A misconception that remains about the Indian Residential School system is the myth of its beneficial, benevolent intentions.
This myth that continues to be put forth by some settler Canadians avoids acknowledging the intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schooling. It also denies that residential schooling was part of a larger settler colonial system.
As political commentator and journalist John McGrath writes: “Residential schools were as much a part of the Canadian national project as railroads, medicare or fighting in two world wars.”
‘Restorying’ settler colonial legacies
Greater and specific understandings of who designed, administered and taught at these institutions is needed to help people understand the specific ways we can become more accountable to redress their harms.
This past September, on the front lawns of University of Ottawa’s main building, Tabaret Hall, representatives of the Algonquin First Nations and Elder Peter Decontie lit a ceremonial fire. This occasion was named Pinzibìwin | Amitié | Friendship and sought to acknowledge and renew our relations for moving forward together in a good way.
At the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education, one way we can respond to the responsibilities we inherit to uphold the spirit of Pinzibìwin is by seeking to understand interconnections between the role that the Oblate religious order had in founding the University of Ottawa and in operating residential schools. More information is needed to move towards deeper understanding and accountability, particularly as we seek to educate teachers about standing in classrooms and discussing truth and reconciliation.
The past is present
Teachers and leaders in educational institutions must continue to question and address how teacher education programs, as well as provincial curricula, continue to be largely framed by settler colonial worldviews, histories and perspectives.
At last month’s Pride parade in Rome, members of the city’s LGBTQ community waved rainbow flags, strewed glitter and generally exuded love to fellow marchers and those along the route. When they occasionally showed flashes of ire, their mockery and ridicule were aimed at some of Rome’s most familiar figures: Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy.
Some shouted at the churches they passed; others held sparkly signs with double-entendres aimed at the pontiff. Still others strutted their stuff dressed as Francis himself.
What angered Italian LGBTQ citizens was what they considered undue interference by the Vatican in its attempt to stall a controversial bill being debated in the Italian Senate that would criminalize homophobia. Named for its author, politician and activist Alessandro Zan, the bill would also institute a day aimed at raising awareness of sexuality and gender issues in schools.
Italian bishops have twice voiced their concerns about the Zan bill, claiming it would violate the religious freedom of Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions. When that admonition fell on deaf ears, the Italian bishops’ conference sent a diplomatic note to the Italian government on June 22. The Zan bill, the bishops argued, violated the accords signed in 1929 between Italy and Vatican City, known as the Lateran Treaty, that set expectations for mutual noninterference.
In the middle of this heated debate, Francis sent a letter to the American Jesuit priest James Martin, about Martin’s efforts to promote inclusivity and to welcome LGBTQ individuals in the church.
“Our Heavenly Father comes close with love to each one of his children, each and everyone,” Francis wrote in the letter, praising Martin’s work.
Ever since Francis answered a question about a gay priest in 2013 with his own now famous question, “Who am I to judge?,” many Catholics have hailed the pontiff as a beacon of hope for LGBTQ inclusivity.
But while Francis has often shown in his words and personal acts of charity that he is close to LGBTQ individuals, the Vatican as an institution has done little to recast its hard doctrinal line, which views homosexuality as sinful and as “intrinsically disordered.”
“I can understand that it’s very confusing for people,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a clerical abuse survivor and member of the LGBTQ community who frequently meets with Francis at the Vatican.
Despite the Vatican’s recent interference on the Zan bill, “that’s not who Pope Francis is,” Cruz said, adding that in private conversations the pontiff makes it clear that not only did God make the activist gay, but loves him the way he is.
Cruz made it clear that while he enjoys a personal relationship with the pope, and while Francis appointed him to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2020, he is not a papal spokesperson.
Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice and a longtime activist for LGBTQ rights in the Catholic Church, believes that Francis “wants to be compassionate and merciful to marginalized people — he sees us as marginalized people — but he doesn’t want to change the teachings that will free us from marginalization and get us justice.”
Catholic LGBTQ organizations are divided, Manson explained, between those who believe that “appealing to mercy and pulling at heartstrings” will lead to change in the Vatican and those who “have run out of patience.”
