‘Outing’ of priest shines light on power – and partisanship – of Catholic media

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It had all the hallmarks of a sensationalist tabloid sting.

On July 21, 2021, an article appeared alleging that a senior U.S. priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, had used the hook-up app Grindr, with data from the app placing him at a number of gay bars. Burrill, the now former General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, promptly resigned.

But the report was not published by an outlet that many Americans would associated with such sex “exposés.” Indeed, most would have never have heard of it at all. It was The Pillar, a small newsletter founded in early 2021, that makes up just a tiny part of the Catholic media landscape in the U.S.

As a scholar of American Catholicism and culture, I take a keen interest in Catholic media. My recent book, “Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties,” draws upon dozens of articles in the Catholic media as primary sources for historical analysis. While many Americans may be familiar with evangelical outlets like Christianity Today or the Christian Post – not to mention the hundreds of evangelical radio stations across the nation – the Catholic media seems to have less prominence on the national stage.

But as The Pillar’s reporting on Burrill shows, Catholic journalism can nonetheless be influential – and can split opinion in just the same way as media with a wider audience.

A newspaper for every diocese

The Catholic mediascape is made up of a series of publications at the local, national and global level. Almost every diocese has its own newspaper that covers local events like first communions – when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, the bread and wine transformed into Christ’s body and blood, for the first time – or the construction of a new school gym.

But many Catholic readers also like to be informed on the bigger picture of Catholicism, and notably the Pope. In 2014, the Boston Globe, with the help of journalist John Allen, founded Crux to report on the Vatican for an American Catholic audience.

Catholic journalists not only report on the church itself, they aim to offer a Catholic perspective on broader American stories. That was the founding premise behind important Catholic magazines like Commonweal, founded by laypeople in 1924, and America, a monthly publication run by Jesuits in New York City.

Increasingly, like the secular media, Catholic outlets have been polarized and drawn into the culture war. They too have taken positions that divide readers and win constituents with particular worldviews. National Catholic Reporter, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council – the meeting of the world’s bishops 1962 to 1965 that introduced changes like Mass in the vernacular and a new respect for the religious liberty of members of other faiths – is a liberal outlet that cut its teeth on criticism of the Vietnam War and continues to promote social justice.

Its counterpart, the National Catholic Register, prefers the moral clarity and conservative positions offered by Popes like John Paul II and Benedict XIV, particularly on matters of gender, sexuality and politics. Its readers overlap with viewers of the Eternal Word Television Network, a network critical of the more liberal Pope Francis.

On the issue of homosexuality, Catholic media similarly expresses a variety of views. America magazine consistently features the writings of Father Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest who has encouraged the church to treat the gay community with more dignity. The periodical First Things, meanwhile, delights in offering readers searing critiques of secular modernity by Catholic conservative writers.

Ethical concerns

Into this partisan media mix emerged The Pillar in 2021 and its recent report on Burrill. The investigation prompted ethical concerns over the use of data privacy – The Pillar’s report relied on geolocation data from the Grindr app that it legally bought. There were also complaints that the reporting appeared to conflate Burrill’s apparent homosexuality with the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

The ethics of The Pillar’s article aside, the reporting does tap into a tradition of Catholic media shining a light on church issues and elevating it to national attention.

A generation ago, Catholic media reporting was crucial in helping expose the sexual abuse of children by priests.

On June 7, 1985, an article by investigative journalist Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter exposed not only the pedophilia of priest Gilbert Gauthe, but also the church’s complicity to cover it up. Berry, a practicing Catholic who covered the case initially for a local Louisiana paper, detailed for a national readership how Gauthe had abused dozens of children in the Diocese of Lafayette starting in 1972. He charted the local hierarchy’s efforts to keep the case out of the public eye and how church officials ignored reports of the abuse. Berry’s article ran for several pages, replete with headlines like “PEDOPHILE PRIEST: STUDY IN INEPT CHURCH RESPONSE” and “MANY KNEW OF FATHER’S PROBLEM BUT NO-ONE STOPPED HIM.”

The national press picked up the story only after it appeared in National Catholic Reporter.

The publication of Berry’s writings on Gauthe marked the beginning of a new, vigorous mode of national criticism in the Catholic press of church hierarchy for allegedly covering up sex abuse scandals.

