A CORK priest has written to Bishops asking that a conversation be held in the Irish Catholic Church about a sensitive and pastoral outreach to gay Catholics.
Fr Tim Hazelwood, who is the parish priest of Killeagh, is one of four signatories to the letter sent by the Association of Catholic Priests.
It follows the publication of a document in March by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”
Letter to bishops
In the letter, the priests said the need for the conversation “has been underlined recently by the insensitive and unnecessary intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that has brought such pain and distress to gay women and men, to their families and friends.”
It said that “the content, language and judgemental tone of the CDF’s statement reflect an increasingly out of touch and uncaring Church and exactly the kind of attitude that provokes more and more Catholics into walking away from our Church.
“Messages we have received from gay people and family members spoke of the hurt and anger they are made to feel and they write of the struggle they have remaining part of the church. Only one Irish Bishop had the courage to respond to the CDF statement and his words were deeply appreciated.”
The letter continued: “More worryingly, the CDF intervention runs counter to ‘the synodal path’ that Francis has told us is God’s way of being Church in the future and which the Irish Bishops have recently endorsed through their commitment to move the Irish Church along that pathway in preparation for a national synodal event within the next five years.”
‘A conversation that needs to take place’
In pointing out that times are changing, the priests said that a recent ACP webinar on the pastoral care of members of the LGBTQ+ community as memorable, continuing: “There were many heartfelt contributions from people who continue to feel hurt and shame. Stories that could be replicated in every parish but sadly are often unwelcome or unheard.”
The letter added: “Why are we so cold and uncaring in the Church around this topic? Why the lack of knowledge and understanding that still informs inappropriate sermons and comments? Why are we afraid to welcome gay Catholics? Why are we afraid to listen to their stories?
“There is a listening and a conversation that need to take place in our Church and we respectfully request the Irish bishops to facilitate it and to participate in it. A refusal to engage runs counter to the synodal pathway.”
More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany offered blessings to gay couples on Monday in defiance of church teaching and their own bishops.
The call for nationwide blessings came in response to a decree issued by the Vatican on March 15, reinforcing the church’s prohibition of priests asking for God’s benevolence for gay couples, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
A group of 16 German priests and volunteers organized a petition that within days collected more than 2,000 signatures. Encouraged by the response, they decided to take their action one step further and declare May 10 — chosen because of its association with Noah, who in the Bible is recognized by God with a rainbow, a symbol that has more recently been adopted by the L.G.B.T.Q. community — as a day to hold blessing ceremonies for any and all couples, but especially those in same-sex unions.
“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the group said in a statement. “We will not refuse a blessing ceremony.”
The Vatican had no comment on Monday, but the head of the conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany, Georg Bätzing, who is also the bishop of Limburg, rejected using public blessing ceremonies as what he called “instruments for symbolic actions on church policy or for protests.”
“It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church to treat all of these people fairly in their respective concrete situations on their life’s journey and to accompany them pastorally,” Bishop Bätzing said in a statement, speaking for the country’s bishops. “In this context, however, I do not consider public actions such as those planned for 10 May to be helpful or a way forward.”
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because that is God’s plan for the creation of life. Church doctrine says that while gay people must be treated with dignity, homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis has not changed this teaching, but has occasionally raised the hopes of gay Catholics by speaking of the need to love and welcome gay and transgender people.
The German church is among the most powerful and liberal in the world, and Roman Catholics everywhere were watching the response to the blessings for signals of how the church might respond to attempts at reform from those in the pews and from the priests who are often among those most active in finding ways to include gay men and lesbians in the church.
“There has been this incredible discussion in Germany about same-sex couples specifically that has not taken place anywhere else,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. “No other group has done something like that.”
A few German parishes held blessing services on Sunday and dozens more took place Monday, many of them in churches in the heavily Roman Catholic western regions of the country, home to many of Germany’s most liberal Catholics. Some were streamed live, while others offered virtual blessings over social media, “whenever and wherever you want.”
By contrast, only a few parishes in the heavily Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria, the more deeply conservative region where Pope Benedict XVI grew up, held services.
Churches that were not offering ceremonies were encouraged to fly a rainbow flag or other banners recognizing and celebrating love in all of its forms as worthy of God’s graces.
The Rev. Bernd Mönkebüscher, pastor in the Church of St. Agnes in the western town of Hamm and one of the initiators of the campaign, said that every Valentine’s Day, his parish holds blessings for all couples, including those from same-sex unions and those who remarried after a divorce.
“We held a blessing service this Valentine’s Day, but it was important to us in view of this story from Rome to send a clear signal that the church must recognize, honor and appreciate life in all of its many colors,” said Father Mönkebüscher, who identifies as gay. “It is an important gesture toward those people who the church for years, if not decades, has viewed as second-class citizens.”
At least 30 couples had registered to take part in the ceremony in his parish on Monday, he said, adding that the number of participants was limited because of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are fully booked out,” he said.
