In early August, on a bluff above the ocean in Baja California, two of my favorite people took their wedding vows at dusk.
My niece Krissa and her partner Julia had asked seven friends to offer short reflections on seven touchstones for a successful marriage. The friends spoke of authenticity, vulnerability, generosity, community, balance, humor and home. It was a lovely ceremony, and when the brides kissed, it was a peak emotional moment for all of us, and proof — as if we needed it — that same-sex marriage is every bit as romantic and meaningful as other marriages.
The glow lasted until I returned from Mexico to Los Angeles and started noticing a stream of emailed fundraising appeals from a man named Brian Brown, homophobic founder of the National Organization for Marriage.
Brown’s organization fights against same-sex unions, and his emails felt like a personal affront. Seriously? Are these people never going to give up the fight against same-sex marriage?
In December, after all, President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, a bipartisan bill that codifies same-sex and interracial marriage. Even Pope Francis understands that marriage equality is here to stay. One of the items on the agenda of the 2023 global gathering of Catholics in Rome is whether same-sex couples deserve the church’s blessing. (This is not at all the same as allowing gay Catholics to marry in the church, but it is a slight softening of a very hard line against it.)
However, there are a few reasons why same-sex marriage suddenly feels tenuous to some.
First, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative majority has breathed new life into not just antiabortion crusades, but other anti-equality movements as well.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization suggested the court might want to look at other seemingly settled issues, such as the legalization of contraception and gay marriage. Many proponents of gay rights were shaken to the core by Thomas’ claims in his Dobbs concurrence. If gay marriage were to be overturned, how would the legal rights of same-sex parents be affected? What would happen to their kids? What should they do now to protect their families?
How unfriendly could the court be to same-sex marriage if the current justices take another crack at it? Here’s a hint: In 2019, the National Organization for Marriage’s Brown tweeted a photo of himself with Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, three weeks after they heard arguments in Bostock vs. Clayton County, perhaps the most important gay rights case since the court legalized gay marriage in 2015.
Alito, Kavanaugh and Thomas would go on to be the three dissenters in the Bostock decision, which found that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on being gay, lesbian or transgender.
I guess it’s to be expected that Brown and company would try to capitalize on fears of drag queens, librarians and gender-affirming doctors. But what was particularly offensive was the campaign’s disingenuous argument that gay marriage has weakened the institution of marriage, an outcome Brown takes credit for predicting.
As proof, Brown offers a recent Pew Research Center survey of 5,000 adults that had some “shocking” results: Only 23 percent of Americans now believe that being married is extremely or very important to live a fulfilling life, and only 26 percent believe that having children is extremely or very important.
He describes this as “a tragic collapse of public belief” in traditional marriage and parenthood.
I’ll give Brown this much: Even he acknowledges that a different Pew poll also found that 61 percent of adults believe that same-sex marriage has been good for society.
If most Americans think our country is better for allowing people to marry whomever they love, that hardly signals a collapse that is “tragic.” Perhaps the better description is “long overdue.”
In the shadow of Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, the St. Stephan’s Youth Choir struck up a chorus of “All You Need Is Love” as couples — men with men, women with women, and women with men — lined up to have their unions blessed by ordained Catholic priests wearing rainbow stoles.
It was an act of love — but also sedition, in direct defiance of the Vatican’s decree that same-sex unions should not be celebrated or recognized.
The German Catholic Church, long known for pushing the boundaries of the faith, has been translating frustrations among progressive Catholics in pockets throughout Europe into a veritable revolt. The question for 1.3 billion Catholics now is whether the German church is in flagrant disobedience — or showing a different path.
In the letter, dated Sept. 25, Francis wrote that there are “situations” that may not be “morally acceptable” but where a priest can assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether blessings may be given — as long as such blessings are kept separate from the sacrament of marriage.
“We cannot be judges who only deny, push back and exclude,” Francis wrote. “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.”
His words appeared to contradict a 2021 Vatican statement that confirmed a ban on blessing same-sex couples. Francis has also notably removed the conservative official said to be the architect of that decision and appointed a fellow Argentine who has seemed to take a different view.
Francis’s letter released Monday appeared to reveal less movement on the question of ordination for women. He wrote that Pope John Paul II had ruled against female priests and that the decision must be respected for now. But he also suggested the topic could be further researched.
Both the role of women in the church and blessings for same-sex couples, as well as the possibility of a married priesthood, are among the divisive topics on the agenda as Catholic leaders gather at the Vatican this week for the most sweeping summit on the direction of the faith since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Francis has already been facing a revolt on the right, with his most bitter conservative critics decrying him as a heretic. They have maligned the arcanely named Synod on Synodality — running from Wednesday through Oct. 29 — as a smokescreen for liberal reform.