Occasionally the pontiff’s statements on homosexuality seem to contradict themselves. He has personally supported LGBTQ individuals in Italy and in Argentina — and last September, speaking to Italian parents of LGBTQ children, Francis said that “God loves their children as they are” and so does the Catholic Church. But he has also criticized gender theory, comparing it to nuclear weapons and calling it a form of ideological colonization.
The dynamic can be attributed to a “hate the sin, not the sinner” approach, but according to Cruz, it also suggests that there is not a little opposition to Francis’ support for LGBTQ Catholics among Vatican officials.
“I’ve never seen in my life a more political and LGBTQ-obsessed Curia,” he said. “It is sad to see how much Pope Francis wants to support and open his arms to the LGBTQ community and how much they put land mines in his path to be able to do it,” he added.
Concerning the CDF’s ban on the blessing of same-sex couples, which occurred shortly after Francis returned from his historic trip to Iraq, Cruz said he believes that “in some way (the pope) is going to try to repair the harm that document did.”
The CDF document, approved by Francis, seemed to be an attempt to rein in the discussions taking place in Germany known as the Synodal Path — a series of conferences involving local bishops and laity that has taken a progressive line on questions regarding sexuality and power structures in the Catholic Church. But LGBTQ Catholics in other countries regarded it as a gratuitous slap, and despite the ban from the Vatican, some German clergy have continued to bless same-sex couples.
Manson praised the pope for opening the conversation on LGBTQ issues in the church, which she believes has led to “meaningful change,” but she added that the time for talk is over. She called for the pope to meet with members of the LGBTQ community at the Vatican and publicly acknowledge his private statements on LGBTQ issues.
Cruz said that he known he’s “lucky” to be able to speak to the pope directly on these topics, praising Francis’ efforts to evolve the Vatican’s understanding of LGBTQ individuals, while adding that “we cannot change church teaching in a minute.”
He also longs for the pope to speak openly on these topics, he said, and for him not to “let others define it for him.”
The Vatican has taken a highly unusual step against its neighbor, sending a diplomatic note to the Italian government that protests a draft law aimed at preventing hate and violence against LGBT people.
The complaint marks a formal effort by the Vatican to influence Italian lawmaking and could provide a test for how forcefully the church can exercise its clout on culture war issues — not just as a religion but as a state.
While it’s common for church figures to take stances on affairs in other countries — whether on same-sex marriage, LGBT rights or abortion — in this case the Vatican is invoking its prerogatives as a nation, arguing that the law, if passed, would violate the “concordat” that provides the framework for its relationship with Italy.
“Some current contents of the draft being debated by the Senate reduce the freedom granted to the Catholic Church,” the Vatican’s note said, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, which first reported the letter.
The Vatican’s press office confirmed that the city-state sent a note to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See last week but did not provide more details. Benedetto Della Vedova, an Italian foreign ministry undersecretary who has read the document, called the message “heavy interference” and said the Vatican city-state had not previously attempted to influence the Italian government on highly contentious issues such as abortion and divorce.
“The effects of this escalation aren’t positive for anyone,” Della Vedova said. He declined to share a copy of the letter with The Washington Post, but he described the core of the Vatican’s contention — that the draft law would violate specific aspects of the concordat dealing with religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Vatican’s goal is to have the draft bill amended.
The law, known as the Zan bill, after gay activist lawmaker Alessandro Zan, was approved last year by Italy’s lower house and has since been under debate in the Senate, amid fierce national discussion. The bill would explicitly categorize violence against LGBT people as a hate crime, making it akin to racial or antisemitic attacks, while establishing harsher penalties than those currently on the books.
Members of far-right political parties have said the legislation would suppress opinion. The leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, said it would punish those “who think a mom is a mom and a dad is a dad.”
Advocates say that the law would merely put Italy in line with other Western European countries and provide belated safeguards after a series of murders and assaults targeting transgender people. According to Rainbow Europe, an LGBT association, Italy provides some of the weakest legal protections on the continent for LGBT people.
