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A commentary on Pope Francis’ latest remarks about homosexuality

By Klaus Fitschen

Sexuality should be a private matter – that would be the conclusion of a church historian, if one looks at the way Christianity has dealt with this topic for more than 2000 years. This rule should apply to everything that does not fall under the legal protection of minors. In their history, Christian churches have often disgraced themselves with their statements and with their attitude towards this topic and they continue to do so today, in different ways, depending on denomination and societal context. The churches’ current treatment of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents is just one example of this (the Protestant Church does not cut a better figure than the Catholic Church in this regard, and the Orthodox Churches do not even talk about it). The lack of will on the part of many church officials to investigate properly the crimes at least is the best proof that not even in the church the Last Judgement is feared any longer. 

The topic of homosexuality is another example: People are still excluded and degraded in the churches because of their sexual identity, and theologically important thoughts are being made about the stigma they bear and how it could be cured. To this end, texts from the Bible, which come from very different historical contexts and are at least 2000 years old, are combined arbitrarily with each other until the desired result is achieved. Of course, progressive Catholic theologians have long recognised that this cannot lead to a plausible argument. In 2018, New Testament scholar Ansgar Wucherpfennig, who has just been replaced as rector of the Jesuit College in Frankfurt/Main, for example came into serious conflict with the church leadership in Rome because he was critical of his church’s attitude to homosexuality.

Now the Pope is expressing his opinion on this subject, not in an official way with an Apostolic letter, but in a documentary film. So the hour of the augurs has come to interpret the dry words of the Roman bishop: What did he mean? What does he want? The hopes of the Catholic believers rest on every pope: While traditionalists hope for a way back, those who seek a way under the conditions of secular modernity also hope for backing from Rome. Between these poles remain the disappointed who do not turn their backs on the Church (often enough because they are professionally obliged not to do so).

But before going further into the subject and the recent statements, it is worth pausing and reflecting on who the Pope really is: he is an old man, Jorge Mario Bergoglio by name, who derives his authority from the fact that he holds a position that makes him the head of a large religious community, the Catholic Church. Now, since late antiquity, the bishops of Rome have repeatedly expressed themselves about all sorts of issues without being asked, but the reception of these statements within the Church, in other religious communities and in the secular public sphere is very selective. 

One must take seriously the hopes of those who are still loyal to the Catholic Church, even though they are disregarded by it: Gays and all the others who do not fit into the heterosexual scheme, in which sexuality is only possible in a marriage. Many of them do not dare to stand by their identity and live it, and this is not only the case in the Catholic Church. By the way, church statements show a clear tendency to understand "homosexuals" as only men, while lesbians are often not even noticed.

With the term “legge di convivenza civile”, the Pope is obviously alluding to what is called in Italy “contratto di convivenza” or “unione civile”, which would be the legal status of a “registered civil union”. In Germany, this status existed between 2001 and 2017 and has been replaced by the “marriage for all”. However, registered civil unions are possible in many countries, although by no means in all. Obviously, the church is not responsible for creating state laws (“What we have to create”), but one might see an impulse to support corresponding movements in the Pope’s statement. This, however, misses the reality of the Catholic Church; in some countries, there are large, very conservative sections of the population, which outright reject such a legislation.

In the end, the pope only quotes himself: Still in his function as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had stood up for the “unión convivencial”, which was fiercely debated in Argentina at the time. Compared to the attitude of other Argentine bishops, that was a step forward, but above all, it was a concession to prevent same-sex marriage legislation. The Pope obviously alludes to this with the sentence “I have fought for this”.

The hopes of some within the Catholic Church rest on these words in the film: “No one must be excluded.” Interpreting this positively, one could say: gays (and probably lesbians too) should be welcome in the church. Interpreted negatively, this means: People are marked primarily by their sexual identity and should live in a family. Again, the Pope’s intention remains unclear: Is it once again about channelling sexuality into a marriage, which should then be protected by the state? The suspicion is very obvious in view of other statements by the Pope.

The Pope’s recent statements must therefore be seen in the context of others. An important document in this context is “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), a teaching letter of the Holy Father. In this is official document of the Catholic Church published in 2016, sacramental marriage, is undeniable interpreted as the only saving haven for the trials and tribulations of love and sexuality. The basic theme here is “love in the family”, and what a family is, is defined by the church against all social reality: The basis is the marriage of man and woman. The “sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament” is only ecclesiastically recognised when a biologically defined male person and a biologically defined female person enter into it. Accordingly, the handling of the subject of homosexuality is correspondingly different: In “Amoris Laetitia” families are referred to “whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children.” Surely, one might comment sarcastically, this is not an easy experience if you live in a religious or social environment where homosexuality is considered a problem and gay young people constantly have to experience that they are somehow out of order. That homosexuality is a problem from a Catholic point of view is shown by the definition of the church’s task: “Those who manifest a homosexual orientation” should in fact “receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” An analogy of marriage and “unions between homosexual persons” (unioni omosessuali) is clearly rejected here.

This view ultimately corresponds with the Catholic Catechism. Here, too, the natural sexual identity is reinterpreted as a “homosexual tendency”, which contradicts the “natural law” because reproduction is not possible. Here too, homosexuality is regarded as a challenge, and it has to be passed through chastity. However, homosexuals should be treated with respect and not be disadvantaged. 

The Pope’s latest statements in the documentary film have the same tendency as such appeals to treat every person with respect and to avoid marginalisation, or even aggression and violence. This also fits in with the document recently published by Francis under the title “Fratelli tutti”. At the very beginning, there is a reference to Francis of Assisi, who is interpreted as a teacher of a “fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.” Gays, one could combine, also fall under this love and should now be able to rejoice not being regarded as second-class Catholics and human beings. 

Within the church, the most recent statements of the Pope, which are in no way officially confirmed, are certainly a step forward in comparison with an attitude that condemns homosexuality and homosexuals, and thus degrades people, who still expect something from the church and from the Christian religion instead of turning away from it disappointedly and going their own way into a future free of religion and such problems. However, this progress must then also be implemented, and whether this happens depends on the national bishops’ conferences, i.e. on the Catholic hierarchy, less on the church members, who have nothing to say and often no longer want to say anything (this is not only a Catholic phenomenon either). When Catholic bishops speak out on this subject, they do so very cautiously. The Catholic Bishop of Dresden, Heinrich Timmerevers, has recently expressed himself much more concretely than the Pope by advocating a blessing for homosexual couples. On the same occasion, however, Timmerevers reports on the inner-church resistance to his initiative.

Other communities of religion or worldview can serve as a benchmark for progress. There are also very different opinions in Protestantism, but in recent decades, the churches in Western Europe have set out on a path that the Catholic Church will hardly be able to follow. In many Protestant Churches, there are now church weddings for gays and lesbians. Until a few years ago, this was impossible, but in Germany, the situation has changed rapidly with the introduction of the state “marriage for all”. Whether the Catholic Church will take such a step is highly doubtful, given the exaggerated status of marriage as a sacrament. But maybe it will come to the point where gay priests will stand by their sexual identity and live with their husband in the rectory. In order to make it a family, in which one is supposed to live, they should also adopt children. And of course, it would be even more suitable if one day there would be a Popess Francesca, who lives with her wife and children in the Vatican. But unfortunately that is not possible, because so many things are not possible when religious dogmatism is a millstone around the neck and makes it impossible to say: Sexuality is a private matter. Progress looks somewhat different.