Vatican watchers were not expecting big pronouncements, as the synod will convene again next fall and ultimately send recommendations to the pope then. And the Vatican has been playing down any notions of rapid reform.
But Francis has raised the hopes of progressives — and stoked the fears of traditionalists — that the church might, on some issues, begin to move in the direction of Germany.
German churches have been inviting women to say the homily at Mass and to baptize babies. Scores of German priests and monks have come out as celibate gay men, while some Catholic schools and churches have begun flying rainbow flags. A majority of German bishops have backed Catholic blessings of same-sex unions, calls for female deacons and the ordination of older, married men as priests.
“Many progressive Catholics look to the German church for a hopeful sense of where the church might be going,” said the Rev. James Martin, a U.S. delegate at the synod known for his ministry to LGBTQ+ Catholics. “But of course, just as many traditional Catholics look upon the German church with suspicion.”
At the Vatican, conservative fears and progressive hopes
The synod opening Wednesday — on the feast day of St. Francis — is not a political process, Vatican officials contend, but a chance for discussion, to “discern” God’s will for the direction of the church.
It requires that participants attempt to talk to each other — understanding that they represent an institution that encompasses German, Belgian and Swiss bishops who are already allowing blessings of same-sex couples, as well as American, African and Asian bishops who decry them.
The 364 voting delegates, observers say, include a relative balance of centrists, traditionalists and reformers, with some of the most extreme players on both sides left out.
But conservatives, including dozens of bishops from the United States, complain the synod is stacked against them.
They call its structure — which for the first time will allow laymen and women voting rights equal to cardinals and bishops — fundamentally un-Catholic. They see program documents asking for “concrete steps” to better welcome LGBTQ+ Catholics and people in polygamous marriages, among other categories, as dangerous.
Conservatives fear the synod process will open what they see as a Pandora’s box, eventually leading to unprecedented change on priestly celibacy, the acceptance of homosexuality and the elevation of women in a historically patriarchal church. They warn it could bring about a new schism, or split, in the world’s largest Christian faith.
Francis’s letter released Monday was written in response to a challenge, known as a dubia, issued by five conservative cardinals. They called on him to reinforce Catholic doctrine that condemns homosexuality and reserves ordination for “baptized males” only.
“The primary concern is that the pope will authorize things that are not contained in Catholic doctrine or that will contradict it — such as women deacons, blessing gay unions,” or weaken Catholic teachings against contraception and abortion by emphasizing individual conscience, said the Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City priest who was not invited to the synod but will be in Rome doing commentary for conservative outlets.
“We’re not Protestants,” he said.
Predicting what the pope will do is much like reading tea leaves.
Francis raised the prospect of change early in his papacy, intoning “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay Catholics. But he has been exceedingly cautious about altering doctrine. For instance, he has shied away from allowing married priests in the Amazon region, where extreme clerical shortages seemed to warrant it.
But as the 86-year-old pope looks to cement his legacy, much will depend on where he lands on these issues — whether he decides to urge the church closer to progressive positions. He faces the challenge of how to assuage liberal Europeans, in places where the church is rich but dying, without alienating fast-growing if more traditional churches in the developing world.
Going beyond talk in Germany
The Cologne Cathedral, where relics of the Three Kings are said to rest, is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. The writings of a rogue German priest named Martin Luther were publicly burned in its courtyard in 1520. Late last month, it served as the backdrop for a modern Catholic clash.
The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, a wiry, openly gay German Catholic priest, organized the group blessing in reaction to a local cardinal, one of the few in Germany still disciplining priests for blessing same-sex couples. Rothe used the service as a rallying cry for the synod.
“I call on you, tell the pope, tell the synod of bishops, tell the world church: The current sexual morality of the Catholic Church is outdated,” he said. “It is unbiblical and immoral … a slap in the face of the loving God. This sexual morality belongs on the trash heap of church history.”
Nearby, a gaggle of conservative opponents prayed the rosary in protest. More radical elements on both sides — far-right Catholics and left-wing activists — jostled amid bullhorns and placards, and police intervened.
The Catholic Church in Germany is facing a crisis.
Measurable through a national church tax, German Catholics have been abandoning the church in record numbers — 522,000 last year alone. In a poll of those who had recently left the faith, the most common reason specified was the church’s handling of sexual abuse; the second its rejection of homosexuality.
Catholic bishops and laypeople in Germany sought to address that disaffection as they formulated their contribution to Francis’s synod, through a body called the Synodal Way.