The explanation for that is based partly on the Catholic Church’s deep historical influence on Italy. When Italy was first considering granting legal rights to same-sex couples, the powerful Italian bishops’ conference sponsored protests, and Pope Benedict XVI helped lead a campaign to stop it. (When Italy approved civil unions in 2016, Pope Francis took a more hands-off approach.)
But even though Francis has at times signaled a more welcoming church stance on homosexuality, the church has not shifted its official teachings and laws. In March, the Vatican made explicit its position that priests cannot bless same-sex marriages. The church has also taken a clear stance on gender issues and said in 2019 that people do not have the right to choose their own gender.
The Zan law provides protection to people based on gender identity, among other factors.
Crux, a Catholic news outlet, noted Tuesday that Francis has called gender theory “dangerous” and an example of evil at work.
“It is an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women,” the pope said in a book released last year.
But supporters of the Italian bill say the Vatican, even if concerned about the changing cultural perception of sexuality and gender, should not feel threatened by the proposed law. They note that any viewpoint is protected, as long as it does not “incite a concrete danger of discriminatory or violent actions.” They also note that the law will not force any school — including private Catholic ones — to participate in events teaching about transphobia and homophobia.
“The worries here are absolutely groundless,” Zan, the lawmaker, said in a phone interview.
Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary general of Arcigay, Italy’s largest gay rights group, said the church was perhaps more worried about public opinion — and the fact that some Catholics disagree with church teaching. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of Italians say homosexuality should be accepted, a proportion lower than in other Western European countries but slightly higher than in the United States.
“The dissonance I see is between this kind of behavior by the Vatican and the majority of the Catholic world and of Catholic public opinion,” Piazzoni said. “Maybe they are afraid that the [Catholic school] students, parents and teachers may be the ones asking to hold initiatives against discrimination or violence. There could be a groundswell of requests that they want to prevent at all costs.”
This year, like every year for the past 20, Szymon Niemiec will wear a rainbow-colored stole at the Equality Parade in the Polish capital of Warsaw on June 19. “I won’t have a banner because I will be leading the entire parade. I can’t keep my hands full,” says Niemiec. The 43-year-old has seemingly contradictory roles — one as a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and the other as a priest, in a country where church and government are united in condemnation of and hostility towards the LGBTQ community.
Niemiec organized Poland’s first Equality Parade in Warsaw in 2001, which drew a crowd of 300 people. Each year, the crowds have grown bigger (with the exception of the 2020 parade, which was hosted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic). By 2003, thousands joined and in 2019, 50,000 people marched in the largest Pride event in central and eastern Europe. Now, in at least 20 cities across Poland, the parades are taking place throughout June albeit with limited numbers owing to the pandemic.
But this year’s events are taking place at a time when homophobia is on the rise in Poland, fueled by hateful comments from the government and Roman Catholic Church (RCC) leaders. According to a 2020 survey by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based advocacy group, Poland ranks as the most homophobic country of the E.U.’s 27 member- states. In the past two years, 94 local authorities have adopted non-binding resolutions opposing what they call the “LGBT ideology”, labelled “humanity free” zones by E.U. president Ursula von der Leyen. “It has a chilling effect on people living there, who are now even more scared to come out. Those who bully LGBTQ people are emboldened by homophobic politicians,” says Bart Staszewski, a Polish director and LGBTQ rights activist.
The nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) has rallied its conservative support base first by targeting migrants and then the LGBTQ community since taking office in 2015. Last summer, Polish President Andrej Duda declared that “LGBT are not people; they are an ideology.”
PiS echoes the views of Poland’s Catholic church, which often takes a stronger stance than the Vatican on social issues. After Pope Francis said same-sex couples should be supported by civil union laws, a spokesperson from the Polish Bishops Conference declared that the Pope’s words were not part of the Church doctrine. “The board that presides over the Polish Bishops’ Conference is dominated by the most conservative bishops. The negative attitude towards the more liberal currents in the Church is tangible,” says Marta Kotwas, a doctoral researcher specializing in Polish politics and society at University College London. Many Polish catholics oppose Francis’s attempt to move away from the Vatican’s firm adherence to traditional doctrine and deeply conservative stance on sexual morality under Pope John Paul II, the Polish former archbishop of Krakow. The late pontiff is seen as a national hero in his homeland for supporting the pro-democracy movement that overthrew the communist government in 1989.
