German Bishop Hopes for Development in Church Teaching on Sexuality, But Is Synodal Way the Source?

Bishop Helmut Dieser

Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a working document about sexuality and relationships in the German church’s Synodal Way process, which has potential to significantly advance the status of lesbian and gay relationships in the church. Today’s post features two reactions to that document, as well as one other story from Germany.

According to the German bishops’ media outlet Katholisch.de, Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen has called for development in church teaching on sexuality because he said, The crux of the matter is that many people perceive the Catholic idea of sexuality is in many places discriminatory.” Dieser hopes that this process of development can include information from human sciences being read in the light of faith.

The bishop heads the Synodal Way’s working group on sexual morality, which released the working document.  The Synodal Way is a dialogical process undertaken by German Catholics, that includes bishops, clergy, and laity, to look at contemporary questions which need to be discussed, such as sexuality and the role of women in the church.(You can find Bondings 2.0’s full report on that document by clicking here.) Katholisch.de reported on Dieser’s hopes:

“The [Synodal Way discussion] paper, which includes several suggestions for a total of eleven votes, states, among other things: ‘We appreciate the different sexual orientations and gender identities of people as well as the long-term, loyalty and exclusivity of these people’s relationships.’ . . .

“[Dieser] emphasized that there is a greater variety of sexual identities and orientations that are not interchangeable and that people do not choose. He hoped that the paper would find a two-thirds majority of the bishops in the further course of the reform process. ‘Then we would have at least one result of the Synodal Way that leads in Germany to the fact that there is a clear intention to move on.’ This is an important signal also with a view to the universal Church.”

In June, DomRadio.de reported that Dieser said the question of church blessings for same-gender couples.was unlikely to result from the Synodal Way:

“‘If we push through the blessings at the end of the day, I think that would lead to divisions,’ he said on Wednesday evening during an online discussion event organized by the Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ) from Düsseldorf. ‘But I don’t rule it out either.’ He would be content if relationships that do not result in marriage were recognized as an attempt to live in love with someone, rather than a sin.

“The bishop wished that sexuality could be discussed more openly within the church, for example in sermons. If pastors do not address the issue because they feared resistance and an internal conflict of loyalty, this is a sign of a disturbance.”

Steffen Zimmermann, an editor Katholisch.de, the German bishops’ media outlet, offered a less positive appraisal of the Synodal Way’s engagement with sexuality. After the five regional gatherings held in early September that included discussions of the aforementioned working document, Zimmerman wrote he was still determining whether they had advanced church reform or not. He wrote for Katholisch.de:

“[A]t least in Berlin, where I was there, the debate between approximately 50 participants was characterized by mutual respect and a high degree of seriousness. If atmosphere is a value in itself, then the regional conferences were a success.

“But of course the Synodal Way cannot just be about the atmosphere – the need for reform in the church is far too great for that. In terms of content, however, the conferences hardly brought the process forward, rather they clearly revealed its weaknesses. This was particularly evident in the discussion of the working texts of the synodal forums ‘Women in services and offices in the Church’ and ‘Living in successful relationships – living love in sexuality and partnership’. In both texts, the participants got caught up in a detailed and laborious debate about individual passages of text that no one outside the conference hall would have understood. Of course, one can now object that a synod (or a synodal way) works the same way. One must have doubts whether this type of debate, in view of the high pressure of expectation and reform, can hold out for another year and a half and ultimately produce a good result.”

Zimmerman said that one could “literally see the ivory tower in front of which the texts were apparently formulated.” He also cited a sociologist and philosopher Hans Joas who commented that, after reading a portion of the sexuality document with his wife, neither of them understood its meaning. Zimmerman concluded:

“If a clear change cannot be achieved here, the texts (and thus also the resolutions based on them) of the Synodal Way will probably not even be able to develop relevance within the church – because hardly anyone will understand them in terms of content and linguistic.”

Also in German church news, the Association of Catholic Doctors (BKÄ) is facing a criminal complaint from parliamentarian Ulle Schauws of the Greens Party, who is queer, over the medical association’s alleged support of conversion therapy for lesbian and gay people.  BKÄ issued a statement distancing itself from therapies that harm people and cause discrimination, but still affirmed it supported practices for those who “expressed wish for a future HETERO-sexual way of life.” Certain website material about “homeopathic therapy options for homosexual ailments and tendencies” was removed from the group’s website, reported Katholisch.de. In the past, BKÄ classified homosexuality as a “mental disorder,” has not been allowed to participate in Germany’s Catholic Day (an annual national gathering) since 2014, and has not had official recognition by other German Catholic healthcare groups.

For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of Germany’s groundbreaking Synodal Way, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 21, 2020

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