Denver’s Archbishop, Samuel J. Aquila, has entered the fray in an internecine battle which some fear could split the Catholic Church. Last week, Aquila joined 73 other bishops from around the globe in signing an open letter to the bishops of Germany regarding a series of reform-minded conferences in the German church known as the Synodal Path.
Triggered by revelations of priestly sexual abuse in the German Church, the Synodal Path–also translated as Synodal Way–is intended to bring together clergy and laypeople to address the exercise of power and authority within the church, and has waded into topics regarding sexual morality, priestly celibacy, and the role of women in the church. The assembly first met in 2019 and is scheduled to conclude in 2023, per Catholic News Agency.
Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, emphasized the importance of the process in healing the church from years of scandals and abuse, saying, “only in this way will we achieve new credibility and new trust in the public and among the faithful, which we have squandered.”
In February, the assembly signaled its support for amending church teachings on homosexuality and same-sex relationships. According to reporting from ABC after the synod’s February meeting, the group “approved at an assembly last week calls to allow blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women as deacons. It also called for church labor law to be revised so that gay employees don’t face the risk of being fired.”
It was this stance which elicited the response from Aquila and the others.
The letter, titled a “Fraternal Open Letter of Correction,” lists as its primary concern that the German bishops’ actions “undermine the credibility of Church authority…and the reliability of Scripture.” The bishops who signed the letter warn that the Synodal Path process “has implications for the Church worldwide,” and that “the potential for schism” in the church will “inevitably result.”
Dovetailing neatly with current culture war issues in American politics, the signatories of the letter accuse the German bishops of being influenced not by Scripture but by “contemporary political [and] gender ideologies.” The letter goes so far as to say that the reform-minded German bishops, “display more submission and obedience to the world and ideologies than to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Aquila, Archbishop of a diocese which encompasses all of northern Colorado, is more than a signatory to the letter, though. He is also featured in the text. In the opening paragraphs of the letter, the bishops recommend that the German church leaders read a previous open letter published by Aquila in May 2021, which covered much of the same ground.
For church observers, it’s no surprise that Aquila is featured prominently in the recent letter. The socially conservative clergyman, no stranger to controversy, has waded into a number of culture war battles over the years. Aquila, who famously blamed LGBTQ people for priestly sexual abuse of children, is a staunch opponent of abortion rights for women and was a driving political force behind the anti-abortion ballot measure, Prop. 115, in 2020. Abortion is not the only issue on which Aquila is outspoken, though. In 2019, he opposed a sex-ed bill at the state legislature. In May 2021, he made headlines again when he argued in favor of denying Communion to President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic. Later, in August of the same year, Aquila came out in strong opposition to vaccine mandates as the Delta variant of Covid-19 spread worldwide.
Now that high-ranking church officials–the German bishops, archbishops, and cardinals participating in the Synodal Path process–are attempting to bring some of these more open-minded, liberal social positions into the Catholic church, it is to be expected that Aquila will remain on the front line of the internecine dispute.
Asked about the Denver Archbishop’s role in drafting the text of the letter which has sent waves through the global church, Aquila’s office declined to comment.
As for the German bishops engaged in the synodal process, they do not seem to make much of Aquila’s broadside. “I can reassure you with an open heart: these fears with regard to the synodal path of the Catholic Church in Germany are not correct,” Bätzing wrote in a reply on Saturday, adding that the Synodal Path, “in no way undermines the authority of the Church.”
With the synodal process not scheduled to conclude until 2023, it’s likely that the ongoing saga will continue to pit traditionalist elements of the Catholic church against a more reform-minded generation of clergy who are seeking to rehabilitate the church and its work after decades of scandal. It is this conflict–between the old and the new, as much as between the old and the young–which has prompted concerns of schism.
If indeed the Catholic church did schism, or split, it would be the first such event since the Western Schism of 1378 gave rise to the Avignon Papacy 643 years ago. At the time of that schism, the Catholic church was the dominant political force in western Europe, and the seven decades of chaos caused by the split helped to decide the future of the continent.
Governments no longer rise and fall by the power of the Papacy, though, and the new cries of schism are more about deciding the future of the church than the future of Europe. Catholic church membership has declined precipitously in the past two decades, with a 2021 Gallup survey showing a nearly 20% slide since the year 2000 with little sign of stopping.