In deeply devout Poland, where 87% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, activists are trying to create a space for people to be openly LGBTQ and also Christian. They are part of a growing international movement of churches and religious organizations that advocate LGBTQ rights. In recent years, clergy have begun blessing same-sex marriages in New Zealand’s Anglican Church, Germany’s Catholic Churches and U.S.’s Presbyterian Churches. In Poland, it’s almost impossible for openly LGBTQ people to remain an active part of the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to activists, excommunicates people who are openly LGBTQ. Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, referred to LGBTQ people as “the rainbow plague” in 2019. “Just holding a rainbow umbrella or bag could get you kicked out from the church,” says Niemiec.
At the same time activists say the LGBTQ community can be very critical of openly religious members. “It is generally anti-clerical, and often anti-religious”, because of the “damage” that the RCC has done to them, says Uschi Pawlik, a co-leader of a local group at the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which aims to promote acceptance LGBTQ people in Poland’s Christian churches. Niemiec and the foundation’s 20 active members are practically the only people in Poland trying to promote full acceptance of the Christian LGBTQ community. “It’s an enormous job with very few human resources,” says Pawlik.
How an activist became a man of the cloth
In 1998, when Niemiec became an activist, the country’s LGBTQ rights movement was only just beginning to emerge. At that time, the 21-year-old was working as a journalist for a weekly newspaper covering news of Warsaw. His editor in chief sent him to report on what Niemiec calls one of the first gay demonstrations in the city. “Two men and a lot of journalists attended,” he says. For reasons he says he can’t explain, he decided to join the demonstrators. “It triggered something in me,” he says. Like the two men, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. The spontaneous decision was both his coming out as gay and first act of LGBTQ activism.
Niemiec says the next day he was fired from his job. “My boss told me that I crossed a line by joining the demonstration,” he says. In 1998, five years before the passing of anti-discrimination legislation in Poland’s labor code, he says it was possible for someone to lose their job for being openly LGBTQ or being seen to support this community’s rights.
Later, he began training as a psychologist while working as a cultural ambassador of Poland to the International Lesbian and Gay Culture Network, a post he held from 2000 to 2006. The Network aims to bring together groups and individuals around the world to end homophobia through culture. One of his main goals, in addition to launching Poland’s first Equality Parade, was to find churches that welcomed the LGBTQ community. He wrote to every church and religious association in the country, he says, but did not receive a single response. “We were rejected,” he says.
Recognizing that Poland’s LGBTQ Christian community lacked leaders and spokespeople is what prompted Niemiec to become an independent Catholic priest. In 2006, bishop Paul David C. Strong from the Christian United Church and an independent Catholic Church, ordained him deacon, a low ranking member of the Christian ministry. Independent Catholic denominations are made up of clergy and non-clergy that self-identify as Catholic but are not affiliated with historic Catholic churches, such as the RCC. Followers often choose independent Catholicism as an alternative way to express their beliefs because they reject some traditional Catholic teachings. As a deacon, Niemiec began holding public masses in rented rooms and a house chapel. “It was a church for everyone,” he says. In 2010, Strong ordained him priest and in 2012, bishop.
Inclusive churches are crucial for LGBTQ people who have been expelled from their church and want to remain active Christians. For people living outside big cities, being kicked out of a church means being ostracized from an entire community. “It is extremely painful. There is a huge difference between a big city like Warsaw and Krakow, where you can hide, but what about small villages or small cities where everyone knows each other? Some priests have outed the name of a gay person from the pulpit and described them as a danger to the community,” says Niemiec.
The Faith and Rainbow Foundation has been trying to hold parishes and priests to account over public homophobic statements. Members of the foundation, set up ten years ago and formalized in 2018, regularly write letters and individual emails to churches and the clergymen about the effects such rhetoric can have. “Their messages are broadcast in catholic media, it trickles down onto ordinary people and it results in individual tragedies,” says Pawlik. Roman Catholic officials have never replied to their letters, nor have they responded to their dozens of requests to meet with the foundation, she says.