During the ceremony, Father Mönkebüscher walked around the nave, approaching couples who sat in pairs, socially distanced and masked. They rose as he placed a hand on their shoulders and spoke a blessing as they bowed their heads. After one lesbian couple had received their blessing, they dropped their masks and shared a kiss, wiping away tears.
Not everyone has been receptive of the initiative. One parish in Bavaria received threats from members of an arch-conservative Roman Catholic group and had to call the police to ensure the safety of participants at their ceremony.
According to official statistics, 272,771 people formally quit the Church in 2019, a record number that helped to galvanize efforts among the bishops to discuss with the church a series of issues they believe were contributing to the loss of members. Among them were the role of women in the church, its teachings on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and clerical power structures.
In 2019, they began a series of talks on these topics, discussions of which would be off-limits for the church in many other countries. The talks were to take place among the faithful and church leaders over the course of two years but were extended because of restrictions on gatherings that were introduced last year at the outbreak of the pandemic. They are now to continue into February 2022.
Among those leaving the Church in Germany are many same-sex couples, who are tired of feeling they are not accepted for who they are, said the Rev. Reinhard Kleinewiese, who held a blessing at the Church of St. Mary in the western town of Ahlen on Sunday evening. Ten couples attend, all of them heterosexuals.
“We can’t ignore the fact that a lot of homosexual couples have already left the church. There are many who don’t come anymore,” Father Kleinewiese said. “Nevertheless, it is good and important for this situation and beyond that we make clear that we are not in agreement with Rome on certain issues and prohibitions.”
A group of German Catholic priests will publicly bless same-sex couples across the country on Monday in defiance of the Vatican’s decree in March that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex marriages.
“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the statement says. “We do not refuse a blessing ceremony. We do this in our responsibility as pastors, who promise people at important moments in their lives the blessings that God alone gives. We respect and value their love, and we also believe that God’s blessings are on them.”
“Theological arguments and knowledge gained are sufficiently exchanged,” the statement continues. “We do not accept that an exclusive and outdated sexual morality is carried out on the back of people and undermines our work in pastoral care.”
The priests have also organized several church services, including live-streamed blessings of same-sex couples, to take place on May 10 across the country.
One of the organizers, Klaus Nelissen, told the Wall Street Journal that a Monday was chosen because that is traditionally a priest’s day off: “No bishop can tell them not to do it, since they are doing it on their own time,” he said.
The correlating events on Monday are making public what has been a quiet defiance over the last several years.
“It always has been a little bit kind of a secret,” Rev. Christian Olding told the Wall Street Journal of German priests’ blessings of same-sex couples. “This is the first time that we are going this way in society, to do it visibly for everyone.”
In March, the Vatican said in a statement approved by Pope Francis that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
While the community should welcome gay people with “respect and sensitivity,” their unions would not receive the same embrace, as under Catholic teachings, marriages as per “God’s plan” should be between a man and a woman to create new life, said the statement, which was a formal response to a question regarding the Church’s power to bless same-sex marriages.
“For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage, as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex,” the statement said.
In October, he said he would support a civil union law, saying in a documentary that gay people are “children of God and have a right to a family.” And he famously said in 2013: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
For the past three years, Eder Díaz Santillan has hosted a podcast on which he interviews LGBTQ people on how they’ve coped with their gender and sexual identities while being raised in traditional Catholic upbringings. He also openly discusses his own identity as a Latino and gay Catholic man.
To Santillan, being gay and Catholic has meant reconciling with the reality the church has never fully accepted his LGBTQ identity. However, he’s recognized there’s a difference between his own relationship with God and the priests who have condemned homosexuality from the altar. It took years, but Santillan realized he could maintain his faith and his LGBTQ identity.
That’s why it may have been a surprise to his listeners when he announced in mid-March he would no longer identify as Catholic. The announcement came just days after the Vatican’s decree it wouldn’t allow priests to bless same-sex unions, saying “God cannot bless sin.”
“It took me this long to recognize that I can let go of anything that hurts me,” said Santillan, 35, on Instagram.
Pope Francis’ rejection of proposals that would allow priests to bless same-sex couples has left many LGBTQ Catholics feeling disappointed and demoralized by an institution they felt recently represented a softening toward LGBTQ marriages within the church. As a result, some have decided to leave their Catholic identities behind, while others remain hopeful the church will eventually become more accepting. Though some have said Francis later distanced himself from that decision, some, like Santillan, say “that’s not enough.”
After the Vatican’s statement, Santillan felt an urgent need to break from his Catholic identity. He realized he could no longer “normalize being Catholic and gay to my audience,” adding that he had become accustomed to the church’s “condemning narrative.”
The fact the church would not bless same-sex unions was nothing new to Santillan, but what struck him was the Vatican felt the need to “be so explicit” about it.
It was shocking,” he said.