Last month, Bätzing criticized “certain elements” within the church for being “ill-suited for a multicultural world in a culturally diverse era.” The warning is one Aquila might do well to heed as he presides over an increasingly diverse congregation, with research showing that Hispanic churchgoers account for 55% of the Archdiocese’s membership–and 70% of its membership under the age of 30.
The German bishops engaged in the Synodal Path believe the church must adapt and present a vision for the future if it’s going to reclaim its relevance.
On the other side of the conflict to determine the future of the church, however, Aquila and his co-signatories have a vision for the future which looks strikingly like the past.
As for which faction will chart the course for the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics, or preside over an historical schism , only time will tell.
On a recent Sunday, Father Al Risdorfer stands in front of an altar, flanked by the Maryland flag and an LGBTQ+ pride banner, with rainbow colors reminiscent of the stained glass windows that filter the church’s light.
As a cantor’s voice echoes off stone walls, parishioners line up to receive Holy Communion. No one is turned away.
Risdorfer tells Baltimore Fishbowl that the church community, Our Lady Undoer of Knots, wants to keep Catholic traditions alive while serving as an inclusive, nonjudgmental and affirming space for LGBTQ+ people, divorcees, and others who have been left out of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We’re a community,” he said. “We’re social justice-oriented. We have great fellowship with one another….We pray well, we play well, and we don’t have all the nonsense. We don’t have all the judgment. We don’t have all the condemnations. We don’t have all the division.”
On a mission to redefine what it means to be a devout Catholic, Our Lady Undoer of Knots is building an independent Catholic community that is welcoming to all, and trying to fulfill its social justice vision. It has been a rocky road for the church, trying to grow its parish while many Catholics are leaving the faith altogether, and amid social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. But still, the passion and community are growing.
Every Sunday at 6 p.m., Our Lady Undoer of Knots holds Mass at St. Mark’s On The Hill Episcopal Church in Pikesville, where they lease space. They also livestream the Mass and post recordings on their website, Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo.
Path to priesthood
Although he was ordained four years ago, Risdorfer said he has always wanted to be a priest.
After high school, Risdorfer attended seminary for six years but left before taking his vows. And while attending graduate school to earn his master’s degree in organization management, he came out as a gay man – an identity that he said was also always with him, even before he had the words to express it.
Risdorfer, who has worked in human resources throughout his professional career with technology companies and nonprofits, said there are “an awful lot of transferable skills” between ministry and HR.
“I keep joking to people that I make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and occasionally I raise somebody from the dead in the HR job,” he said. “In HR, you get people that are just unmotivated and you kind of bring them back to life.”
Now, he and the other members of the community at Our Lady Undoer of Knots hope to motivate people to turn or return to the Catholic faith.
The church community also aims to promote social justice, which Risdorfer said is a tenet of the faith although many do not live up to the principle. Our Lady Undoer of Knots plan to assist low-income families and provide a safe space for survivors of conversion therapy and religious trauma, among other efforts.
After facing homophobia at another church, Risdorfer and his partner at the time – now husband, Tony Bono, a retired professional soccer player – searched for a congregation where they wouldn’t face discrimination.
They found a parish that was part of the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA), a Catholic jurisdiction independent from the Roman Catholic Church. After a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, the CACINA church married Risdorfer and Bono.
When that church was looking for priests, Risdorfer volunteered to return to his studies. He was ordained as a deacon in 2018, and as a priest in 2019.
From there, Risdorfer helped found Our Lady Undoer of Knots in the Baltimore area, a parish under CACINA at the time. Our Lady Undoer of Knots has since left CACINA and joined another Catholic jurisdiction, Progressive Catholic Church International.
Our Lady Undoer of Knots has also revived the Baltimore chapter of DignityUSA, the world’s largest and oldest community of LGBTQ+ Catholics, which has not had a chapter in Baltimore since the 1980s. Dignity Baltimore operates as a ministry of Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
When Our Lady Undoer of Knots began in November 2019, it operated out of Risdorfer and Bono’s home in Howard County. Soon after, they began renting their current space at St. Mark’s, located at 1620 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, where they hoped to cultivate the parish. Then, the pandemic hit.
Though their plans were stalled, Our Lady Undoer of Knots is still striving to grow in size and impact.
At odds with Rome
Risdorfer explained that Our Lady Undoer of Knots, the Marian devotion that the church community is named after, signifies the ability of Mary, mother of God, to help people navigate tangles and challenges in life.
Pope Francis has expressed some support for LGBTQ+ people, including saying that same-sex couples have the right to have children and that parents should not throw out their children from their homes for being an LGBTQ+ identity. But he has also said that while having a “tendency” for same-sex attraction is not a sin, acting on that attraction is sinful.
