A conservative Catholic media organization, The Pillar, has published several reports claiming the use of dating apps at several churches and the Vatican.
By Liam Stack
The reports hit the Roman Catholic Church in rapid succession: Analyses of cellphone data obtained by a conservative Catholic blog seemed to show priests at multiple levels of the Catholic hierarchy in both the United States and the Vatican using the gay hookup app Grindr.
The first report, published late last month, led to the resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference. The second, posted online days later, made claims about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark. The third, published days after that, claimed that in 2018 at least 32 mobile devices emitted dating app data signals from within areas of Vatican City that are off-limits to tourists.
The reports by the blog, The Pillar, have unnerved the leadership of the American Catholic Church and have introduced a potentially powerful new weapon into the culture war between supporters of Pope Francis and his conservative critics: cellphone data, which many users assume to be unavailable to the general public.
“When there is reporting out there that claims to expose activity like this in parishes around the country and also on Vatican grounds, that is a five-alarm fire for church officials, there is no doubt about it,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group.
The reports have put church officials in an awkward position: Priests take a vow of celibacy that is in no way flexible, and the downloading or use of dating apps by clergy members is inconsistent with that vow. But officials are also deeply uncomfortable with the use of cellphone data to publicly police priests’ behavior. Vatican officials said they met with representatives from the blog in June but would not publicly respond to its reports.
“If someone who has made promise of celibacy or a vow of chastity has a dating app on his or her phone, that is asking for trouble,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark at a Zoom panel organized by Georgetown University. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“I would also say that I think there are very questionable ethics around the collection of this data of people who allegedly may have broken their promises,” he said.
The only app explicitly named in the reports has been Grindr, which is used almost exclusively by gay and bisexual men, although The Pillar has made vague references to other apps it says are used by heterosexuals. Only one of the reports directly links an app to a specific person, Monsignor Burrill.
The reports have been criticized by Catholic liberals for tying the general use of Grindr to studies that show minors sometimes use the app as well. That conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is part of a longstanding effort by Catholic conservatives to blame the church sex abuse crisis on the presence of gay men in the priesthood.
The reports have raised a host of questions: How did The Pillar obtain the cellphone data? How did it analyze the data, which is commercially available in an anonymous form, to identify individual app users? How widespread is the use of dating apps among Catholic priests, and how much has The Pillar been able to learn about specific individuals?
The editors of The Pillar, J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon, have refused to answer any of those questions and did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story. They have also declined interview requests from other news media.
In a podcast, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon said their work was motivated by a desire to expose a secretive culture of wrongdoing within the church.
“Immoral and illicit sexual behavior on the part of clerics who are bound to celibacy, but also on the part of other church leaders, could lead to a broad sense of tolerance for any number or kinds of sexual sins,” Mr. Flynn said on the podcast.
They said Newark was the only American diocese they wrote about because it was once led by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 and charged last month with sexually assaulting a child in Massachusetts in 1974.
But their decision to investigate the use of a gay dating app in suburban New Jersey, instead of a city with a large gay population, has raised suspicion that their real goal may have been to undermine Cardinal Tobin, an ally of Pope Francis.
Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon’s former employer, the conservative Catholic News Agency, published a report the day before the first post on The Pillar that said it had been approached in 2018 by “a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy.”
That person offered them similar cellphone data and also provided specific information about a nationally prominent priest who was not Monsignor Burrill, the executive editor of the agency, Alejandro Bermudez, said in an interview. He declined to name that priest.
At that time, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon were both editors at the agency, but Mr. Bermudez said he did not discuss the offer with them.
Mr. Bermudez said he thought the data was accurate but he ultimately declined to accept it because he thought it had been gathered in a “sketchy” way. He also said he thought using it to expose the private lives of priests would not be an effective or ethical way to reform the church.
The Pillar’s reports have been based on what it describes as “a very large data set” derived from data signals from multiple smartphone apps that were collected over two 26-week periods, one in 2018, and one in late 2019 and early 2020.
Until 2020, Grindr routinely provided user location data to freewheeling online ad exchanges, where it could be harvested by data brokers.
In January, Grindr was fined $11.7 million by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for its history of providing user data, including precise locations, to advertising companies that later shared it with potentially more than 100 other entities.