Reporting on scandals

Without journalists like Jason Berry, the exposure of the clergy abuse crisis may have played along very different lines. To put it simply, it moved the interpretation of the crisis away from a “bad apple” paradigm – it which individual priests were to blame – towards a much more systemic approach which looked at a Catholic culture that facilitates abuse.

The Pillar has tried to frame its investigation of Burrill in a similar light. It implies that Burrill’s use of hookup apps might further develop a culture of abuse in the church. The Pillar’s article quotes moral theologian Father Thomas Berg and the late psychological and clergy sex abuse expert Richard Sipe, both of who argue that there is a connection between a cleric violating his vows of celibacy with other adults and a potential abuse of adolescents. The suggestion is that it encourages “networks of protection and tolerance among sexually active clerics,” as The Pillar suggests.

But this argument requires a fine dance that risks falling into the trap of connecting the act of homosexuality with pedophilia. Not everybody is convinced that The Pillar’s article drew this line sufficiently.

Nonetheless, it has rekindled a debate over the role of Catholic media.

In his 1996 book, “Pedophiles and Priest,” historian Philip Jenkins criticizes Berry’s landmark reporting for making it appear as if everyone in Louisiana Church structure, from the bishops to fellow priests, were at fault for Gauthe’s prolific abuse. Jenkins argues that the June 1985 article provided a formula for future reporting: first a journalist details some rumors, then he or she writes about how the allegations troubled parents, then the reporter mentions a transfer of a priest to a new parish and, finally, the investigator quotes an expert who comments on the structural nature of the crisis. In this way, Jenkins suggested, journalists make abuse appear more pervasive than it is. Although Jenkins book was written in the mid-1990s, his analysis, while problematic, remains important.

The abuse crisis is not the only challenge the Catholic Church faces – it is currently in the midst of struggle between conservative and more progressive elements. In tying to draw a connection between Burrill’s apparent homosexuality and his potential future complicity in the clergy abuse crisis, The Pillar, one of the newest entrants in the Catholic media landscape, has waded into the church’s culture war and placed itself among the outlets that will be reporting on it in the months and years to come.

Complete Article HERE!

When it comes to LGBTQ Catholics, what Pope Francis giveth, the Vatican taketh away

Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015.

By Claire Giangravé

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.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Sends More Mixed Messages on L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

An encouraging note from Pope Francis capped an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s stance toward gay rights.

Pope Francis last month at the Vatican.

By Jason Horowitz

A leader in the Roman Catholic Church’s effort to reach out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics revealed on Sunday that Pope Francis had sent him a deeply encouraging note, capping an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s attitude toward gay rights.

On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that it had tried to influence the affairs of the Italian state by expressing grave concerns about legislation currently in Parliament that increases protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people. And days later, the Vatican’s second in command insisted the church had nothing against gay rights, but was protecting itself from leaving the church’s core beliefs open to criminal charges of discrimination.

Nearly eight years after Pope Francis famously responded, “Who am I to judge?” on the issue of gay Catholics, it has become increasingly difficult to discern where he stands on the issue. A growing dissonance has developed between his inclusive language and the church’s actions.

The result is confusion and frustration among some of the pope’s liberal supporters who wonder whether the 84-year-old Argentine remains committed to a more tolerant church and is simply struggling to grasp the rapidly shifting contours of a difficult issue, or is really a social conservative trying to please everyone.

What is clear is that the new note will serve as fresh fodder in a battle within the church between frustrated progressives who hope the pope’s inclusive message will finally lead to change and wary conservatives, who are hoping the church will maintain its traditions. The Vatican’s own news service later reported that the pope had sent the letter.

In the handwritten letter dated June 21 and made public on Sunday, Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit and the author of a book about reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

“I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” the pope wrote. “You are a priest for all men and women, just as God is a Father for all men and women. I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness.”

Those words will almost certainly give succor to Francis’ liberal supporters, many of whom were deeply disheartened by a March response by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s top doctrinal office, to an inquiry about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless gay unions.

Negative,” was the answer, which Francis approved.

Two people who support gay rights and are close to the pope say he told them that he relented under pressure from the congregation, a decision he regretted and hoped to rectify. The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accounts.

But Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, whom Francis fired from his position as the chief doctrinal watchdog in 2017, said that idea was absurd.

“The pope is the pope,” he said, adding that Francis was clearly in charge on such matters.

Cardinal Müller and other prelates say that Francis, on a personal level, simply does not like to hurt people’s feelings.