Risdorfer said those latter beliefs continue to force individuals to hide who they are and have turned many away from the faith. He added that the Roman Catholic Church also has also looked down on those of other backgrounds, such as those who are transgender, divorcees, and women or nonbinary individuals seeking to become leaders in the church.
“We figured the knot that needs to be untied here is how do we bring people back to the church, back to God?” Risdorfer said. “Because a lot of them, when they walked out of the church and walked out of the pews, they just kept on going.”
Our Lady Undoer of Knots holds a traditional Catholic Mass that Risdorfer said most “cradle to grave Catholics” like himself would be familiar with, from scripture readings to singing of hymns to Communion.
But they do not swear allegiance to Rome and all worshipers are welcome to be part of their church community.
In March, the Vatican released a statement saying that the Church does not have the power to bless same-sex marriages and unions, which they called “sinful.”
Catholic churches and dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, also continue to promote a program called “Courage” that “seeks to help persons with same-sex attractions develop an interior life of chastity and move beyond the confines of the homosexual identity to a more complete identity in Christ.”
Risdorfer said LGBTQ+ people should not have to hide who they are to be part of the Catholic faith.
“We are not ‘intrinsically morally disordered,’” he said, referring to a 1986 Roman Catholic Church document that called same-sex attraction a tendency toward “intrinsic moral evil” and an inclination that is “an objective disorder.”
“We are good, we are children of God, and we’re not going away,” Risdorfer said.
A different ‘GPS’
Risdorfer said Our Lady Undoer of Knots has a different “GPS” – which stands for how the church community views “gender, power and sexuality” – than other Catholic churches, particularly those that are allegiant to Rome.
Last year, Pope Francis formally allowed women to give Communion, read during Mass and perform other tasks. But he maintained that women cannot become priests.
At Our Lady Undoer of Knots, people of all genders can be ordained as priests and take on other roles in the church.
There is also less hierarchy in their church’s power structure, which Risdorfer described as “more collaborative” and “not top down.”
Body and blood
While Risdorfer said about half of the parish is part of the LGBTQ+ community, those are not the only people they are looking to reach. They also want to connect with divorced Catholics; individuals who have had abortions; women and nonbinary people, as well as married people, looking to be ordained; and anyone else who does not feel represented in the Catholic church.
Vivian Hogan came to Our Lady Undoer of Knots after being unable to receive Communion at other churches.
Hogan divorced her first husband and married her second husband, whom she has been married to now for 49 years. But for most of her life, she could not receive Communion because her first marriage had not been annulled.
Though Hogan attended Mass at other churches on and off throughout her life, not being able to receive Communion for all those years weighed on her.
When she started attending Our Lady Undoer of Knots in November 2021, she said Risdorfer gave her “unconditional absolution” and she was able to once again receive Communion.
The Pikesville church is about an hour each way from her home in Damascus every Sunday, but Hogan said the community she has found is well worth the trip.
“It’s a much smaller community [than other churches],” she said. “Everyone knows one another and they’re very friendly and outgoing.”
Jared Dixon, also a parishioner at Our Lady Undoer of Knots, said many Catholic churches have “weaponized” Communion.
“It’s been seen as a reward for being a pious Catholic or pious Christian…. I don’t think that receiving Communion should be a reward for being good or [not receiving it] should be punishment for not being good. I feel like everybody should be able to approach the Lord’s table,” he said.
But Dixon, who is also the author of a novel in which characters navigate being gay in the Catholic church, said Our Lady Undoer of Knots is unlike other churches he has attended.
“You feel welcome the moment you walk in the door,” he said. “There’s no preconceived notion of ‘You need to be this way. You need to be that way. You can’t bring this part of yourself to church.’ We welcome you in every aspect of your life: however you show up, whoever you are, whoever you love.”
Welcome one and all
Destiny DiMattei, who is nonbinary, asexual and panromantic, sought a Catholic church that was affirming for LGBTQ+ people.
“I don’t have a relationship right now, but I want to know that wherever I am I’d be somewhere that that my partner and my relationship with my partner will be welcomed,” they said.
DiMattei, who is partially blind, reads from the lectionary in braille every Sunday. At Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they said they are able to not only provide their input but have those ideas respected.
“Everyone has as much impact as they have time for or are able to have…. I’m not just passively sitting around at Mass. I’m actually part of something,” they said.