In a statement, Grindr said it was trying to determine how The Pillar had acquired its user data. But it said those efforts were complicated by the writers’ “vague and incomplete descriptions of their work.”
“What is clear is that this work involved much more than just a small blog,” Grindr said in its statement.
The complexity and size of the data set makes it likely that The Pillar’s source had money and analytical skills, said Ashkan Soltani, a former technology adviser to the White House and the Federal Trade Commission.
Cellphone app data is often purchased from data brokers by corporations and political groups who analyze it to determine patterns of behavior. They can also use location filters to find users of a certain app in a certain location, like Grindr users within the compact borders of Vatican City.
Some firms specialize in de-anonymizing cellphone data, and a user’s identity can sometimes be determined by following their movements, said Mr. Soltani. That may be how The Pillar identified Monsignor Burrill, who the blog said it tracked to his home and office as well as to gay bars and a bathhouse.
“This is a cottage industry, and all of this stuff is really available out there,” said Mr. Soltani. “There is a risk for anyone who uses these apps. This could potentially happen to anyone.”
The reports have set the Catholic Church on edge.
Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said that Vatican officials, including the powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, met with “representatives from The Pillar” on June 17.
But he said the Vatican had decided not to respond to the report and did not say whether it planned to investigate the claims. It is unclear how church officials might punish the use of a cellphone app, if The Pillar’s reports were to be confirmed.
In Newark, church officials instructed priests not to speak to journalists. Several who spoke, on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the use of cellphone data to track priests. Even lay leaders were reluctant to discuss the controversy on the record, although not many parishioners appear to be aware of it.
The Pillar has not said whether it plans to publish more reports using cellphone data, but priests in other dioceses have waited anxiously to see whether it would publish anything about their communities.
Father Bob Bonnot, the executive director of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, said the use of cellphone data to track the movement of Monsignor Burrill had deepened a sense of vulnerability many priests feel.
“It can be terribly threatening,” he said. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”
Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon are canon lawyers well known for their work at the Catholic News Agency, which is owned by the right-leaning Eternal Word Television Network, and their ties to conservatives in the church.
The Pillar provided information about its findings to the Archdiocese of Newark after church officials spent several weeks asking for details, said Maria Margiotta, an archdiocese spokeswoman. She said church officials were reviewing the findings.
“It is not acceptable for any member of the clergy to use any app, social media or website in a way that is inconsistent with Church teachings and their own religious vows,” she said. “We are committed to protecting the faithful, and when we learn of immoral behavior or misconduct, we immediately respond appropriately to address concerns.”
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The outing of a top administrator of the nation’s conference of Catholic bishops as a regular Grindr user was clearly a story. But what kind?
Once, it was said that the eyes were the windows to the soul. Now the cellphone is. Consider Jeffrey Burrill, a man who regularly logged in to the gay dating app Grindr and whose cellphone emitted signals marking his visits to gay bars and a Las Vegas gay bathhouse. Hardly a story there, you might say.
Except Jeffrey Burrill was Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the secretary-general of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And his July 20 resignation was forced by a newly founded Catholic online newsletter using commercially available data to trace his calls, movements, and behavior since 2018.
The outing of a top administrator of the nation’s conference of Catholic bishops was clearly a story. But what kind? A story about high-tech surveillance and invasion of privacy? About a new breach of journalistic ethics? About the Catholic Church?
Much of the national attention to this unusual episode focused on privacy issues. The basic problem is not complicated. In principle, data from mobile devices are “anonymized” by substituting a unique numerical identifier for users’ names and phone numbers. But mobile-phone location information and app usage is often recorded. A sufficiently interested party, with some additional information about residences, workplaces, and other data points, can connect the dots (or in this case the pings) to tie specific devices to specific individuals, such as Burrill.
“There’s not much to stop similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone that’s a target of another person’s curiosity—or malice,” Maggie Gile noted in Newsweek. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recalls years of warnings that data harvested from phones could be used to track their users and “reveal the most personal details of their lives.” A “vast and largely unregulated” industry assured the public that the information it collected was anonymous, he says. “As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus.”
The difficulty of safeguarding privacy from invasive technology cries out for remedies. But as a journalist and a Catholic (who has covered and written extensively about religion), I am even more interested in the other two stories, about journalistic ethics and about the Catholic Church.