‘I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high’
The most important aspect of the group’s work, says Pawlik, is local meetings for LGBTQ Christians, many of whom “are in difficult situations and deeply in the closet.” Twice a month, the foundation organizes local meetings in six cities across the country, where some 150 members discuss passages from the bible and LGBTQ issues. “I can see that for many people, this is the only context where they can really be themselves,” she says. Kazimierz Strzelec, a member of the foundation’s Advisory Committee and mechanic from a town near Lublin in the country’s east, says the foundation “changed his life.” It taught him “what the bible really writes about LGBT people and how to interpret it,” he says, “I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high.”
With just 20 active members, the foundation is restricted in how much it can do. But if there is a possibility to expand, Pawlik says she would like to team up with professional psychologists to run a mental health support program. The activist says there is also a need in Poland for clergy-run pastoral care specifically for LGBTQ Catholics as an alternative to the pastoral initiatives sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to her, places an emphasis on “curing” people from homosexuality. Last August, Poland’s Catholic episcopate came under fire from activists after releasing a “position on LGBT+”, which called for the creation of therapy centers for “people wishing to regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation.” Bishops later clarified that they would not force LGBTQ people to undergo therapy.
Niemiec was forced to stop holding public masses after a public prosecutor in October 2019 accused him and two of his colleagues of “offending religious feelings” in connection to his services. The offence is punishable by up to two years in jail. The police have not banned Niemiec’s services, but he says the negative media coverage surrounding the case has put him and people attending his services at greater risk of anti-LGBTQ aggression or violence.
The priest has long been aware of the dangers that come with being an prominent LGBTQ activist in Poland. Over the past two decades, he says he has been depicted as an “enemy” in the state media and been the target of physical attacks on three occasions, which he believes were motivated by anti-LGBTQ hate. There is no official data on hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as they are not recognized in Polish law. But activists say that violence against LGBTQ people in Poland has increased in the last year, and included cases of physical violence.
Although Niemiec no longer holds public masses, he still conducts private weddings, funerals and other services. “If anyone needs me to make sacraments, I will be there,” he says, “there are people like me all over the world”. A sense of international solidarity seems to be important for Niemiec, who speaks about his friends in the U.S. and Europe, and the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, whose social media account posts daily updates about positive developments in LGBTQ rights movements around the world.
After a year of restricted religious services and virtual meetings due to the pandemic, this year’s Equality Parade is an especially significant celebration for activists of faith. “We will be visible with our banners and our flags, showing the public that LGBT Christian people do exist,” says Pawlik. “We’re making a space for ourselves.”
On a sunny Sunday evening in May, 80 people gathered in a Berlin church for a calm Catholic revolution. At 6pm the 11 metre-high wooden doors of the modernist church of St Canisius were opened for an inclusive Mass of blessing. Spaced out in pairs around the airy church were mainly same-sex couples, all looking ahead at the lanky Jesuit priest.
With expectation in the air, Fr Jan Korditschke removed his face mask and, wearing a broad smile, spread his arms and invited all present to join him in celebrating love. His sermon drew on John’s Gospel, that love is from God, and that it is not in the purview of a priest or a pope to deny the God-given blessing of love.
“God is present in love and and loving couples are already blessed with the presence of God. I am just giving it a framework through this rite,” he said.
Afterwards, with two assistants Korditschke worked his way through the church, talked briefly to each couple before praying together. Behind medical masks many tears flowed.
“It was such a relief, like a stone was rolling away from my heart,” said one man, Georg, alongside his partner afterward.
The Berlin Mass was the last in a series of services across Germany under the banner #liebegewinnt – love wins. The services were triggered by a Vatican document from March restating Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are disordered and blessings for same-sex unions are impossible.
One attendee, Robert, said he came with his partner in protest at the document’s key sentence that “God does not and cannot bless sin”. “By posing a question no one asked, just to answer it in such cold language,” he said, “Rome tried to ram home its point but have triggered a reaction they didn’t expect.”