John Hagens, a music minister with the church, was part of a group in college where he thought he was supported. But when he came out as gay and the group’s reaction was unwelcoming, he left.
“That was the one place where I felt like I could be safe in coming out to a group of people who I called friends and were really supportive of people,” he said. “I just didn’t have that experience. It went quite the other direction. I stopped feeling welcome in that community.”
He added “I was told all throughout growing up and all throughout high school and [college] that I was made in God’s image and God doesn’t make mistakes. And yet, here were these people who were supposedly leading the faith, telling me that I’m wrong and that I am sinful because of who I am.”
After he moved to Maryland to live with his partner Mike, they “bounced around to a few independent Catholic churches in the area” before eventually finding their “church home” at Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
“I never feel like I’m being lectured to,” Hagens said. “I don’t feel like someone is preaching at me. I feel like I’m just having a conversation with a good friend.”
Risdorfer said the church needs more members to tackle the social justice work they have planned, such as aiding economically disadvantaged families.
“We’re in this Catch 22: I can’t do a lot because I haven’t grown because I haven’t done a lot because I haven’t grown,” he said.
Some people have been turned off by the Roman Catholic Church’s values not aligning with their own, Risdorfer said. Others, particularly young people, have not had as strong of an inclination toward religion that previous generations have had, he said.
DiMattei said other Catholic churches reinforce the idea of “sacrificial love and giving until it hurts,” which has been harmful to them as a person with a co-dependency background.
“How do I not constantly have the urge to do for others to the point of hurting myself, where it becomes too much?” they said. “What is that line? That’s a knot I’m still trying to undo in my life.”
But at Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they are looking to do and give what they can without feeling pressured past those boundaries, balancing their personal wellbeing with others’ needs.
While the church has been working to undo knots, they also recently helped tie a new, more hopeful knot for Dixon and his now-husband Jerry. The couple were married by Risdorfer this January.
Over the past six years or so, Dixon said it became important for him to have a church wedding because he wanted that spiritual connection. But until coming to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they struggled to find a Catholic church that would let them marry.
“Finding the right church that would marry me and honor my commitment that I would make to my husband was very important,” Dixon said.
As Our Lady Undoer of Knots continues to grow, Hagens hopes more people who have been shut out by the Catholic church will find what they are looking for with their community.
“There are people who are waiting out there to lovingly affirm your whole self and not judge you for whatever you bring to the table because you are a person of the community,” he said. “We are sinners just as much as that other person; there is no one that’s perfect. But we at Our Lady Undoer of Knots really want to provide a space where all are welcome.”
St Andrew’s College Drygrange was the main seminary for the east of Scotland. When I entered in 1978 it had just celebrated its 25th anniversary. It was a curious place, a gay community in everything but name, but a self-loathing gay community.
Not everyone was gay. And the ones that were gay pretended that they weren’t. Except when they didn’t. Towards the end of my time there a student in the year below me told me that he and his pal had been working their way through the student list the night before – a common pastime back in the day – deciding who was and wasn’t gay. When they came to my name they concluded: “Brian isn’t gay, but he wishes he was.”
I suppose Drygrange was not atypical for its day. I look back on it now with some fondness. But that’s not my dominant emotion. No. Largely I look back on it and I tremble inside. I look back and I see now that it was where I first understood what others having power over me felt like. Raw. Fearful. Relentless.
In my first year, seeking out friends, a group of us gathered in a more senior student’s room. He lived in a dark and eerie part of the “old house”. We talked, as we drank our “camp coffee”, of seminary life. He was a fan of Leonard Cohen who was playing in the background. A head in an unmade bed, as I misremember. A tabernacle had been stolen from a nearby chapel. Satanism. It had to be. Then he told us a secret. We were to keep it to ourselves. The year previously a student had died from suicide. It was a horrible and painful death. The student body had all been called together to pray for their fellow seminarian. They were warned never to speak of this incident again, the student said.
“Hey that’s no way to say goodbye,” Leonard sang
My Irish family has a phrase: “Pass no remarks.” It’s a toxic sentence. It’s a bystander motif. Say nothing. Gaze at your shoes. Kick the tyres and walk on. Because if you say something, anything, you draw attention to the very thing those in control want to be covered up. In this case the death of a young student priest by suicide. Imagine the scandal if the people knew. No reflection, no discernment. And absolutely no learning. The seed of the abuse of power is pressed into the earth by seminary faculty undoubtedly under the control of the bishop in charge.