I can reasonably be ranked among those labeled liberal Catholics. I am on record arguing that the Church should thoroughly rethink its teachings on sexuality, including contraception, same-sex relationships, and priestly celibacy. But I have little patience for the thankfully few dismissals of Burrill’s “indiscretions” on the grounds that “we are all sinners.” We are indeed all sinners, but we are not all secretaries-general of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops. Those of us who make solemn promises, whether of priestly celibacy or marital fidelity, should keep them. All the more so when our vows bear directly on our public roles.
If Burrill was in fact regularly violating his public commitment and leading a double life, it does not pain me that he was forced from office. What does pain me is how that came about, setting, as it does, dangerous precedents for both journalism and Catholicism.
The Pillar, the online newsletter that outed Burrill, was founded last January by J. D. Flynn and Ed Condon, two Catholic crusaders for a purer Church. Its founding statement promised to uphold “the highest standards of journalistic independence and craftsmanship.” The newsletter’s reporting on Burrill, though, has prompted questions about whether it has lived up to that mission.
The Pillar story acknowledged that the data it had obtained contained “no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors.” But from the opening paragraph, the story missed no opportunity to mention the Church’s sex-abuse scandal, charges that Grindr and other “hookup apps” are used to facilitate sex with minors, and unrelated cases here and abroad of such criminal behavior by priests. Responding to protests that the exposé dwelled on a homophobic stereotype of gay predators, Flynn and Condon went on Twitter the day after it was published to repeat that no evidence linked Burrill’s use of gay dating apps to minors, and that they had had no intention to “insinuate” otherwise. Fair enough, if you don’t consider devoting more than 1,100 words of a 2,900-word article to that kind of linkage an insinuation.
Criticism of The Pillar’s journalism did not end with complaints about its use of innuendo. The newsletter’s resort to an ethically disturbing, even if legal, high-tech method to expose private behavior was also clouded by unanswered questions. In their lengthy exposé, Flynn and Condon went into detail about how the hookup app’s signals indicated Burrill’s systematic violation of his vow of celibacy. But they were vague about the source of this data. “The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar,” they wrote, “was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”
Who was the data vendor? Were the data purchased or volunteered? How were they analyzed to pinpoint a particular individual? And who funded this possibly expensive process? To critics of The Pillar’s journalism, these are key questions. Relying on anonymous sources is legitimate, and sometimes necessary. But good journalism requires giving readers some indication of the reason for anonymity and what it might suggest about the source’s perspective or motives.
Questions about the data source are underlined by another article, published at 3 a.m. on July 19—one day before The Pillar’s July 20 exposé—by the Catholic News Agency (CNA), a similarly conservative outlet where Flynn and Condon had previously worked. Written by Alejandro Bermudez, the agency’s executive director, the story said that in 2018, CNA had been approached by someone claiming “to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular ‘hook-up’ apps.” The person’s aim, Bermudez wrote, was to save the Church from clergy engaged in scandalous conduct. Recognizing the potential for blackmail in such data, however, the source wanted to keep them from falling “into the wrong hands.” Bermudez met with the person, who named “high-profile Catholic personalities” that the technology identified. Nonetheless, Bermudez said, he distrusted the offer and turned it down.
This is a tantalizing story, and I phoned Bermudez about it. “Chatter” from friends, he told me, about a coming revelation of online activities by major Church figures had brought to mind the 2018 offer and moved him to rush out his account. “It was important for us to say as a news organization that from a Catholic journalists’ standpoint this was a dangerous door to open.” The 2018 offer, he explained, was not only for a “whole package” but for an ongoing relationship with a steady flow of information from the source. This was hardly an ordinary offer, I noted. Was it believable, as his story claimed, that Bermudez couldn’t recall the name of the person who made it and never mentioned it to Flynn, who was CNA’s editor in chief at the time? Bermudez did not budge from his previous explanation that “crazy” accusations against Church leaders were so commonplace that they were not a matter of conversation. Avoiding any mention of The Pillar, he was simply adamant about rejecting, in 2018 and today, this way to reform the Church.
In view of the CNA story, one naturally wonders whether its unnamed source is the same person who was anonymously peddling a pre-targeted and tailored data set, indeed a working relationship, in 2018. The Pillar won’t say. (I emailed the publication to ask for comment, but received no reply.)