A few feet away 15 young men and one middle-aged woman held a large hand-written banner reading “God cannot bless sin” and recited the rosary during the Mass. One protester, who declined to give his name, said that obedience to papal teaching is what has held the Catholic Church together for two millennia.
“I worry that carry-on like this,” he said, with a nod to the emerging massgoers, “will bring us toward another schism.”
Exactly 500 years ago, the renegade Augustinian monk Martin Luther was ordered in public to submit to this absolute papal authority by recanting his claims of corrupt church practice and flawed teaching.
Luther turned the tables on Rome by demanding they prove that his scripture-based understanding of the Christian faith was false. The confrontation spiralled and his challenge became a channel for a host of political and modernising forces. Western Christianity split and the world was never the same again.
History doesn’t repeat itself; in a largely secular Europe, most people would struggle to spell schism, let alone see any relevance for their lives. Still, something is brewing in the land of the Reformation as individual protests within the church of Rome feed into each other to create a crackling, Catholic conflagration.
German bishops appear unsure like never before as to where their loyalties lie. Should they deploy the Roman fire blanket, suffocate the flames and denounce critics as arsonist apostates? Or does their survival hinge on embracing the protest and facing down Rome?
Like their Irish colleagues, the German bishops’ fumbled response to clerical sexual abuse allegations and their cover-up in the past decade has drained away credibility and public support.
Nowhere is the struggle more visible – or the stakes higher – than in the western city of Cologne. For centuries its hulking Gothic cathedral has been a touchstone of German Catholicism. For many German believers, though, Cologne is now the epicentre of institutional dysfunction and denial, in particular over the scale of clerical child abuse and the systematic nature of its cover-up.
Last year Cologne’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, came under fire for suppressing a report he himself commissioned into clerical sexual abuse. A replacement report followed this year and triggered two bishops’ departure, but critics say this document was careful to avoid any analysis of whether church structures were a contributory factor to abuse. Tensions continue to build.
In January a local priest, Klaus Koltermann, wrote to Cardinal Woelki, warning of “disquiet among the greatest believers” in his parish of Dormagen, 20 minutes north of Cologne. When a local newspaper reprinted his letter, Koltermann’s superiors warned of “possibly serious breaches of your service obligations . . . that could have consequences”.
The threat was withdrawn when the priest went public with their correspondence, a stand-off he describes as a learning experience. “A new solidarity has to grow amongst us,” he told The Irish Times. “We have to become more courageous. Sadly, we priests never learned to stand up for our faith – in the church.”
Such cases of conscience-led insubordination are gaining momentum. Two weeks ago Catholics at an ecumenical gathering with Germany’s Lutherans held joint eucharistic celebrations in defiance of their bishops.
This week a parish in Düsseldorf wrote to Cardinal Woelki disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month. Woelki once served as a deacon in the parish, as did two abusing priests. In their letter, some 140 parishioners said they feared the cardinal would “instrumentalise” their children’s confirmation to hit back at his critics.
“You are for us, sadly, no longer credible, we have lost our trust in you as a bishop,” they wrote.
Unlike in other countries, German Catholics have a clear way to express a vote of no-confidence with the Kirchenaustritt (church departure). All Christian church members in Germany automatically pay a so-called “church tax” in a system dating back to the 19th century, calculated at 8 per cent of their income tax. Effectively a membership fee, it earns Germany’s Catholic Church some ¤6 billion annually. Revoking the payment is seen as revocation of church membership.
The number of annual departures in 2019 was 218,000, twice the number of a decade ago. Numbers for 2020 have yet to be collated but, based on anecdotal evidence, the ongoing abuse debate has prompted an unprecedented rush for the exits.
Already facing a ticking demographic time bomb, Catholic bishops announced a “synodal process” in 2019 to discuss the road ahead. With 230 members (lay and religious) discussions are under way in four groups examining the role of priests, church power, sexuality and women in ministry. The pandemic shifted discussions online but organisers hope in-person gatherings can begin from September, with the first votes on proposals by Christmas.
For Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German episcopate, the “synodal path” is a balancing act between church liberals and traditionalists – with Rome looking on warily.
