The Situation of Queer Catholics in Germany

Lecture of Michael Brinkschröder at the Euro Pride 2011 in Rome

In Germany, there are several ecumenical and Catholic LGBT organisations, groups and networks. They are are structured along lines of sex difference (gay / lesbian), ecclesial status (clergy / lay) and their focus on political, pastoral, liturgical or theological work. Mostly in the 1990s, these groups had a phase of splitting up, which was not without internal conflicts. At the moment we have reached a phase of respectful and trustful cooperation and sharing of work, triggered by two networking conferences in Bielefeld (in 2005 and 2008).

Catholic LGBT organisations in Germany

Homosexuelle und Kirche e.V.

The oldest and biggest one is the ecumenical organisation „Homosexuelle und Kirche e.V.“ (Homosexuals and Church). It was founded in 1977 and has more than 400 members. The HuK, as it is usually called, is very much dedicated to church politics by networking with other progressive church organisations as „Kirche von unten“ (Church from Below) and the „We are church“-Movement, with political LGBT organisations, and by working with the media. The campaign „Farbe bekennen“ („confessing colour“) was held in many parishes. Every year, the HuK organises a gay centre at the biannual gatherings of the two big German churches, the protestant Kirchentag and the Katholikentag.

During the last decades, this political work has been very successful in the Protestant churches. In most regions lgbt people can receive partnership blessings, can work as pastors and can live together with their partners in the vicarage. Unfortunately, the caucus Catholic church politics has always been very small. After many attempts during the 1990s to get into contact with bishops turned out to be fruitless, the caucus stopped this approach.

Network of Catholic Lesbians

While the HuK is more than 90% male, the Network of Catholic Lesbians (NKaL) is a network of women only. Founded in 1997, it has now 5 regional groups and about 100 participants. The NKaL has developed a specific tradition of female spirituality and presents itself as well at every Katholikentag. Next to the NKaL there are four other lesbian networks in Germany, of which „Labrystheia“ and „Martha and Maria“ consist mostly of Protestant theologians, pastors or people working in the church, while the network „Lesbians and Church“ and the internet-network „linet-c“ are open for all lesbians. An important stimulus for the development of these lesbian networks is the annual „Lesbentagung“ in the Protestant academy Bad Boll, held since 1985.

Lesbischwule Gottesdienstgemeinschaf­ten

Beginning in 1991 in Frankfurt, gay or queer Christian worship communities were founded in several cities. 20-60 people gather on a regular, mostly monthly basis. Gay or queer worship communities now exist in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Münster, Munich and Aachen, where the Eucharist is held according to the Roman Catholic ritual, in Nürnberg, Basel (Switzerland), Dresden, which have a Protestant liturgy, as well as Karlsruhe, following the Old-Catholic liturgy. Next to the worship, much pastoral work is going on in these self-organised communities. The „Lesbischwule Gottesdienstgemeinschaf­ten“ cooperate ecumenically and present themselves as well at the Kirchen- and Katholikentage.

Working group gay theology

Another ecumenical association is the „working group gay theology“, which has published dozens of book-length journals about issues of gay and queer theology. Starting in 1994 with a very controversial ceremony for the blessing of condoms, it has stimulated critical and creative theological reflections about the experiences and practice of LGBT Christians in their ecclesial and social contexts. The journal „Werkstatt Schwule Theologie“ has worked out gay receptions of liberation theology, of feminist and political theology and of traditional theologies and theological receptions of gender and queer theories.

Gay priests

The gay priests of the Catholic church in Germany build a fifth organisation out of local groups and single persons. Their members and their annual gatherings are top secret, because they have good reason to fear that they will be fired, if this activity becomes public. After a dynamic phase in the 1990s, with many priests longing for exchange about their life-situation, these groups are now in a crisis. The majority of their members was not able to overcome its fear. They couldn’t translate the contradictions of their existence between being gay on the one hand and celibacy and obedience on the other hand into constructive forms of action. They couldn’t manage to articulate their common interests and to represent them to their bishops, as e.g. their Protestant counterparts have achieved according to a kind of trade-unionist self-understanding.

What did we reach?

  • The groups are very open minded in terms of ecumenical cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic lgbt groups and persons have learned a lot from this ecumenical cooperation, although it sometimes tends to distracts us from the unbearably frustrating work inside of our own church.
  • After many years of quarrels with local bishops we now get stable admission to be part of the official programme of the Katholikentage. We are clearly welcomed by the association of Catholic lay people „Zentralverband der deutschen Katholiken“.
  • We now have explicit support of the international „We are church“-Movement.
  • Several diocesan synods and forums agreed with more than 90% votes on the institution of round tables to improve the situation of lesbians and gays in their local church. In spite of this support from the side of lay Catholic people, the responsible bishops preferred to drop the issue – either before or after the institutionalization of a round table.
  • Several dioceses of Germany have official persons or teams, who are responsible for the pastoral care of homosexual people.
  • There are at least 5 LGBT communities celebrating Eucharist in Roman Catholic churches on a regular base. Although the Eucharist was forbidden in one case by an auxiliary bishop, which caused a severe damage to the community, we finally continued with the Eucharist. Existing for many years now, bishops and priests slowly get used to us being church as well.

The Church of Fear

The Roman Catholic church is the last big social organisation in Germany that openly discriminates against LGBT people. Therefore, the majority of LGBT Catholic people meanwhile have used the exit and left the church. Nevertheless, there are others who hold on to their Christian faith and continue to be Catholic.

This usually brings with it a long history of the repression of same-sex sexuality with the psychological and social consequences of internalized homophobia and self-hatred. And because we must come to terms with so many negative and double-bind messages about us, it is not an easy task to develop a positive Catholic lgbt identity.