There is another eyebrow-raising aspect of The Pillar’s successful identification of a single individual from a data set that might have begun with billions of signals from millions of users: It’s costly. It may require a team of researchers. Not everyone agrees, but several technical experts have estimated the cost at hundreds of thousands of dollars. One data expert, Zach Edwards, the founder of an analytics firm, even said millions.
This story has opened an entirely new, scorched-earth stage of the decades-long conflict between Catholic conservatives and liberals that began after the 1962–65 Second Vatican Council, simmered for decades, and has broken into civil war since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. The issues at stake in this struggle include changes in the liturgy authorized by the Council, questions about sexual morality that the Council never considered, and the relationship between the papacy and bishops around the globe. Should the priesthood continue to be open only to celibate males? What priority should the Church give to issues of personal, especially sexual, morality compared with those of social justice?
These debates are not new. But what was once jousting among theologians, intellectuals, and papal authorities, as the laity silently aligned themselves with one side or the other, has become a battle between Pope Francis and a phalanx of high-ranking bishops. In August 2018, the retired Vatican diplomat (and onetime Vatican ambassador to the U.S.) Archbishop Carlo Viganò even demanded that Francis resign.
When Flynn and Condon, both trained as canon lawyers—specialists in Church law—started The Pillar in January, they declared that the newsletter would be “independent of any ecclesial agenda but the holiness of the Church.” Yet their take on “the holiness of the Church” implies a definite “ecclesial agenda,” on which few concerns rank higher than sexual morality, at least as I read it. To Flynn and Condon, a major threat to that holiness is tolerance of homosexuality and homosexual conduct, particularly among the clergy and bishops.
For decades, Catholic ultraconservatives have charged that the Church’s American hierarchy was being manipulated by a gay cabal. The same note has been sounded by Archbishop Viganò, who extends this charge to include Vatican circles. In a different register, it has been sounded by gay advocates, including gay priests and ex-priests, who argue that the hidden lives compelled by the Church’s strictures against same-sex relations are responsible for grave pathologies among the clergy. Even some advocates of a married (heterosexual) priesthood have echoed something similar: The requirement of celibacy has made the Catholic priesthood a refuge for many gay men who have not come to terms with their sexuality.
For The Pillar, Burrill was no one-off. It had already taken its data set to the archdiocese of Newark, headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a strong supporter of Pope Francis, and to the Vatican itself. The Pillar claimed that signals from both homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps going back to 2018 could be traced to “more than 10” Newark rectories and clerical residences, including “several” with a frequency indicating use by residents. (The Newark archdiocese has 212 parishes.) As for the Vatican, The Pillar reported that over six months in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted signals from dating apps, including Grindr, within areas of Vatican City not accessible to the public. By The Pillar’s standards and my own very traditional ones, all these hookup efforts in Newark and Rome were regrettable, but whether their numbers should be considered extensive or whether they came from clergy or lay employees, the newsletter did not say.
One wonders if the bishops conference, like so many corporations confronting charges of sexual impropriety, might not enlist an independent investigator to shed light on the whole episode. Who, for example, promoted and vetted Burrill for his post? How did his quite extensive double life escape notice? It is an unnoted irony that Burrill was ordained in the diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, when its bishop was Raymond L. Burke, today an archbishop, a leading opponent to Pope Francis, and an outspoken advocate of Church teachings on homosexuality, divorce, and abortion. Nothing in Burrill’s subsequent career steps marked him as anything but a conventional doctrinal conservative.
Questions about Burrill are only the starting point. What are the implications for Catholicism if the traditional surveillance of theological ideas and pastoral practice by Church authorities is replaced by the high-tech surveillance of moral failings by freelance journalists? The implications for journalism and personal privacy are serious. Even the person peddling the surveillance technology back in 2018 recognized its potential for blackmail. Without either strong professional censure or legal regulation, tech-savvy and scoop-hungry reporters on the brawling frontiers of online journalism are likely to make this kind of personally invasive technology part of their tool kit. A thoroughgoing inquiry and report could be a service well beyond the Church.
