Saturday, June 13, 2015

Two Different Ways of Being Catholic

St. Thomas Church
Kreuzberg, Berlin
I blogged the other day on how the spin from Ireland’s Referendum on LGBT rights is impacting the rest of the world, and Germany in particular.  The German upper house, the Bundesrat, proposed following suit, and making it possible for lesbians and gays in Germany, who already have the right to form “registered partnerships,” granting them all the rights of marriage except the right to adopt children, to take that last step.  The lower house, the Bundestag, is putting on the brakes.  And it comes as no surprise that the folks with their hands on the brake are members of the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. 

Don’t let the title “social” fool you.  The two union parties have joined forces and work most of the time as a single “union” of Germany’s mainstream conservatives.  They are headed by Angela Merkel.

A new party, the “Alternative for Germany” Party (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, in German) was formed in 2013 and is situated politically to the right of Germany’s conservatives.  The other political parties of any size, the Socialist Party, the Green Party and the Left party, are all to the left.

Anne Will, one of Germany’s most popular TV talk hosts, chose the topic of same-sex marriage for her recent broadcast on June 11, and opened with the question of whether Germany should follow Ireland and go all the way.  The way things stand now in Germany, this means should gays be allowed to adopt children.  To her right, she had two guests with sharply opposing views, one pro-gay, the other anti-gay.  To her left she had the same division, one pro, the other anti.  But there was something else interesting about the two on her left.  The anti-gay guest was a leading politician of Bavaria’s CSU.  The pro-gay guest was a priest.  And gay.

To be fair, the terms “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” are my terms, and the two I designated anti-gay would no doubt protest this loudly.  In their view they are very pro-gay, in fact.  They simply happen to be drawing the line against allowing gay people to marry.  And maybe not even that, anymore.  But yes, I draw the line, they say, on adoption.  We must think of the children.  Not indulge gay people's whims at their expense.  

Funny how I used to accept that theoretically one might be “pro-gay” and still find reasons to protest giving gay people the right to marry.  Now I marvel at the fact that even gay people themselves, myself included, took so long to catch on to how thoroughly the insidious message has been culturally transmitted that there is something about being gay that is not quite right.  Even after years of focusing intently on homophobia, both theoretically and in every day experience, one can still miss the fact that if you dig for it (because it's often buried), the only justification people are coming up with for resisting LGBT people’s right to marry turns out to be a religious one, that those religious reasons are arbitrary, and that civil rights ought not be dictated by anybody’s religious notions in the first place.  How is allowing two men or two women to raise a child not good for the child?  Because God created the family male-and-female, male-and-female created he them.  That's why.  

So I stand by my choice of words.  Despite their expression of love for “the gays,” these two are anti-gay.

But I don’t want to go down that path at the moment.  Instead I want to comment on the fascinating story I became aware of as I listened to those two Catholic men describe the world they knew, each one describing it through the catholic lens they each had at their disposal.

Just let me say, before getting to the point, that the fact that all four guests felt obliged to express sympathy in unequivocal language for the LGBT struggle for equality and self-determination is a stunning indicator of just how far the struggle has advanced.  And that includes not overlooking the fact that the program’s moderator, Anne Will, experiences the world as a lesbian as well.

Where does this last hang-up in Germany over full recognition of the right of LGBT people to adopt and raise children come from?   The notion that it’s best if children have a male and a female parent – their own biological parents if at all possible – still dominates the discourse on same-sex rights.  The fact that the ruling party is Christian-identified is not coincidental.  As in the United States, the correlation between religious affiliation and homophobia is strong, and where the German church still has a voice, gays have a harder row to hoe.

German talk shows get quite heated – like the media in the U.S., no surprise, controversy seems to bring more folks to the TV couch than the quiet laying out of factual information.  As I listened to the four guests battle it out, it struck me how well the producers of this Anne Will program had done their job.  I doubt, actually, you could get four more interesting voices together, in terms of their views on the topic.  One was the highly articulate and intelligent Frauke Petry, a chemist from Dresden who became an entrepreneur before finally going into politics and becoming the first party spokesperson of the far right AfD Party at its founding.  Often falsely understood as Germany’s analogue to the Tea Party for its nationalist leanings, it is also known as the "professors'" party, since so many of its members hold PhDs.  Many are economists opposed to the surrender of the German mark to the euro.  In any case, Ms. Petry took the stance that her support for same-sex registered partnerships should qualify her as a pro-gay supporter.  Never mind that “that’s good enough” doesn’t satisfy the majority of LGBT people now demanding full marriage rights, including the right to adopt children.

The person next to her was a no less articulate voice for the other side.  Yasmin Fahimi is the general secretary of Germany’s Socialist Party.  Her views reflect her party’s official position – there is no reason why German citizens should be divided into those with full marriage rights, including adoption rights, and those without. Forced to defend her coalition's dragging its feet on this last step toward full LGBT rights, her only appeal was that the health of the coalition trumped her dedication to full gay rights (the Christian Democrats are the majority member of the coalition, remember, and the Socialists only the junior member), and she hoped the Socialists will one day prevail and Ms. Merkel and chums will ultimately come around.