“He wants to be pastoral and he wants to be close to the people. It’s his specialty,” Cardinal Müller said. “It’s easier to be everybody’s darling than to say the truth,” he added. “He doesn’t like direct confrontation.”

Father Martin, who is often attacked by church conservatives, made the letter public after revealing it at a virtual conference for pastors and laypeople who administer to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

In the letter, Francis said the Jesuit priest echoed Jesus in that his teaching was “open to each and everyone.” He concluded with a promise to pray for Father Martin’s “flock.”

But that flock has been led this way and that by the pope’s mixed signals over the years.

Francis stunned the faithful and a secular audience more accustomed to scolding about homosexuality and gay marriage when asked by reporters about a priest who was said to be gay, he responded, “Who am I to judge?”

His landmark 2016 document on family — titled “The Joy of Love” — rejected same-sex marriage but called on priests to be welcoming to people in nontraditional relationships, like gay people.

More recently, Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions. His comments did not change church doctrine but amounted to a significant break from his predecessors.

Francis had made the remarks in a 2019 interview with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa, but the Vatican censored the report, and the footage emerged only in an October 2020 documentary.

For liberals, all of that seemed to be building momentum to real progress on L.G.B.T.Q. people in the church, which made the Vatican’s March rejection of the blessing of gay unions so much harsher.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse survivor and gay person whom the pope befriended, wrote an opinion article in a Chilean newspaper that criticized the doctrinal watchdog’s rejection of blessings as insulting to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

The church’s doctrinal office is led by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who was handpicked by the pope and is seen as in lock step with him.

In an explanatory note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while welcoming gay people, who have a right to be blessed, the church will not bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Blessing a same-sex union, it added, could give the impression of putting it on the same level as marriage.

“This would be erroneous and misleading,” the note said.

Vatican officials with knowledge of the document said that the pope did not at any time oppose the decision, and that he was absolutely clear on questions of church doctrine.

The decision prompted widespread disappointment, even disgust, among gay Catholics and their advocates.

Liberal Catholics were disappointed again this past week when the Vatican confirmed that the Holy See’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, had hand delivered a letter to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See expressing reservations about the bill that would add L.G.B.T. provisions to an existing law that makes discrimination, violence or incitement based on race or religion a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.

The church intervened early to change the bill because it feared the law might legally oblige it to conduct same-sex marriages or teach more liberal ideas about gender in Catholic schools, according to an official inside the church.

Alessandro Zan, the bill’s sponsor, said such concerns were outlandish and not reflected in the legislation.

But the pope clearly approved the intervention, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper on Thursday.

The reaction was intense and angry from Italians who accused the Vatican of impinging on the state’s democratic process and from frustrated and confused gay Catholics who again saw the pope, despite everything he had said, as acting against them.

In an apparent effort at damage control, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and the second highest-ranking official after the pope, released a statement on Thursday.

He said that the Vatican was not seeking to block the legislation but worried that the vague draft language, and the enormous latitude of Italian judges, could lead to criminal discrimination charges for basic church practices. He insisted that hostility toward gay people did not motivate the Vatican opposition.

“We oppose any behavior or gesture of intolerance or hate toward people because of their sexual orientation,” he said.

Liberal supporters of Francis argue that letters like the one revealed by Father Martin on Sunday give them space to push ahead in their outreach. But Cardinal Müller said nothing of substance had changed since he left, and if anything, Francis had become stronger in his defense of the church’s core beliefs.

“The last signs were a little bit significant,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Italy is debating an LGBT anti-hate law.

The Vatican just took a rare step to protest it.

People rally during a pride parade in Turin, Italy, on June 5, 2021, to support the Zan law, a bill that imposes harsher penalties for anti-LGBT hate crimes.

By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli

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.”

Complete Article HERE!

German Catholic Church’s survival may hinge on facing down Rome

It is fending off calls for women priests and blessings of same-sex couples amid criticism of its handling of sex abuse cases

For centuries the 13th century Cologne Cathedral has been a touchstone of German Catholicism. Yet for many German believers 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.

By Derek Scally

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.”

Papal authority

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?

Fr Jan Korditschke “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”
Fr Jan Korditschke “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”

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.”

In defiance

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.

A parish in Düsseldorf has written to Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Cologne’s conservative archbishop, disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month
A parish in Düsseldorf has written to Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Cologne’s conservative archbishop, disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month

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.