To Santillan, the church’s stance is more than just an opinion of what is right and wrong; it fuels faith-based conversion therapy and the backing of laws that discriminate and criminalize LGBTQ people in Latin American countries. It has repercussions, he said. The Vatican’s “God cannot bless sin” statement took him back to his childhood, when he considered himself a sin due to the church’s rhetoric. He feared he was going to hell.
While Santillan figures out what it means to no longer identify as a Catholic, he said, he will always work to help those “who like me have to live with the trauma of the Catholic Church.”
Since the Vatican’s declaration over same-sex unions, the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest, said he’s heard from a number of LGBTQ Catholics whose reactions have “ranged from anger to hurt to frustration to disgust to despair.”
He said about a dozen have explicitly told him they were leaving the church as a result.
“Among that group the general response was, ‘I’m done.’ Or ‘This was the last straw,’” Martin told Religion News Service via email.
“The main reason that LGBTQ people felt hurt was not simply that priests were forbidden from blessing same-sex unions, a decision that many people may have expected, but that the statement went beyond that and talked about their love as ‘sin,’” said Martin, an advocate of the LGBTQ community.
As he listens to LGBTQ Catholics, Martin said he reminds them “they are, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, as much a part of the church as their pastor, their bishop or the Pope.”
He also invites LGBTQ people to see the church “in its totality,” noting Francis’ appointment of Juan Carlos Cruz, an openly gay man, to a papal commission, as well as the number of European bishops who criticized the Vatican’s language.
“I invite them to see themselves as full members of the church, even a church that seems not to know how to welcome them,” Martin said.
For queer Catholics like Xorje Olivares, 32, it’s about making individual choices around what their Catholicism looks like. Spirituality, he said, doesn’t need to be a “one size fits all.”
“Everybody’s journey toward their acceptance of the Catholic faith or the role of the Catholic Church in their lives is their own, very much like everyone’s journey to their queerness is their own,” Olivares said.
Olivares, a former altar boy, hosts the podcast “Queer I am, Lord,” where he talks with LGBTQ Catholics about why they’ve stayed in or left the church.
While Olivares said many queer Catholics grew up conditioned to fear God and to believe they are going to hell, “we’ve gone past that.” Meanwhile, he also acknowledged many still find it difficult figuring out “what to believe, when they have a church saying one thing and their bodies telling them another.”
“I sympathize with their struggles because those are very real,” he said.
Olivares often thinks about the kind of message they would send to the Catholic institution if every single LGBTQ person decided to leave the church, but he remains grounded by the Bible verse “knock and the door shall be open to you.”
“Here I am, me and all my queer friends. We’ve been knocking on the door over, and over, and over again, and I would be so upset with myself if the door finally opens and the church becomes a little more welcoming, and I’m not there because I decided to walk away,” he said.
“I don’t know if the church will be the safe space that I need it to be, or if it ever will be, but I know that I still find some joy referring to myself as a Catholic,” Olivares said.
A Catholic priest refused to bless the palms on Palm Sunday in protest against the Catholic Church’s ban on blessings for same-sex unions.
Father Giulio Mignani of Bonassola, near La Spezia in Italy, is an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage, according to local media reports.
The priest told his congregation on Palm Sunday that he would not be doing the routine blessing, which occurs on the Sunday before Easter, in protest after the Vatican forbade clergy from blessing same-sex couples because God “cannot bless sin”.
“If I can’t bless couples formed by persons of the same sex, then I won’t bless palms or olive branches either,” Father Mignani told the crowd that had gathered for mass on Sunday (28 March).
Catholic Church ban on same-sex blessings has ignited fury
Mignani’s intervention is just the latest in a string of furious responses from figures within the Catholic Church to the Vatican’s ruling.
There was widespread condemnation when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued an explanatory note on 15 March telling priests that they must no longer bless same-sex couples.
The letter, which was approved by Pope Francis, said a blessing can only be conferred on a couple that lives according to “the designs of God inscribed in creation”.
While the note insisted that God loves all his children equally, it went on to say he “cannot bless sin”.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest known for his LGBT+ advocacy, said he hasn’t seen so many people ready to leave the church since the child-sexual abuse scandals hit.
“Not since the anger over sex abuse in 2002 and 2018 have I seen so many people so demoralised, and ready to leave the church, as I have this week,” Martin wrote on Twitter.
“And not simply LGBT+ people, but their families and friends, a large part of the church.”
Meanwhile, former Irish president Mary McAleese – a vocal Catholic who also has a gay son – hit out at the Vatican’s statement as “unbearably vicious”.
In a letter to Catholic archbishop Eamon Martin, McAleese said Pope Francis’ “chummy words to the press often quite reasonably realise hopes of church reform which hare subsequently almost invariably dashed by firm restatements of unchanged church teaching”.
She said the Vatican’s statement was “fired like a missile from the centre of governance of the church” and had caused “heartache and hurt” for many.