The talk show, like many others, reflected the fact that the battle over LGBT rights appears to be splitting the country down the middle.  But only politically.  As in the United States, the government is running behind popular support.  The majority of Germans polled came out in favor of same-sex marriage rights as early as 2006.  A poll conducted in 2012 put that figure at 66% (with adoption support at 59%), and according to another poll, conducted by Reuters in February 2013, by that time that figure had risen to 74%,  And still, the German parliament (the Bundestag) drags its feet.

In the end, however, interesting as the discussion was, with nice clear statements of the various points of view, the debate shed no new light on the struggle, and I became distracted by what is clearly a side story to this 75-minute discussion on adoption rights, that troublesome last step toward full equality for LGBT people.  There on the stage, to the left of the moderator, were two self-identified Roman Catholics, one who clearly represents the official church, and one who could be said to represent those on the margin.  The mainstream member was Christian Social Union politician Thomas Goppel, the retired Bavarian Prime Minister (the Social Union is a state party as well as a national party).  He spent much of his time trying to make the distinction between "making distinctions between things that are different" and discrimination.  All very logical.  Very heady. "We cannot get away from the fact that men and women are different!"  Missing the woods for the trees, as people who take this tack usually do, he failed to explain why his distinction should make a difference.

The outlier was a priest named Norbert Reicherts, who has lived with his husband, another Roman Catholic priest, since 2005.  Together, they founded, in 2006, the Center for Theology and Pastoral Care in Cologne, besides which Reicherts does volunteer work with the mentally ill.

Reicherts and his husband, Christoph Schmidt, were excommunicated in 1998 when they came out of the closet.  But they refused to accept the excommunication.  “We will always be priests,” says Schmidt.  “It is a title given to us by God, and no one can take it away from us.”    When Reicherts spoke, it was the voice of a man whose life is on the line.  The difference between Goppel and Reicherts was the difference between information on a statistical table, and narrative truth.

The day before Pope Benedict made his visit to Germany in the fall of 2011 and caused considerable consternation by addressing the Bundestag, Schmidt and Reicherts travelled to Berlin to protest the pope’s treatment of gays and lesbians by holding a mass in the St. Thomas Church in the Kreuzberg district.  They couldn’t get a catholic church to open its doors to them, obviously, so they approached the folks at St. Thomas.  St. Thomas is a Protestant Church, and according to Bertold Höcker, the man responsible for Lutheran churches in the Kreuzberg district, where St. Thomas is located, “it was only natural that we would make the space available in Christian brother and sisterhood.”   Höcker also expressed the hope that this event might revive some moribund discussions on ecumenical cooperation.  Something has to happen, he said.  Things are at a standstill.  

I don’t know if he actually made it, but the Roman Catholic mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit said he planned to attend.   The purpose of saying mass on the eve of the pope’s visit, the priests declared, was to demonstrate that “it is possible to be a believer and a gay person at the same time.”

Here you have the conflict between religious identity and management of the physical church in a nutshell.   Whether you take that to be rubbing a little extra salt in the wound or putting your ecumenical money where your mouth is, depends on which catholic lens you are using - Goppel's or Reicherts'.

Whether this is the kickstart needed for the job of getting the various churches to start talking to each other again is a separate question.  First thing that happened is Berlin’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Woelki put his foot down.  Not mincing words, Woelki insisted, “As Local Ordinary (for the city of Berlin) I expressly forbid you to celebrate the Eucharist in the bishopric of Berlin.”  “There will be consequences,” he said.   Meaning excommunication.  Woelki is apparently overlooking the fact these guys were already excommunicated when they chose to marry each other.  Once you've damned someone to eternity, you can't add more eternity. 

Woelki’s action apparently lit a fire under the Protestant Bishop Markus Dröge, who then put in his two cents.  “It is regrettable that the St. Thomas congregation made their facilities available for this event,” he said.  Unlike in the Catholic Church, he lacks the power to shut things down, however. Why am I thinking of those protestant ministers who told Martin Luther King he should not be sullying his collar by protesting in the streets, the ones he addressed his Letter from Birmingham Jail to?

But wait.  Looks like the Catholic Church, the official one, didn’t have the power to shut things down either.  The mass took place, as scheduled.  

Now why would two gay guys acting as freelance priests want to go on fighting a church so intent on marking them as “not one of us”?  Why go on saying mass, performing baptisms and marriages which are, in the church’s quaint diplomatic turn-of-phrase, “valid but illegal”? 

You’d have to ask them.

Reminds me of what I once heard the well-known Catholic theologian Hans Küng say.  Some of his ideas were a bit too much for the official church to swallow.  He challenged the infallibility doctrine head on, for one thing.  He kept his job as professor of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen until he retired in 1996, but was forbidden to teach in the Catholic faculty. 

Protestants would have welcomed him with open arms, and he was often asked why he didn’t leave the Catholic Church.

“Because it’s my church,” was his answer.

photo of Thomaskirche

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