In seminary the first lesson learned is to maintain the reputation of the institution and, at all costs, avoid scandal. Power and authority is used to quash anything that might threaten this unhealthy equilibrium.
Twice a year seminarians observed the closed door of the staff room. At the end of the first and the third term, after exams, students faced the scrutinium. Behind the door all of the faculty gathered and, like my student friend, they too went through the list of seminarians. But this process was different. This process was to weed out those deemed unsuitable – those who didn’t have a vocation. Now of course, someone has to do it: the scrutinising. But, in all charity, the faculty that I trained under were not the deepest thinkers by and large. These were not profound men. Many of them were institutionalised and embittered with their lives. The thoughts of this scrutiny induced panic in me. “Have I offended any of the staff? Did I displease him? Did I not respond correctly? Will I be kicked out?” Many students were sent packing. There was no appeal. No process of scrutinising the scrutinisers. The students were just dismissed. So you learn about power more than you learn about beatitudinal love in a situation like that.
The power that a seminary faculty has over students would never be accepted in a state run institution. It’s final, and it is ruthless. And inherent within is its ability to be manipulated into a sexual predator’s playground
You learn, when the college spiritual director slips his cold hand under your shirt onto your naked back as he embraces you after confession, to keep your shock hidden. When he caresses your thigh and arm in his car as he drives you somewhere in the dark, you know to keep silent. And as he pulls you onto his knee, after night prayer and tells you he loves you, suddenly you know that he’s a conman and that you’ve been fooled. You’ve nowhere to take that because a quiet word from him into the scrutinium and the pronouncement will be made, that all of a sudden you don’t have a vocation after all. Nothing to do with God, this decision. Everything to do with human manipulation. And obedience to the bishop in charge.
Then…then as a you trudge wearily through seminary, through all of the “ologies” and the “isms” and scrutiniums and you become ordained a priest and you learn that the spiritual director who humiliated you is to be made your archbishop – and eventually cardinal – you look at your seven years of seminary “formation” and your few months as a priest and you realise that it’s nonsense. This construct, this artificial, exhausting, unedifying seminary experience has left you empty. It’s all been about power. You’ve never sought any nor had any. But you’ve been at its mercy from day one.
When Pope Francis talks about the scourge of clericalism we need radically to look at where clerics are made. We need to ask, on the basis of the exceptionally poor bishops many Catholics have got, and the new generation of hyper-conservative, liturgical-queen-priests flowing into parishes, if seminaries are the best way to train priests for modern ministry. A blend of academic and pastoral experience in parishes or specialised ministries might be more appropriate, certainly for the secular priesthood.
I decided, when Keith O’Brien became Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh archdiocese that, as Freddy Mercury sang: “I’ve got to break free.” But the seminary had one last throw of its loaded dice. Despite taking all my government grant money year in and year out it awarded me no recognised academic degree. This, I was told, was a managed strategy to stop priests leaving the priesthood. I still left though. I went on the dole and saw the faces of people who’d seen me at confession a few days previously look askance. But that academic imprisonment can be a clincher. That shows the cold, dank oppression of the seminary system in my day. A system that was rotten through and through. How many men could and should have left the priesthood but had nowhere to go?
I know that “things are different now”. The hierarchy says so on a routine basis about clerical child abuse. “We’ve learned our lessons.” I don’t believe them though. When I told my 91-year-old mother that I was writing a book about whistleblowing on Cardinal O’Brien, she said: “Ach Brian. Be careful. Check the brakes on your car every morning.”
All that is different now is cosmetic change. Power abuse is in the DNA of the hierarchy. It’s their currency. Like a crime gang they operate within their own rules. Bishops and cardinals and even popes, as we’ve just seen with Benedect XVI’s “non-apology” apology over his part in organisational malfeasance, know each other’s secrets. They know each other’s weak spots. And that’s where their power resides. Jesus did not preach: “Blessed are those who hold the Omertà close to their hearts,” but observing the hierarchy you’d think that was his most important beatitude. The abuse of power is seen up close in the seminary system. People learn from their teachers for good or ill. There must be a better way to create a beatitudinal Church.
A new collection of essays details the discrimination and exclusion experienced by queer people in the Catholic Church in Germany, adding to mounting pressure on the embattled institution to carry out reforms.
By Christoph Strack
Anyone who listens to folk and pop music in Germany will know Patrick Lindner. The 61-year-old has been in the music business for decades. He’s a well-known face on television and performs in German-speaking countries. Patrick Lindner is gay — and Catholic.