Francis warned from the outset against a unilateral effort. “Every time the ecclesial community tried to get out of its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its strength or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it was trying to solve,” he wrote in a 2019 letter.
Nonetheless, by March of this year, Germany’s Synodal Way had proposed sweeping changes, including the ordination of female deacons and a reexamination of priestly celibacy in addition to same-sex blessings.
German bishops have mostly backed the proposals, while trying to buy time on some topics. They supported the ordination of female deacons, for instance, while conceding they first needed the permission of the Vatican.
But they have also grown more daring. In a country where the Catholic Church is the second-largest employer — with 800,000 workers, or six times more than Mercedes-Benz — German bishops amended the church’s labor law last year, so people can no longer be fired for being in a same-sex relationship or remarrying after divorce.
And in March, a majority of German bishops voted to allow blessings of same-sex couples — separate and distinct from the sacrament of marriage, but with standardized ceremonies to be drafted by 2026.
Liberal reforms have taken shape in other countries, too, but theologians see what Germany is doing as singular. They attribute it to a society that has emerged as one of the globe’s most socially progressive — and has a taste for rules.
“Some of these things happen in quieter ways in countries like Brazil,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Catholic theologian at Villanova University. “But the Germans are Germans, so they want formal recognition. That’s what’s different. They don’t want just de facto change. They want formal permission to change the books.”
The push within Germany matters all the more because the German Catholic Church ranks among the world’s richest —its dioceses are collectively far richer than the Vatican. And with this wealth, Germany helps to fund seminary schools and parishes across Latin America and Africa.
On a recent Sunday at St. Theodore’s Catholic Church on the edge of Cologne, Marianne Arndt’s white cassock billowed as she approached the pulpit to preach.
Arndt — a spiky-haired 60-year-old who said she had a calling from God as a young woman — has worked as a parish counselor here since 2016. She initially began offering a “final blessing” in lieu of last rites to dying patients at hospitals, using holy water instead of priestly oils. She began preaching during Catholic Masses years ago, but started describing her words as a “homily” in 2020, arguing that the time had come to “call it what it is.”<
Except that Catholic canon law requires an ordained deacon or priest to say the homily at Mass, and women can be neither.
The Rev. Dionysius Jahn, one of two parish priests who typically celebrate Mass alongside her, called her sermon an extension of religious teaching. He acknowledged the arrangement was atypical. “It’s very progressive here,” he said. “There are others that view [a woman in a role like this] very critically. They wouldn’t accept what’s going on here.”
It smarts, Arndt said, that she must metaphorically stand “behind” a male priest to deliver the homily, and she bristles against those who say she should leave the faith if she doesn’t abide by its rules.
“It is also my church, and I don’t run away,” she said.
— Roman Catholic bishops strongly disagree: Should the Church bless homosexual couples on their wedding or not? The official doctrine says no, but some bishops seem to ignore this altogether.
Now, they organise a mass blessing in protest against Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who had criticised the blessing of same-sex couples. In protest, the diocese of Cologne organised a blessing service for heterosexual as well as homosexual couples last Sunday. In total, 130 people participated, Die Tagespost writes. In total, 25 couples received the blessing, among whom were two homosexual couples and several remarried divorcees. Remarriage after a divorce is also forbidden in the Roman Catholic Church.
The dispute started in March when pastor Herbert Ullmann of the parishes of Mettman and Wülfrath celebrated a blessing service “for all loving couples.” In response, he was reprimanded by Cardinal Woelki. Woelki pointed out that such celebrations were not to take place until the stance of the universal Church would be clarified on the matter. This is not yet the case. Ullmann was forbidden to organise such a celebration again.
However, Woelki’s statements led to much critique in Germany. The organisation behind the Cologne Carnaval responded that it found it strange that the Roman Catholic clergy are allowed to bless “barrels Kölsch (beer, ed.) and floats, but not people who love each other.”
The German Synodal Way decided in March to develop liturgies for blessing ceremonies for homosexual couples, remarried couples and divorcees. In total, 81 per cent of the bishops were in favour of this motion.
Ullmann did not partake in the protest blessing service last Sunday, Die Tagespost reports. Instead, he was present at the reception that took place afterwards.
On September 20, another protest blessing is planned, the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad writes. This is the same day as the day on which Woelki was installed as Archbishop in 2014.
Since that time, Woelki has been the centre of controversy for the way he dealt with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. In 2022, he offered his resignation to the Pope, but Francis has not yet ratified it.
Most Church of England priests want the C of E to allow same-sex weddings and to drop its opposition to premarital and gay sex, according to a survey.
