An impressive list of bishops and other church leaders in Germany have expressed their welcome of the #OutInChurch initiative, in which 125 LGBTQ church workers publicly came out in a call for non-discrimination protections.
Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen, speaking in the name of the German Bishops’ Conference, said the country’s bishops supported the church workers’ coming out. He said, per the Catholic Sentinel:
“No one should be discriminated against, or devalued, or criminalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’.
“‘Because with the Synodal Way, we learn to understand more deeply that sexual orientation and gender identity are part of the person, and we have an image of the human being that tells us that the person is absolutely loved by God, and from this, we approach the topics of sexual orientation, identity, but also sexual fulfillment in a new way with the Synodal Way.’
“‘And I’m convinced that with the Synodal Way, especially in our forum that deals with these questions, we have the space to respond to these questions in a constructive way, so that precisely what this group that has now shown itself most wants, freedom from fear, is actually achieved.'”
In a separate interview, Dieser encouraged the church to repent for its mistreatment of gay people, saying:
“‘Homosexuals were also devalued and criminalized by the church. A confession of guilt is also due here. . .We are working on that. . .Now we say: Sexual orientation is a gift from God. It is not to be questioned, but it must be led into the discipleship of God.'”
Dieser co-chairs the Synodal Way’s working group on sexual morality and relationships. He has previously expressed support for blessings for same-gender couples and said that a majority of that working group feels similarly. In 2020, Dieser said church teachings on sexuality needed development, in part because they were considered discriminatory and had not sufficiently engaged with modern science.
Another German prelate, Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg, said he respected those who had come out because:
“‘A Church in which people have to hide because of their sexual orientation cannot, in my opinion, be in the spirit of Jesus. . .We are always called to authenticity and transparency before God and, of course, before each other. There must and should be no fear of this.'”
Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, who serves as deputy chair of the German Bishops’ Conference, said in a press release that the church workers’ coming out was a “brave step” prompting a “long overdue debate.” Katholisch.de reported further:
“Bode said that the loyalty of church employees was closely tied to their way of life under labor law, and individual regulations were ‘sensibly and vigorously sought’ in the diocese of Osnabrück. ‘But individual solutions always create uncertainties. There is an urgent need to find reliable solutions for all sides.'”
Bode said that the church’s message of God’s unconditional love “must also apply to all relationships, provided they are based on love and mutual respect.”
Additionally, Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz wrote a Facebook post about the initiative. Katholisch.de reported:
“In my conscience I cannot accept the fact that offenses against people [are committed] by the church,’ emphasized the bishop. ‘Anything that smacks of double standards and secrecy should have no place in the church,’ said Kohlgraf. ‘I’m not satisfied that people hide from me.’ The church must change its'”thinking and speaking’. In addition, labor law must be further developed in the ‘evaluation of the different ways of life’. Merely paying lip service to appreciation is not enough.”
Kohlgraf noted that the Diocese of Mainz planned more meetings on LGBTQ issues.
Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim said in an interview reported by Katholisch.de that the church must “take church employment law into account so that church employees no longer have to hide a homosexual orientation,” and affirmed the need for Germany’s Synodal Way to continue discussing LGBTQ issues, including church blessings for same-gender couples.
Bishop Felix Genn of Münster reaffirmed that in his diocese, “personal marital status has no relevance for the employment or continued employment of administrative staff.” Therefore, there will be no negative consequences for LGBTQ employees. Katholisch.de reported further:
“No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the head shepherd. ‘Against this background I also see the discussions within the framework of the synodal path, which should do justice to non-heterosexual people and their living conditions without discrimination’. This also applies to ecclesiastical labor law and especially to pastoral workers. Genn explained that many homosexual people had been hurt by church statements for decades. “This must no longer be the case today and in the future. Every person – regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity – is absolutely loved by God.'”
Katholisch.de also reported that Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers of Dresden and Archbishop Stefan Hess of Hamburg were personally supportive of #OutInChurch.
Ulrich von Plettenberg, vicar general for the Diocese of Trier, issued a supportive statement, saying that, “People who feel part of the LGBTIQ community and want to shape their life and work out of the Christian faith should of course have a home in our church and not have to fear repression.” To be in dialogue now, as the church should be, “means considering where changes are necessary in relation to sexual morals and church labor law.”
Several church leaders confirmed that being openly LGBTQ would not lead to negative consequences for church workers, including Klaus Pfeffer, vicar general for the Diocese of Essen; Christoph Neubrand, vicar general for the Diocese of Freiburg; and Andreas Sturm, vicar general of the Diocese of Speyer. Clemes Stroppel, vicar general for the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, made the same commitment, saying he was “deeply touched by the courage” of the #OutInChurch employees.
Jürgen Vorndran, vicar general for the Diocese of Würzburg, issued a statement that added, “We hope and are committed to the fact that the [labor] law for dealing with queer people and homosexual partnerships will be changed very soon.”
Alfons Hardt, vicar general for the Archdiocese of Paderborn, wrote a blog post expressing regret that LGBTQ people did not feel unconditional love. He claimed “clear signs [are needed that] there is and must be no abuse or discrimination” in the church, such that the church can “stand by everyone’s side and help to overcome injustice and suffering that has been experienced.”
Wolfgang Rösch, vicar general for the Diocese of Limburg, called #OutInChurch “good and important” to expose “double standards” and take “a step towards honesty.”
This showing of overwhelming support from the German hierarchy and other leaders is remarkable. It builds on their 2015 policy change which allowed church workers in same-gender relationships to remain employed. That policy, however, was not legally binding as the nation’s courts allowed religious exemptions from general employment non-discrimination protections. Notably, the German church is the nation’s largest non-governmental employer meaning any changes have a wide impact.
What could #OutInChurch and developments since 2015 mean for employment laws and policies now? Hermann Reichold, a labor lawyer, said the current version “cannot endure in this form,” in part because Germany’s civil legal system is “more and more critical” of church discrimination and may allow more victories to fired church workers going forward. Reichold predicted, per Katholisch.de: “The previous condemnation of homosexuality will in all likelihood disappear with the reform of the labor law [expected this year]. It will then probably simply be ignored.”
Thankfully, Germany’s bishops and church leaders seem prepared to take this next step towards full non-discrimination protections or, at the very least, continue engaging in dialogue about working conditions at large. Will hierarchies in other nations do likewise?
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 28, 2022