“In the fall of 2020, my husband and I got married,” Lindner writes in a book published earlier this week.
“It was important to us to also receive God’s blessing in church after the civil wedding. Contrary to his expectations, it was made possible without any problems.
A wish for the church
The artist talks about growing up in a Catholic environment, without having been “raised too strictly Catholic.” He describes his coming out in 1999 as a low point in his career, and the impact of fans’ outpouring support. He also writes about his mother’s wish: “I want you to be happy!” The same attitude, Lindner says, is what he would want from “Mother Church.”
Lindner’s contribution is one of 68 texts compiled and published by the priest Wolfgang Rothe in the German book “Wanted. Loved. Blessed. Being queer in the Catholic Church.” Not all of the authors belong to this group. Some essays are by relatives or friends. And, every fourth contribution is published anonymously, under the initials “N.N.”
Queer people who work for the Catholic Church — whether in parishes, kindergartens or retirement homes — can be fired at any time.
Wolfgang Rothe, who published the book, told DW that he wants the manuscript to depict the reality of queer people in the Catholic Church “as comprehensively as possible” and thus “bring about a change of perspective in our church.” Rothe said he himself “burst into tears” when he first read many of the contributions.
Rothe is among Catholic clerics in Germany who blessed same-sex couples at church in May 2021, even though the Vatican had previously banned such celebrations.
Hurt, fear and frustrations
“The divide is widening, the need for reform is obvious,” wrote architect Ulrike Fasching in the book. She lives in a so-called “rainbow family” — two women with one son.
Stefan Thurner, a geriatric nurse, when referring to his experiences in everyday community life, wrote: “To act as if there are no queer people is simply out of touch with reality.”
Three of the anonymous contributions come from the clergy. “I am a priest. And I’m gay,” is how one begins, expressing hurt that homosexuals, even if celibate, are not allowed to become priests at all under Vatican rules.
Film director and event manager Katrin Richthofer describes her tense relationship with the Catholic Church and comments on her lesbian daughter: “Don’t let a church ruin your faith! God created you just the way you are and loves you unconditionally!”
The collection is a catalog of hurts, fears and frustrations, as well as the hopes pinned on faith, and painful experiences surrounding the idea of home and identity.
Rothe explains why so many contributions are anonymous. “In this anonymity, the fear is expressed very clearly.” Among those who chose to publish anonymously, he says, are even some people “who are out of the closet in their everyday lives, but who were afraid to speak out in public.”
Need to accelerate reform
The book was published eight days after 125 queer church employees came out, causing a big stir in Germany. The timing was coincidental but it illustrates the growing calls for reform. As recently as last Sunday, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, had welcomed the coming out of numerous queer employees of his church. “We have deeply hurt people and continue to do so today,” he said on German public television network ARD.
But even Bätzing cannot guarantee that no church employee will be fired because of his or her sexual orientation. He refers to the ongoing reform of church labor law in Germany. That, however, has been going on for years — a fact Bätzing did not explicitly mention. The slow process has led to calls for lawmakers to raise pressure on the church.
The call for decisive action by bishops will become stronger again when the third plenary assembly of the “Synodal Way” of the Catholic Church in Germany meets in Frankfurt am Main at the end of the week.
The assembly, launched at the end of 2019, is intended to discuss — and advance — reforms.
Earlier in January, the publication of a new, damning report investigating historical sexual abuse at the Munich Archdiocese over several decades sparked renewed outrage. That has prompted many of the faithful to renew calls for swifter action, including recognizing queer people in the church.
Bishops go against the tide
One of those already taking action has his say in the book with the essay titled: “Encounters create change.” Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, who is 69, describes his uncertainty before meeting with a group of queer Christians in Dresden.
“What they had to tell me touched me deeply,” Timmerevers writes. His diocese has now set up a counseling service for queer people. The Dresden bishop calls the Vatican’s refusal to bless same-sex partnerships “deeply devastating,” saying the church “cannot continue like this in the long run.”
Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers changed his stance on same-sex couples after meeting with Dresden’s queer community
Timmerevers is not alone. On March 13, Cardinal Reinhard Marx will celebrate a queer service in Munich’s Paulskirche. It also marks an anniversary. Since March 2002, queer people and their friends in the city have been celebrating “Roman Catholic services” once a month in Munich.
Marx’s presence will mark the first time that an archbishop will attend the anniversary — complete with champagne and a buffet.