His relief was palpable this week when Pope Francis announced plans for a worldwide synodal consultation. This, said the German bishop, was proof that “we are neither schismatic nor do we as a German national church want to loosen ourselves from Rome”.
Expectations of the process are modest, however, given two emergency brakes built into the process: any decisions from the synodal path require unanimous backing of bishops, then approval from Rome.
Rather than wait for reform from within, Lisa Kötter began a church strike two years ago, out of which has grown a grassroots movement called Maria 2.0. Two years on, with regular protests and prayer services, Maria 2.0 has gone global with its demands for the inclusion of women in all church functions, an end to mandatory celibacy, and a consequential response to clerical sexual abuse.
“We see the entire patriarchal basis of the Catholic Church as wrong and not inclusive, out of step with the teaching of Jesus,” said Kötter.
It’s a measure of the movement’s effect that it already has a conservative countermovement, Maria 1.0. And, after initial icy silence, Kötter has been invited to private meetings with bishops. But the friendly conversation always reaches a dead end, she says, when conversation turns to the main bone of contention: church privileges and power that men claim for themselves.
With calls for women priests and blessing same-sex couples, Kötter and Fr Korditschke push back against the idea that they are part of a Luther 2.0 movement. Neither wants a break with Rome but, then again, neither did the man who became the face of the Reformation.
Korditschke says Germany’s Lutheran churches, with more liberal positions on women ministers and social questions, have raised expectations among local Catholics — and tensions when change comes slowly, or not at all.
“I look to Jesus, who was respectful of religious leaders and the sabbath but not afraid of conflict when it came to prioritising the good of people,” said Korditschke, who was baptised Lutheran, converted to Catholicism aged 16 and has no plans to return.
“I don’t see myself at odds with the Catholic Church and, unlike Martin Luther, I pray every day for the pope and serve my church. This is my home.”
After lighting a fuse in Germany two years ago, Kötter sees neither the structural means nor political appetite for reform among German Catholic bishops. She dismisses the synodal path as a “simulation”.
“They haven’t heard the sign of the times, the demands for change. Their ears are trained to hear nothing except their own hymns.”
There was no fairy-tale ending for Henry Frömmichen after his chance encounter with Prince Charming.
Last autumn the 21-year-old German seminarian was hurrying across Munich’s Odeonsplatz when he spotted Alexander Schäfer, the lead in a popular gay reality show.
“Everyone in the seminary watched it, just not me, but I knew him from Instagram,” said Frömmichen. “I introduced myself as a seminarian and it was a great conversation.”
The problems began when he posted a selfie with Prince Charming to his Instagram account – with a church in the background.
Unwittingly, he had exposed the gap between Catholic teaching, and discretionary practice, over admission of homosexual men to the priesthood. He paid a heavy price: expulsion from the seminary last November.
Frömmichen insists he was ready to lead a celibate life as required of all Catholic priests. During seminary admission interviews he remembers being asked in a general way about his sexuality and whether he had any relationships.
“I said I had given up a relationship for this step because it was a greater source of excitement for me to enter the priesthood,” he told German radio. “When I tell people this they think, ‘he’s not quite the full shilling’.”
Catholic teaching states that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.
‘Deep-seated homosexual tendencies’
The additional hurdle Frömmichen faced is a rule introduced by Pope Benedict XVI that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who support a “gay culture” may not become priests. The document from November 2005, the German pontiff’s first priority, says that only men who have “overcome” a homosexuality that was “transitory” and who have remained celibate for three years before joining the seminary are eligible for the priesthood.
Munich seminary director Wolfgang Lehners says he sees no reason why men with healthy relationships to men and women should not become priests.
“But when the rainbow is in the background of everything he does then it will be very difficult for someone to represent the Catholic church as a priest,” said Fr Lehners to Deutschlandfunk radio.
Six months after he was thrown out, Frömmichen went public about his shattered dream after the Holy See’s insistence in March that the church cannot bless gay couples. “There’s such a dishonesty and double standard,” he said. “As long as it’s not discussed, it’s fine . . . that’s what was insinuated to me.”
A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
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A new Vatican statement that has provoked widespread criticism for sharply rejecting the blessing of same-sex unions is the latest example of why it’s hard for many people to take the Catholic Church’s own professed values of equality and dignity seriously.
