” Andonie said. “The bishops have a great fear because of the teachings of the church.” Sexuality was not given a lot of attention at the synod, and bishops have a hard time talking about it, he observed.
“The hierarchy of the church needs to listen to people. This will be a first step to take away fears.”
Andonie, who is not gay himself, sees the LGBT issue differently than the bishops. “Every person, no matter how or who, no matter where she is, is a beloved child of God.” Whether or not leaders show respect for LGBT people is “a question of credibility for the church.”
Thomas described his organization as very egalitarian, collaborative, and youth-directed. The group has relationships with church leaders at all levels. “It is young people leading young people,” he said. Young people are in a unique position to speak out in the church because they are not institutionally hampered, he said. “They can speak without fear,” he observed. “There must be a fundamental acceptance of the person, to accept the person for himself or herself.”
There was general agreement on that idea within the synod, he said, but consensus did not gel around the topic of accepting people involved in same-sex relationships. Andonie noted that the German bishops, while not approving of same sex-relationships, have been working towards accepting people in lesbian or gay partnerships. Their message, he said, is: “These are people looking for God, for a companionship, for a place in church. We must provide them possibilities for a place in the church. There must be space for them, and we must accept them first as a person, and also take a very good look at the way they live their relationships.
Andonie said he hoped that a statement like that would appear in the final document. He realizes that this is not a synod about sexuality, but it is a synod on young people, the future, and young people have made it clear they support LGBT equality, he said. During the pre-synod meeting of youth earlier this year, he said that young people sent the message that “they do not want to be judged first. They want to be accepted. They want to be taken for the persons they are and they want to seek for God, a church, and faith.”
I asked Andonie the same question that I asked Cardinal Marx at the press briefing a few days ago: “Why are the German bishops so far ahead of the rest of the church on LGBT issues. I received a much clearer answer from the youth auditor. The German bishops, he said, “are quite in touch with the people.” They have also consulted experts on the topic. “The bishops are trying,” he said, “they are struggling.” Many of the German bishops accept that LGBT people are loved by God, and they are working to find a place in the church for them, he noted.
Another reason he gave for the progressivism of the German church is that “we have a good lay structure in Germany.” The German bishops conference has a lay committee that they consult with.
Andonie is also passionate about gender justice in the church, and he talked about that in his synod contribution. The fact that women are denied leadership and ordination in the church, he said, “is not God-given.”
When I asked him if he thought that the synod would have benefited by hearing directly from LGBT youth, he gave an immediate “Yes.” He lamented the fact that many types of youth voices were absent from the discussion: youth who are struggling with the faith, who have left the church. The synod would have benefited to have these other voices talk about their experience of church. He would have also liked to hear “a faithful LGBT person to give testimony to the bishops.” The German Catholic youth groups listen to these voices, he said. The bishops should also have listened not only to youth who are happy in the church, but to those who are not happy.
In Germany, LGBT youth may or may not feel welcome in a Catholic parish, depending on the attitudes of parishioners and staff. However, LGBT youth do find a welcome in the many regional and national Catholic youth associations. One association has caucuses called “Catholic Youth Communities,” abbreviated in German as “KJG.” They also have one called “KJGay.” In fact, one German Catholic youth association took part in the Christopher Street Day, Stuttgart’s LGBT pride event, and won the top prize.
For young German Catholics, the LGBT question is a question of justice, Andonie said. “Why should people be judged by who they love?” They are motivated to work against injustice in society, but also in the church, too.
Listening, which has been a main theme of the synod, would do wonders for the relationship between the church and the LGBT community, he said. Bishops and pastors should listen to LGBT people. “I talked about the fear of some bishops about this topic at the synod,” he said. If bishops would meet with and listen to LGBT people, they would see their humanity, he said, and also recognize that they are human like everybody else.
Was the synod good for the LGBT discussion in the church? Bad for it? Neutral? Andonie said he couldn’t answer that because he doesn’t know what the final document will say. However, in regards to the listening and dialogue process of the synod, he said, “If bishops take seriously what they have been talking about here at the synod, there will be progress in regards to sexuality in the church,” Andonie said. He recalled that Pope Francis had said that listening is a theological practice, listening not only to hear, but listening with the heart–to being aware of how what is heard is affecting one’s heart. If bishops practice this kind of listening, “perhaps they will find a new truth in their heart that they didn’t have before.”
He hopes that the synod model will be replicated on local levels throughout the church. “We need to get the teachings of the church and the thoughts and feelings of the people” into a conversation with each other. This action will help move the church into the future, he said, “And when you’re moving, you’re developing, and this has to happen in church.”
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 27, 2018