A diocesan magazine in Germany recently featured three perspectives on LGBTQ issues in the church, one from a gay pastoral worker, one from theologian, and one from a sex therapist.
Bene, the Diocese of Essen’s magazine, ran the piece in its March/April 2020 issue. A note at the article’s end said that the diocese is examining many aspects of the church, including an open discussion about sexuality and relationships with the goal of developing “an understanding of sexuality that does justice to diverse life models.”
The first perspective was from Rainer Teuber, a Catholic in a same-gender marriage, who is also a church employee, having served at the diocese’s cathedral treasury since 1994. When Teuber entered a legal civil union with his husband in 2004, the couple could not find a Catholic priest willing to bless their union. Eventually, they had a blessing at a restaurant with the help of another Christian pastor. But the experience lingers with Teuber:
“‘The fact that there is no way for my husband and me to participate in a worthy church blessing makes me feel like a second-class Christian. I expect the Catholic Church to follow the basic principle of Christianity and to recognize that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are wanted and loved by God.’
“And I hope that when evaluating a relationship, you look at all the aspects that make it up, not just sexuality. Rather, it is about partners loving each other responsibly and respecting one another. These are the Christian values that should be in the foreground.
“The sexual morality of the church has not only been jammed and outdated for a long time, it also excludes many people! I very much hope that Karl-Heinz and I can invite you to our church blessing in the foreseeable future. A blessing that is visible to everyone, that is officially celebrated during a service and that does not take place behind a closed or semi-closed door.
“It would be the clear sign for us to be accepted and perceived as full and valued members in the community of Christians – just as we are. With everything that defines us. And there is also part of our sexuality. One of many. “
The second perspective was from Ansgar Wucherpfennig, S.J., a theologian and the rector of the Sankt Georgen University in Frankfurt. He told Bene that the church must account for contemporary science and lived experiences, not just scripture as it engages sexuality. On the question of church blessings for same-gender couples, Wucherpfennig said:
“I can understand very well if lesbian and gay people suffer from the fact that blessings can only take place in secret or behind the scenes. Official church recognition is required for these blessings, and that could be allowed by several bishops for their dioceses. That would be possible with the existing church teaching, because there is a lot of blessings in these relationships, such as loyalty, consideration of mutual freedom, equality, reciprocity and commitment.
“There are various proposals for such blessings, for example from the Frankfurt city church. They should be an offer to all couples who are not approved by the Catholic Church for the sacrament of marriage. That wouldn’t isolate same-sex couples that way. This offer could also be aimed at couples who are not yet ready to marry, but still want to have their relationship blessed. It cannot be that everything is sanctified by the sacrament of marriage.”
The Jesuit theologian also called for an expanded understanding of fertility that goes beyond just having children, commenting:
“If someone as a gay person in the gay scene is openly committed to being Catholic, it is a belief that is lived out in everyday life. This is also a sign of fertility. I know of homosexuals who live fertility by caring for the elderly or by being socially involved.”
Wucherpfennig made headlines in 2018 after the Vatican initially withheld permission for him to be Sankt Georgen’s rector, reportedly over his progressive views on homosexuality and on women. He had been elected to the post by his peers for a third time. The Vatican reversed its decision after protests from church leaders in Germany. Last year, the priest was one of several prominent German Catholics who signed a letter calling for a “new start on sexual morality” in the church.
The third perspective in Bene was that of Carsten Müller, who co-founded and directs the “Practice for Sexuality” counseling center, where he interacts with Catholics as part of his sex therapy work. Müller said that many such Catholics have chosen a secular center instead of going to a church counselor because the church is not trusted to be competent on sexuality. He opined:
“The Church has an idea of how sexuality should be lived, but, to put it bluntly, hardly anyone can take it seriously. It is simply too far away from the real life of many people. I experience deeply religious people who are caught between what they feel and what the official church expects of them. People often feel left alone with their questions. Questions like: How do I deal with homosexuality? . . .
“Basically, it would be good to speak openly about sexuality and get the topic out of this shame corner. After all, it is something positive, beautiful and enjoyable. And it’s not just about physicality, but also about relationships, togetherness and self-awareness. Of course, given the abuse scandal, it is extremely difficult for the church to find an appropriate form of communication for it. Nevertheless, there must be ways to raise awareness about sexuality in a positive and pleasant way. In my opinion, this could already be discussed with young people and discussed in marriage preparation courses or the sermon.”
Many quarters of the German church increasingly approach questions like church blessings for same-gender couples with honesty and openness. Bondings 2.0 reported multiple church leaders’ support for LGBTQ church blessings in 2019. For instance, the chief executive of a Swiss Catholic church body, Franziska Driessen-Reding, endorsed such blessings and said the local church did not oppose civil marriage equality. The Diocese of Limburg began a process to discuss the topic , including hosting listening sessions. Last year, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, deputy chair of the German Bishops Conference, said the church should allow such blessings for couples who are civilly married as a means of accompanying them. The Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay organization, endorsed such blessings as far back as 2015. And while not supporting blessings, a number of high-ranking church leaders including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, and Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn have made positive comments about same-gender partnerships.
It is unimaginable that a diocesan publication in the U.S. or most other countries would publish what Bene did. But Essen’s bishop, Franz-Josef Overbeck, is modeling what it means to be a leader unafraid of change. In 2019, he said he would defy the Vatican’s ban on gay men in the priesthood. In his comments about that decision, Overbeck said that the church needed to re-evaluate homosexuality and the church’s moral theology, fearing a marginalization of the church if it “avoids conversation with the experiences of the people and the reflective human sciences.” For the good LGBTQ people and the church alike, Catholics need to have more honest and open conversations like the feature in Bene.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 20, 2020