The decree, which notes God “cannot bless sin,” reiterates traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality. But the outpouring of painful reactions demonstrates the limits of Pope Francis’ welcoming gestures toward LGBTQ people and is a stark reminder that my church continues to deny people their full humanity. Straight Catholics who love our church and LGBTQ friends and family in equal measure are finding it increasingly difficult to square the church’s often contradictory messages.
The Catholic catechism insists gay people should be treated with dignity and “every sign of unjust discrimination” should be avoided. This is the same church that, in a 2003 Vatican statement, said allowing children to be adopted by same-sex couples “would actually mean doing violence to these children.” The same church that has promised to welcome and accompany gay Catholics is now opposing the Equality Act in Congress, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And in a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be decided this summer, Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia wants to continue operating as a government contractor and receive city funding while refusing to place foster children with same-sex couples.
It’s a strange and un-Christian form of love that tells people they are equal in God’s eyes but then acts in ways that deem their committed relationships and parenting as inferior.
The Vatican’s latest statement is likely to cause spiritual and psychological damage to young LGBTQ people who already experience higher rates of suicide, and push more people away from the institutional church. This statement stings even more coming after what has felt like, for many LGBTQ Catholics, a shift with Pope Francis toward more welcoming and inclusive language.
“Not since the anger over sex abuse in 2002 and 2018 have I seen so many people so demoralized, and ready to leave the church,” tweeted the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and advocate for LGBTQ Catholics who has met with Pope Francis and serves as a Vatican adviser. “And not simply LGBT people, but their families and friends, a large part of the church.”
Perhaps a necessary reckoning over how the church thinks about LGBTQ people and human sexuality is arriving. Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said the Vatican statement left him with “intellectual and moral incomprehension.” In a commentary published in several Belgian and international newspapers, the bishop apologized for those who found the decree “painful and incomprehensible.”
The bishop noted that he knows same-sex couples “who are legally married, have children, form a warm and stable family and actively participate in parish life. I’m immensely appreciative of their contributions.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, told The Tablet, a weekly Catholic journal, the statement “isn’t by any means the end of the conversation. I think it should give greater impetus to another kind of conversation about inclusion.” Even the Vatican statement, which in part came as a response to German bishops involved with ongoing discussions about blessing same-sex couples, cites the “positive elements” of gay relationships and acknowledges they should be “valued and appreciated.”
Several U.S. Catholic bishops in recent years have made efforts to show greater welcome toward LGBTQ people. After the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich called for “real, not rhetorical” respect for gays and lesbians. Newark Cardinal Joe Tobin welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral in 2017. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has said the church’s description of gay sexual intimacy as “intrinsically disordered” is “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”
LGBTQ Catholics and allies will continue to remind our church that until there is real discernment about how a disordered theology that excludes and wounds is never holy, welcoming rhetoric rings hollow. Catholic leaders can begin by showing more humility. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth when it comes to the complexities of gender and human sexuality. Reform and renewal first begin by listening — and acknowledging you have something to learn.
More than 230 professors of Catholic theology in Germany and other countries where German is spoken have signed a statement protesting the Vatican’s recent pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions, adding to dissent over the document.
The statement issued Monday declared that last week’s text “is marked by a paternalistic air of superiority and discriminates against homosexual people and their life plans.”
“We distance ourselves firmly from this position,” it added. “We believe that the life and love of same-sex couples are not worth less before God than the life and love of any other couple.”
The document released a week ago by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”
The congregation’s note distinguished between blessing same-sex unions and the Catholic Church’s welcoming and blessing of gay people, which it upheld. The document argued that such unions are not part of God’s plan and that any sacramental recognition of them could be confused with marriage.
It pleased conservatives and disheartened advocates for LGBT Catholics. The German church has been at the forefront of opening discussion on hot-button issues such the church’s teaching on homosexuality.
The professors’ statement, which was drawn up by a working group at the University of Muenster in Germany, said the Vatican note lacked “theological depth” and “argumentative stringency.”
It included signatures from professors in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.