In a major shift in attitudes over the past decade, a survey of priests in England conducted by the Times found that more than half supported a change in law to allow clergy to conduct the marriage of gay couples, with 53.4% in favour compared with 36.5% against.
The last time Anglican priests in England were asked, in 2014, shortly after the legalisation of same-sex civil marriage, 51% said same-sex marriage was “wrong”, compared with 39% who approved.
Last year a row erupted at the first Lambeth conference (a meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world) in 14 years, with the archbishop of Canterbury faced sharp criticism for affirming a 1998 declaration that gay sex was a sin.
But the new poll found that 64.5% of priests in England backed an end to the teaching that “homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture”. It also found that 27.3% of priests supported an end to any celibacy requirement for gay people, while 37.2% said they were willing to accept sex between gay people in “committed” relationships such as civil partnerships or marriages, and around a third (29.7%) said the teaching should not change.
Andrew Foreshew-Cain, founder of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, said the survey showed there was “no excuse for further delay and equivocation” in welcoming gay people into the church.
“The clergy of the Church of England are kinder, more generous, and more welcoming towards LGBTI people than the current official position allows,” he said. “The C of E, and in particular our bishops, needs to stop wringing its hands over gay people and move forward towards blessings and, in time, to celebrating same-sex marriages in our parishes.”
The survey results were encouraging, said Robbie de Santos, director of communications at Stonewall. “We hope that church leaders reflect on these findings,” he said. “Too often, LGBTQ+ people of faith face discrimination and prejudice simply for being themselves.”
The survey also found that three-quarters of respondents thought Britain could no longer be described as a Christian country. Almost two-thirds (64.2%) said Britain could be called Christian “but only historically, not currently”.
The Times poll found that two-thirds of priests in England thought attempts to stop the drop in church attendance would fail, with only 10.1% thinking it would be halted, and 10.5% believing that congregations would grow again. Average attendance for Church of England Sunday services in 2021 was 509,000, down from 1.2m in 1986.
The survey also found that 80% of respondents would back the appointment of a woman as the archbishop of Canterbury, while two-thirds wanted an end to the system that allowed parishes to reject female leaders.
The survey also asked priests how slave trader memorials and statues should be dealt with: 15% backed the removal of such memorials, 14.1% said they should be left alone, while two-thirds said information should be added alongside them to highlight their links to slavery.
The survey analysed 1,200 responses sent out to 5,000 randomly chosen serving priests.
Responding to the survey on behalf of the church, the bishop of Leeds, the Right Rev Nick Baines, said: “The church is the church, and, as such, not a club. It has a distinct vocation that does not include seeking popularity. Repentance means being open to changing our mind in order that society should encounter both love and justice. And this means sometimes going against the flow of popular culture, however uncomfortable that might be.”
Church of England has refused to allow gay marriage
‘This has not been an easy period’ – Bishop Sarah
The Church of England’s governing body will deliberate on how priests could carry out blessings for same-sex couples when it gathers in the cathedral city of York for a five-day meeting on Friday.
The assembly of bishops, clergy and laity – called the General Synod – is also due to discuss on Saturday how to protect vicars who might choose not to pray over the union of same-sex couples.
The CoE, which does not allow same-sex marriages in its 16,000 churches, in January set out proposals to let gay couples have a prayer service after a civil marriage, and apologised to LGBTQI+ people for the rejection and hostility they have faced. The synod voted in favour of the plans in February.
At home, however, there is pressure to go further, with some bishops publicly voicing support for same-sex marriages in churches.
Divisions have run deep for decades on how the centuries-old institution – mother church for the world’s 85 million Anglicans across 165 countries – deals with homosexuality and same-sex unions. Homosexuality is taboo in Africa and illegal in more than 30 countries there.
Welby, who is the spiritual leader of the wider Anglican Communion, called on bishops last year to “abound in love for all”. But he backed the validity of a resolution passed in 1998 that rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”.
Bishop Sarah Mullally told reporters last month: “This has not been an easy period for people right across a range of traditions and we know that has maybe been harder since February than it may have been before.”
She reiterated that the proposals would not change the doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that there would be protection for those who “on grounds of conscience” choose not to bless same-sex couples.
‘SLAP IN THE FACE’
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists have long been fighting for the same rights as fellow Christians who are heterosexual. Gay marriage has been legal in Britain for a decade.
“Faith is important to many LGBTQ+ people, which is why the Synod’s suggestion that blessings be provided in place of marriages (is) a real slap in the face to our communities,” Sasha Misra, Associate Director of Communications at LGBT rights group Stonewall, told Reuters via email.
Mullally said the CoE was absorbing different views on the complex matter, and that it would take time to produce the full proposals, which are expected when the synod meets in November.