Church strike

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.”

Complete Article HERE!

It’s the Vatican’s LGBTQ theology that is ‘disordered’

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.

Courtesy image by Julie Rose from Pixabay/Creative Commons

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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.

Complete Article HERE!

Theology professors blast Vatican gay union stance

Pope Francis leads a mass for priests in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

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.

Complete Article HERE!

In supporting same-sex civil unions, Pope Francis is showing how the Catholic definition of what constitutes a family is changing


Young people at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, cheer Pope Francis in 2015, following his comments endorsing same-sex civil unions.

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Pope Francis referred to gay people as “children of God” in a recently released documentary, “Francesco.” He further noted that “a civil union law” needs to be created so gays are “legally covered.” The Vatican later confirmed the pope’s comments, but clarified that the church doctrine remained unchanged.

Public support for civil unions from Pope Francis is not entirely new. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and again in a 2014 interview, he spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples.

While the Vatican is right in saying that church doctrine remains the same, as a theologian who has been writing about Catholicism and family for over two decades, I see in the pope’s comments evidence that Catholic understanding of who counts as family is evolving.

From judgment to mercy

Traditional Catholic doctrine holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of the family. Sex outside of marriage is judged to be immoral and, while gay people are not seen as inherently sinful, their sexual actions are. Same-sex marriages and civil unions, the Vatican says, are harmful to society and “in no way similar” to heterosexual marriages.

Yet in his comments made public on Oct. 21, the pope framed his support for civil unions in the context of family. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it,” he said in a news-breaking interview used in the documentary.

In researching for a book on Pope Francis, I found that he has consistently offered compassion for Catholics without traditional families. Soon after becoming pope in 2013, in response to a journalist’s question about a gay person, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?”

Mercy over judgment has been the mark of his papacy. The pope’s priority on extending mercy, theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper explains, especially pertains to families.

Surveys commissioned by the Vatican in 2015 found that Catholics desire more acceptance from the church for people who are single parents, divorced or have live-in relationships. Knowing that people often feel judged because their families aren’t perfect, Francis has tried to make them feel welcome. He has stressed that the doors of churches must be open to all.

When, in discussing same-sex civil unions, Francis said that gay people have “a right to a family,” he seems to have implied that civil unions create a family. Though he is not changing Catholic moral teaching, I argue that he is departing from traditional Catholic rhetoric on the family and offering an inclusive, merciful vision to guide church practice.

From family structure to family action

Changes in Catholic teaching in the 20th century paved the way for Francis’ recent moves.

In a 1930 Vatican document on marriage, Pope Pius XI defended the traditional family structure against perceived threats of cohabitation, divorce and “false teachers” who asserted the equality of men and women.

Three decades later, at Vatican II, a meeting of the world’s bishops from 1962 to 1965 that led to sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church, emphasis shifted to the role families could play in shaping society. Marriage was defined as an “intimate partnership of life and love,” and the family was praised as “a school of deeper humanity” where parents and children learn how to be better human beings.

Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, is often viewed as a foil to Pope Francis. In his writings, he defended heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles, as well as rules against divorce, contraception and same-sex relationships. Yet the former pope contributed to shifting the Catholic conversation to ethical actions families can take.

In this regard, John Paul II’s most important document on the family Familiaris Consortio, 1981, gave families four tasks: growing in love, raising children, contributing to society and praying in their home. He taught that being a family means engaging in actions related to these tasks.

Catholic scholars like Mary Doyle Roche have since built on his framework to urge families to become “schools of solidarity” in which parents and children learn compassion for others.

Though same-sex couples remain excluded from official Catholic teaching, Catholic theologians such as Margaret A. Farley have suggested that these families, too, could prioritize love, social action and spirituality. Gay couples, she argued, “deserve the same protection under the law” as heterosexual couples. They also have the same moral obligations to each other and to the common good.

Pope Francis on inclusion

Pope Francis built on work done at Vatican II and the decades following it. One of his favorite ways of describing the church is as a “field hospital” that goes where people are hurting.

Though he has addressed many important social issues during his papacy, including economic inequality and climate change, he called the world’s bishops to special meetings in Rome only to discuss families. He urged them to find creative ways of ministering to people who feel excluded because they are not living in line with Catholic doctrine on marriage.