When I try to describe our situation in the Catholic church, the following image comes to my mind: We are fragile human beings in tiny safe spaces located in the middle of a mine field with snipers all around. Anonymous snipers use to write denunciations to the Vatican, knowing that their informations will be heard in order to start official investigations and to keep control over the local bishops. Nowadays, traditionalists publish hate speeches in the internet, denouncing every Catholic who dares to make one step aside from the line of magisterial teaching.

Every move we make, every little step forward is dangerous because it may trigger negative sanctions from the ecclesial hierarchy. But nobody knows when and why: Because of sexual orientation? Of going public? Of denunciations? Of living together with a partner? Of entering into a registered partnership? Or because of publishing theological ideas, which might be regarded as heretic? And what kind of sanctions will come? Losing reputation? Being regarded as sinner? Withdrawal of the missio canonica? Being excluded from priestly ministry, your order or any ecclesial job? Obligation to silence for a while? Or will it be excommunication and refusal of sacraments? We have no juridical security and no canonical rights! At least one thing is sure: Lesbians and gays who are pastoral workers or teachers of religion will be fired, when they register their civil partnership and make this public.

Queer Catholics experience their church as a „church of fear“ – as the late German artist Christoph Schlingensief has called one of his most famous projects. He has meant it as a heterotopic church, where people are allowed to speak openly about their fears. But when lgbt people overcome their fear, we become dangerous for the hierarchy and the clergy as homosocial bodies, because they are built upon the rock of homophobia and misogyny. Traditional theological discourses of homophobia are probably the most important tool for disciplining the clergy. The structures of disciplinary power and pastoral power – as Michel Foucault has described them – would both collapse without this fundament.

It is a hard pastoral, psychological and political process to overcome this church of fear. But it has no future. This became obvious in the year 2010.

The Sexual Abuse Crisis of 2010

In 2010, the Catholic church in Germany has gone through a deep crisis. Hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests were made public. Although the church had to face similar scandals in the USA or Ireland before, nobody had an idea of the shocking amount of sexualized violence in Catholic schools and parishes. It came out that the ecclesial bureaucracy knew many of the problems, but had protected their priests from juridical consequences. They used psychological pressure and juridical tricks against the victims in order to prevent public judgments. And they transferred those priests from one parish to another one.

For the first time the survivors of sexual abuse came into focus – the focus of public interest, politicians and helping institutions and the focus of a church struggling with its guilt and shame. As a consequence of this sexual abuse crisis, trust in priests and pastoral workers of the church has diminished dramatically. Celibacy and the moral teaching about sexuality were seen as the most important causes for these crimes. And of course, the question of homosexuality was also touched in several ways:

  1. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone tried to connect the sexual abuse with pedophilia and at the same time pedophilia with homosexuality. This pattern of scapegoating had already been used for the cases in the USA. Obviously, this assertion is wrong, as recent research has shown: There is no higher percentage of homosexuals involved and only less than 5% of the abusing priests were consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia. Instead in most cases it was caused by ecclesial power structures, intimacy deficits, absence of personal relationships, a confused sexual identity and a lack of human formation training.
  2. In fact, there are other lines of relationship, which are more important. As Klaus Mertes, the headmaster of a famous Jesuit school in Berlin who made this first cases public, found out, many of the victims at his school turned out to be gay. Insecure and ashamed of themselves in times of puberty, youth and adolescence, they were easy targets.
  3. A report from the archdiocesis of Munich and Freising about all the documented cases since 1945, which were more than 150, stated that quite often the responsible priests in the higher administration were secretly gay. When they attempted to execute any sanctions against child abusers, they were blackmailed by them and fearfully refused to act.

So it were not the gays which turned out to be dangerous, but the oppression of homosexuality and sexuality in general that made the abuse crisis possible.

From Fear to Boldness

The failure of the church in dealing with sexual abuse of minors by priests in an appropriate way and the loss of trust in the hierarchy demands for answers. In many hearts it was connected with the long standing disappointment about a horizontal schism between the Catholic people and the bishops. So the president of the German Conference of Bishops, Robert Zollitsch, announced a „structured dialogue“ between hierarchy and representatives of the lay organisations. Although the conservative bishop of Essen declared, that the question of homosexuality will not be part of this dialogue, it is of such a big importance now, that the conservative fraction among the bishops will not be able to oppress this topic of dialogue.

A remarkable signal for this dialogue came from academic theology. 240 German professors of theology have signed the „Memorandum: Kirche 2011“, in which they state that a high esteem of marriage is no reason to exclude homosexual couples from the church. This is the first time that the majority of the liberal professors of Catholic theology included the question of homosexuality into their agenda. Before this turning point, it had been impossible to get a public statement from them about the topic of homosexuality, because the feared personal consequences for themselves or their students.

Parallel to the Memorandum, another theologian, David Berger, came out of his closet. He was a symbolic figure for Catholic traditionalism: Eager to revive Neoscholasticism and to attack Karl Rahner most sharply, he was appointed as member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Berger came out with a big bang, because he layed open the ruling attitudes of homophobia, antisemitism and antimodernism in many groups of Catholic traditionalism. It was accompanied with a huge media interest. Nevertheless, Cardinal Meisner, Bishop of Cologne, has now withdrawn the missio canonica for David Berger.

But this use of episcopal power will not use the dialogue. Queer Catholics in Germany right now are in a process of changing their attitudes from silence, fear and desperation towards boldness about our feelings and clear expression: Catholic homophobia is destructive and must be stopped.