In seeming defiance of a Vatican ban on gay men in the priesthood, German dioceses have announced they will accept candidates with homosexual orientations as long as they accept the promise to be celibate.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen offered his support for gay priests in a newspaper commentary which called for the Church to rethink its approach to homosexuality. He sharply rejected claims that gay priests were a cause of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and said there was no basis on which to reject gay men from the priesthood. Katholisch.de reported:
“[Overbeck] advocates a re-evaluation of homosexuality by the church and its moral theology. In a guest essay in the Herder Correspondence, he fears an ‘intellectual marginalization of the Catholic moral teaching’ if the church ‘would avoid the conversation with the experiences of the people and the reflective human sciences.’
“Referring to the abuse study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, Overbeck emphasizes that ‘neither heterosexual orientation nor homosexual orientation as such’ can be considered as the cause of sexual abuse, nor is there any ‘inner connection’ between pedophilia and homosexuality. Therefore, it is also absurd for the bishop to exclude homosexual men from the priestly ordination: ‘I wonder, is that not exactly the attitude which continued and even strengthened problematic repressions inside the Church.'”
Overbeck added that exclusion of marginalized groups is “difficult for endangered persons to endure and ultimately contributes to their discrimination or even criminalization.” Homosexuality needed to be “depathologized” in the Catholic Church, for all people are capable of “extremely respectful and loving interpersonal relationships.”
German announcements in support of gay priests this month began with Fr. Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer, rector of the Archdiocese of Paderborn’s seminary. He stated that his Archdiocese would accept candidates of all sexual orientations as long as they remained celibate. Katholisch.de reported:
“A commitment to homosexuality is no longer an exclusion criterion for candidates for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Paderborn. ‘If they comply with celibacy, homosexual candidates for the priesthood are also accepted,’ said. . .Menke-Peitzmeyer, to WDR on Monday. ‘We have to distinguish between a homosexual orientation of a person and homosexual practice.’
“On the other hand, the commitment to celibate abstinence continues to apply — for people of any orientation, says Menke Peitzmeyer. ‘When homosexual practice is common in a person, I think that is an exclusion criterion with regard to the priestly ministry.’ There are now regular discussions with applicants about personal attitudes and sexual orientation.”
The Archdiocese’s press office confirmed this policy after media inquiries. Spokesperson Maria Asshauer told Westfalenpost that a conversation on sexual orientation “takes place confidentially under the guidance of therapeutically trained experts.” Further formation around sexuality is given during classwork and in individual meetings, all of which Asshauer said was in keeping with Vatican guidelines.
Fr. Hartmut Niehues, who chairs the German Rectors’ Conference in addition to leading the Diocese of Münster’s seminary, also offered qualified support for gay priests. Speaking with domradio.de, he said the Paderborn announcement was “nothing new and certainly not sensational.” Indeed, he said discussions about sexual orientation and sexuality in general were “not a taboo” but a standard part of priestly formation across Germany.
Niehues said the “crucial question” was not about what a person’s orientation is but how they have dealt with their orientation and whether they are committed to celibacy. In an attempt to explain further what the Vatican means by “deep-seated tendencies,” he said careful interpretation was needed:
“I assume that this was also intended by the [Vatican] authors themselves so that it needs an interpretation. First of all, we find that there are people who feel homosexual, just as there are heterosexual-feeling people. And just as heterosexual-feeling people are asking themselves whether their orientation shapes them and determines what they want and need to practice their orientation, so does this question for people who feel homosexual. It is therefore about the interpretation of the term ‘deep-seated’ and thus the distinction between orientation and practice.”
Niehues added, however, that it “would be weird” for priests to be public about their sexual orientation because it is “not necessary” and “not helpful” to “wear my orientation on my forehead.” Thus he would for now prohibit priests from coming out.
Katholisch.de also reported on relevant comments from a retired auxiliary bishop of Münster, Dieter Geerlings, who previously called for the Church to bless the relationships of same-gender couples who were civilly married:
“Asked about homosexuality, [Geerlings] referred to a changed awareness of society: 300 years ago he would have been deposed as bishop if he had not explained the origin of the world according to the Bible. Today nobody talks about it anymore. The same must be remembered for the question of how to deal with homosexuality: The formulation of the Catechism that homosexuals must be treated “respectfully” is not enough. ‘You should just acknowledge the way of life and not make a great to do about it.'”
Last year, Monsignor Peter Beer, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, also affirmed gay priests, along with lesbian and gay church workers generally. He said they “provide an important ministry and good work,” while rejecting any links to sexual abuse.
Not every German church official has been as supportive however. Retired Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a former Curia official who is a fierce critic of Pope Francis, claimed it was “statistically proven” that homosexuality is linked to sexual abuse. He said, reported Katholisch.de, “a priest must be fatherly, and anyone who is emotionally incapable of normal human love and responsibility for the family would encounter difficulties even as a priest.”
What is happening in Germany? The Church there often moves the worldwide Church forward on issues of gender and sexuality (not to mention ecumenism and a host of other issues). There are at least three noteworthy threads in these news items.
First, church officials recognize that the Church must taken into account contemporary knowledge from the sciences. When considering issues like sexual/affective formation and relational ethics, old prejudices based on fundamentalist readings of Scripture are not justifiable positions today. This approach will necessarily mean shifting the Church’s understandings about homosexuality and how to constructively engage it.
Second, there is overwhelming consensus that homosexuality is not a cause of sexual abuse. The Church may be grasping desperately for answers and actions amid the present scandals, but complex solutions will be needed for complex problems. Simply scapegoating gay priests undermines the pursuit of accountability and justice and is a severe, wounding injustice in its own right.
Third, despite claims to the contrary, the position of welcoming gay men to seminaries seemingly defies Vatican guidelines. A 2005 prohibition on gay priests by the Vatican was reaffirmed by Pope Francis in 2016, whose own record on the issue is quite muddy. In 2013, asked about the issue, he offered the famous, oft-quoted line, “Who am I to judge?” In May 2018, it was reported that the pope told Italian bishops to “keep your eyes open” about such applicants and “if in doubt, better not let them enter.” Then in December of that year, in a book-length interview, the pope said the existence of gay priests is “something that worries me.” German officials offering a clear welcome to gay men seeking ordination is, at a minimum, a divergence from this ambiguity, if not an outright refusal to participate in homophobic policies.
The Vatican’s prohibition of gay priests is based on debunked “scientific” assumptions and is rejected by many Catholics who love the gay priests they know who have served the Church so well. It is a healthy sign for the Church’s future that German officials are rejecting old prejudices in favor of new ways forward.
New Ways Ministry has re-launched our campaign, “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” to show our support for gay men and religious who faithfully, dutifully, and effectively served the People of God and to call on church leaders to end the falsehoods about and lift the ban on gay priests.
To add your name to this show of gratitude and solidarity, click here.
—Robert Shine, February 1, 2019