Defenders of The Pillar’s actions have shrugged off these concerns about privacy, journalism, and the Church. Stephen P. White, of Catholic University and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, dismissed those “ticked off” by The Pillar’s reporting—including “data-security gurus, would-be gatekeepers of the journalistic guild,” and “the usual voices on Catholic social media who cry ‘homophobia’ every time it is suggested that an unnatural vice among clerics might be a problem worth addressing.” The real problem was that “ecclesially minded journalists like Flynn and Condon” were being treated as “pariahs” for exposing “inconvenient truths about clerical sins.” In the defenders’ confidence that no ominous red lines are being crossed here, they seem to be forgetting one fundamental component of the Catholic teaching to which The Pillar pledged itself at its founding: Original Sin.
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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.
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.
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Last month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a measure that could prohibit President Biden, a devout Catholic, from receiving communion. Conservative bishops do not wish Biden to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the USCCB, was a strong supporter of the measure, but he has resigned due to allegations of “serial sexual misconduct,” as reported in The PIllar, a Catholic publication. Burrill was allegedly using Grindr for sex hookups, which goes against Catholic priests’ vow of celibacy.
From The Pillar:
Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”
Calling it “obviously a scandal” that a cleric would use location-based hookup apps, Berg said there is “a real disconnect between the appearance of a man who presumably is earnestly striving to live the life of chastity, when it becomes glaringly evident that he is dramatically failing at that because he’s gone to hookup apps to look actively for sexual partners — that itself is an enormous scandal.”
As Upworthy points out, you’d think Monsignor Burrill would have more empathy toward President Biden:
Burrill appears to be an even bigger hypocrite because the USCCB has opposed LGBTQ equality, same-sex adoption, and the development of an LGBTQ suicide hotline. It has also promoted anti-trans legislation.
It always seems to be that the religious folks who judge the harshest always wind up having something to hide. It’s a shame that Catholics such as Burrill are forced by doctrine to live their lives in the shadows. But shouldn’t that make them more compassionate towards fellow sinners instead of the first to judge?
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.”
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An encouraging note from Pope Francis capped an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s stance toward gay rights.
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.
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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.”
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It is fending off calls for women priests and blessings of same-sex couples amid criticism of its handling of sex abuse cases
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.”
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.”
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Problems began via selfie to Instagram account – with a church in the background
By Derek Scally
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.”
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By Vivienne Clarke
A representative of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Tim Hazlewood, has said he would bless the union of same-sex couples despite the Vatican ruling it out this week, saying the church ‘cannot bless sin’.
“If Christ was with us now, he would do the caring, the loving thing,” Fr Hazelwood said.
Earlier this week, the Vatican decreed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin”.
The Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions.
The answer, approved by Pope Francis, was “negative”.
Fr Hazlewood, who ministers in a parish in East Cork, said he had been approached by families who have somebody who is in a same-sex relationship.
“Our experience is that they are lovely couples and to hear something like that, that their relationship is sinful, I wonder how many of them know and meet and interact with those families and those people,” he told RTÉ Morning Ir
Fr Hazlewood said the Pope was in a difficult position, but to listen to that statement was “so disappointing, it was appalling.”
“He’s trying to hold all the parts together, in parts of the world, including Ireland, there is a small group who are very anti-Pope Francis and anti the changes, the new breath of life that he’s bringing.”
“For a lot of people and families, it’s very disappointing. Does he want to cause a schism in the church?”
When asked if he would bless a same sex couple’s union, Fr Hazlewood replied: “Just two days ago there were pieces of weed that grow in the ground and I blessed them. I blessed shamrock, now if two people stand in front of me and they love each other and they are committing to each other for the rest of their lives and I bless shamrock and wouldn’t bless them. I don’t think there’s a doubt or a question there.”
The church’s teaching on what marriage means has not changed, he said.
“In Ireland, we’re going to have a synod in the next five years and the bishops have said they want people on the margins to be part of that, would any gay person come near a church that says things like this?”
“There’s an awful difference between somebody in Rome making a promulgation and what’s the lived experience of the church and I think a lot of priests would say ‘if Christ was here with us now, what would Christ do?’
“He would do the caring, the loving thing. He was the one who challenged all of these rules himself. Pope Francis is asking us to talk about these things, this is the way forward”
“There’s going to be an awful lot more things like this in the church which is a good thing.”
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