Michael J. O’Loughlin’s ‘Hidden Mercy’ is an essential historical addition
BY Daniel Walden
Books about gay people struggling with their faith are more common than they ought to be. Most take the form of self-therapy for their authors and, as such, are concerned mostly with the interior life of the author. Unfortunately, in these late post-Stonewall days, we gays are by and large a pretty boring and well-assimilated bunch, and our interior lives tend to have all the magnetic fascination of a pair of pleated khakis. It was with no small amount of gratitude, then, that I read the introduction to Michael J. O’Loughlin’s book, in which he eschews such navel-gazing and instead reckons with his Catholic faith by giving his readers an oral history titled Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Mercy in the Face of Fear.
O’Loughlin has spent nearly 12 years as a correspondent for America magazine — an explicitly Catholic magazine run by the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. His background is immensely helpful here, because he intuitively grasps a principle that eludes a lot of reporters on the Catholic Church in the U.S., namely: the Catholic Church is very, very large, to a degree that there’s no real way to wrap your head around all of it, and the combination of that size and its division into dioceses run by bishops who answer only to the Pope renders it nearly ungovernable. This means, above all, that there is almost never a single “Catholic response” to a social question, only responses by Catholics. Perhaps the greatest strength of O’Loughlin’s oral history approach is that, by keeping close to the experiences of people both inside and outside the official Church hierarchy, he allows the tensions and contradictions that characterized the Church’s reaction to the AIDS crisis to emerge and to stand as they are, without trying to impose a structure or resolution that doesn’t exist.
Hidden Mercy is the latest in a series of high-profile histories of the AIDS crisis, and the first one to deal in any sustained fashion with the Church as a major player in the events of the period. The American cultural memory of AIDS has been shaped largely by two works of dramatic fiction: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both are powerful artistic responses written in the midst of the crisis, and both take severe liberties with the historical record to score their dramatic points. They are valuable records in their own way, but neither makes much time — Kushner none at all — for the role of the Catholic Church in the crisis, despite its inescapable influence on the lives of everyone in New York, where both plays are set. You don’t even have to be Catholic for the Church to shape your life in ways large and small — Catholic nonprofits operate some of the largest hospital systems in the United States, and in New York, many people still give silent thanks for the annual suspensions of alternate-side parking rules on the Church’s major feast days.
The two other recent books on the AIDS crisis, Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show and Peter Staley’s memoir Never Be Silent, are concerned primarily with ACT UP and its protest campaigns, in which the Church often appears as an opponent. But even Schulman and Staley’s books hint at a more complicated picture: their pages are full of Catholics at odds with bishops or pastors, and as O’Loughlin ably shows, even the thoroughly institutional elements of the Church were often at odds with one another. The stories he shares illuminate how people both inside and outside the hierarchy of the Church reckoned with their place in this institution that so often seemed both powerful and helpless at the same time.
Indeed, of all the narrative threads through which O’Loughlin moves, the two most prominent are stories of care. The first of these is Sister Carol Baltosiewitch, a Franciscan religious sister from Illinois who flew to New York to learn about treating AIDS patients; the second is Father William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest who began celebrating healing Masses for people with AIDS and continued ministering to them both officially and unofficially until 1990, when his Jesuit superiors asked him to step back from his AIDS work due to the stress it was putting on his health; though he left the Jesuits in 2002, he remains a priest. We also meet David Pais, a man who got involved with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and HIV education; and Ramon Torres, a physician who worked with AIDS patients and struggled against the restrictions placed on him by his working for a Catholic hospital; Michael Hanrak, a former member of the radical Catholic Worker movement, convinced the Diocese of Oakland to convert a home intended for sick priests into a home for low-income people with AIDS.
Institutions also emerge as characters: much of the action in New York revolves around St. Vincent’s, the hospital that was both the largest center for AIDS care in the country and the target of repeated protest actions for its official insistence that its doctors ought to provide top-shelf medical care to men who contracted AIDS through unprotected gay sex but could not under any circumstances tell those men to make condoms a part of their sodomitical recreation. And on the West Coast, O’Loughlin devotes an entire chapter to Most Holy Redeemer, a parish in the heart of the Castro that reinvented itself as a spiritual home for gay Catholics and developed the best homeless ministry in the Bay Area, because it turns out that concentrating San Francisco’s supply of hairdressers, salon workers, and childless physicians in one place gives you lots of ways to help people feel healthier and more dignified.