Themes of welcome and inclusion for single parents, divorced and remarried people and cohabiting unmarried couples were amplified in the document Francis wrote in 2016, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”

For instance, theologian Mary Catherine O’Reilly-Gindhart sees Francis saying that cohabiting unmarried couples “need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.” This allows priests to meet couples where they are rather than shaming them or forcing them to hide their living situations.

What’s the future of the church?

Francis’ critics worry that the pope is watering down Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. But what I argue is that Francis is not changing doctrine. He is encouraging a broader view of who counts as families inside and outside the church.

In the same documentary in which Francis made his remarks on same-sex civil unions, he also criticized countries with overly restrictive immigration policies, saying, “It’s cruelty, and separating parents from kids goes against natural rights.” He was referring to the right to family, which “exists prior to the State or any other community.”

The comments in the documentary show a persistent move toward welcoming families in contemporary Catholic thought. Francis proposes that a welcoming church should support all families, especially those who are hurting. Similarly, as he says, governments should do the same – including supporting gay and lesbian couples.

Complete Article HERE!

How the cult of Virgin Mary turned a symbol of female authority into a tool of patriarchy


Madonna with child and angels by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 1674. The cult of the Virgin is emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.

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Belief in the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their birth stories are different, but both present Mary as a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Mary and Joseph begin their sexual relationship following Jesus’ birth, and so Jesus has brothers and sisters.

Catholic piety goes beyond this, with Mary depicted as a virgin not only before but also during and after Jesus’ birth, her hymen miraculously restored. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are seen as either cousins or children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

In Catholicism, Mary remains a virgin throughout her married life. This view arises not from the New Testament but from an apocryphal Gospel in the second century, the “Protoevangelium of James”, which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.

From the second century onwards, Christians saw virginity as an ideal, an alternative to marriage and children. Mary was seen to exemplify this choice, along with Jesus and the apostle Paul. It accorded with the surrounding culture where Greek philosophers, male and female, tried to live a simple life without attachment to family or possessions.

This extolling of virginity, however unlikely when applied to Mary, did have some advantages. The option of becoming a celibate nun in community with other women gave young women in the early church an attractive alternative to marriage, in a culture where marriages were generally arranged and death in childbirth was common.

Yet belief in the eternal virginity of Mary has also inflicted damage over the centuries, particularly on women. It has distorted the character of Mary, turning her into a submissive, dependent creature, without threat to patriarchal structures.

She is divorced from the lives of real women who can never attain her sexless motherhood or her unsullied “purity”.

A strong minded leader

Yet in the Gospels, Mary is a vibrant figure: strong-minded and courageous, a leader in the community of faith.

Simone de Beauvoir, the influential, early French feminist, observed that the cult of the Virgin Mary represented the “supreme victory of masculinity”, implying that it served the interests of men rather than women.

The ever-Virgin diminishes women’s sexuality and makes the female body and female sexuality seem unwholesome, impure. She is a safe and nonthreatening figure for celibate men who place her on a pedestal, both literally and metaphorically.

The contradiction

It is true that Catholic women across the world have found great solace in the compassionate figure of Mary, especially against images of a very masculine, judgmental God, and the brutality of political and religious hierarchy.

But for this women have paid a price, in their exclusion from leadership. Mary’s voice has been permitted, in filtered tones, to ring out across the church, but real women’s voices are silent.

In today’s context, the cult of the Virgin becomes emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.

Marian piety in its traditional form has a deep contradiction at its heart. In a speech in 2014, Pope Francis said, “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary” who “in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God.”

If that were true, women could be ordained, since their connection to Mary would allow them, like her, to represent the church. If the world received the body of Christ from this woman, Mary, then women today should not be excluded from giving the body of Christ, as priests, to the faithful at Mass.

The Virgin cult cuts women off from the full, human reality of Mary, and so from full participation in the life of the church.

It is no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Vatican forbade Mary to be depicted in priestly vestments. She could only ever be presented as the unattainable virgin-mother: never as leader, and never as a fully embodied woman in her own right.

The irony of this should not be lost. A fully human Gospel symbol of female authority, autonomy, and the capacity to envision a transformed world becomes a tool of patriarchy.

By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels, the God-bearer and priestly figure – a normal wife and mother of children – confirms women in their embodied humanity and supports their efforts to challenge unjust structures, both within and outside the church.

Complete Article HERE!