O’Loughlin is at his most effective in showing how the care and advocacy work of these people and these places was opposed at nearly every turn by other actors in the Church. There is no shortage of historical evidence on either side: American Catholics are politically divided in nearly identical proportions to Americans in general, and plenty of Catholics remain unashamed of the Church’s hostility to LGBT people and to AIDS protestors. They certainly don’t suffer from the moral amnesia that overtakes so many avowedly liberal institutions when asked about their conduct during the AIDS crisis. On top of this, since Catholic institutions are extremely long-lived and generally keep records, O’Loughlin can render these tensions and conflicts in much sharper relief than is usually available for other parts of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, given the outsize role of the Church in coordinating AIDS care in major gay epicenters like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, it may very well be the largest institutional holder of healthcare records from a time when methods and standards of care seemed to change almost monthly. It can be tempting to center AIDS history on large, highly visible protest actions and on the internal drama of the groups who organized them, treating other histories as sideshows. O’Loughlin’s subject matter is clearly not a sideshow: this book is an essential historical addition.
That said, this is still AIDS history, and that means there are gaps in our knowledge that can never be filled because so many are dead and those who knew them are dead or dying. Late in the book, O’Loughlin recounts being at a reception at a Vatican museum, where he spotted John Quinn, the former Archbishop of San Francisco who oversaw the archdiocese’s mobilization of resources for AIDS care and who strongly supported the gay outreach efforts at Most Holy Redeemer. Quinn was in his eighties at the time, but he seemed very supportive when O’Loughlin described his project. “‘Yes, there are so many stories,’ he replied, a note of sadness in his voice. ‘So many young people died.’” Then the bishop recounts a story of a young man who, after finding out he had HIV, told his mother he was gay to prepare her for what lay ahead. “‘Twenty-two years ago, my only mistake,’ the mother said, wrapping her arm around her son, ‘was not having an abortion.’” These stories, too, are worth preserving, and this one survives only through a chance encounter with a very old man. In one of the book’s most sobering moments, Quinn offers to talk with O’Loughlin again once they’ve both gone home to the U.S. Their conversation never happened: the archbishop fell a few days later and was admitted to the hospital. Within six months he was dead, and another link to history was broken.
This is one of the book’s two real brushes with the Catholic hierarchy, whose members lurk for the most part in the background of its narratives, stymieing the protagonists with unappealable decisions, like the 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the central body that adjudicates questions of Catholic doctrine — think Supreme Court meets Académie Française meets DMV, but with better robes and many more closet cases) that withdrew all official support for any LGBT Catholic organization that didn’t loudly proclaim the evils of sodomy. But at one point, Fr. Bill McNichols recounts encountering Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, whom Fr. Bill thought responsible for cancelling a conference where he was to present. It turned out that the cardinal knew nothing about it, and for the most part approved of Fr. Bill’s AIDS ministry. The picture we get, through Fr. Bill, is of a figure trapped by his office: less a Prince of the Church and more an affable company man. Certainly O’Connor, by all accounts, did care deeply about the suffering of AIDS victims, having visited thousands individually in the hospital.
Nice, caring people make superb functionaries for inhuman bureaucratic machines: they give a human face and voice to the whole enterprise, and so long as you keep suffering abstract and distant, they can run their pen over scores of ruined lives with a clear conscience. O’Connor was a kind man who responded humanely to the suffering that he saw; to what he couldn’t or wouldn’t see, he had no response at all. It simply didn’t cross his mind.
On my first read, I did wish that O’Loughlin had grappled more with the action and inaction of the hierarchy. That’s probably my own frustration coming to the surface, and a testament both to the effectiveness of the book’s presentation and to O’Loughlin’s disciplined refusal to abandon the concrete experiences of his subjects for easy polemic. The story of bishops’ misdeeds is the story of powerful men fucking up other people’s lives: that story has already been told. O’Loughlin would rather give us the daily struggles of ordinary people who tried to do some good, and who sometimes failed, and learned, and a few times really got it right. Those moments of grace, when transcendence breaks through and transforms the daily toil of mercy, illuminate why his subjects did this work: because the hungry needed to be fed, the sick cared for, the naked clothed, the dead buried. God seems to think that’s all very much worth doing, and O’Loughlin had the good sense to see that it was also worth writing down and remembering. I have to concede that he’s probably right. The virtues of ordinary people are often more interesting and more illuminating than the vices of the powerful, and I’m grateful that Hidden Mercy is unsparing about the costs, trials, and rewards of such virtue.