Several Catholic priests held a ceremony blessing same-sex couples outside Cologne Cathedral on Wednesday night in a protest against the city’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki.
Their protest was triggered by Cologne church officials’ criticism of a priest from Mettmann, a town near Duesseldorf, who in March had held a “blessing ceremony for lovers” — including same-sex couples.
Officials from the Cologne archdiocese, which Mettmann belongs to, had reprimanded the priest afterward and stressed that the Vatican doesn’t allow blessings of same-sex couples, German news agency dpa reported.
The blessing of same-sex couples on Wednesday was the latest sign of rebellion of progressive believers in Germany’s most populous diocese with about 1.8 million members.
Several hundred people showed up for the outdoor blessing service for same-sex and also heterosexual couples. Waving rainbow flags, they sang the Beatles hit “All You Need Is Love,” dpa reported. A total of about 30 couples were blessed.
The German government’s LGBTQ+ commissioner called the service an important symbol for the demand to recognize and accept same-sex couples in the Roman Catholic Church.
“It is mainly thanks to the church’s grassroots that the church is opening up more and more,” Sven Lehmann said, according to dpa. “Archbishop Woelki and the Vatican, on the other hand, are light years behind social reality.”
Catholic believers in the Cologne archdiocese have long protested their deeply divisive archbishop and have been leaving in droves over allegations that he may have covered up clergy sexual abuse reports.
The report absolved Woelki of any neglect of his legal duty with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations, but insisted he had no intention of resigning.
Two papal envoys were dispatched to Cologne a few months later to investigate possible mistakes by senior officials in handling cases. Their report led Pope Francis to give Woelki a “ spiritual timeout ” of several months for making major communication errors.
In March 2022, after his return from the timeout, the cardinal submitted an offer to resign, but so far Francis hasn’t acted on it.
Germany’s many progressive Catholics have also been at odds with the Vatican for a long time.
Several years ago, Germany’s Catholic Church launched a reform process with the country’s influential lay group to respond to the clergy sexual abuse scandals, after a report in 2018 found at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014. The report found that the crimes were systematically covered up by church leaders and that there were structural problems in the way power was exercised that “favored sexual abuse of minors or made preventing it more difficult.”
The Vatican, however, has tried to put the brakes on the German church’s controversial reform process, fearing proposals concerning gay people, women and sexual morals will split the church.
On Wednesday night, just across from the hundreds of believers celebrating the blessings of same-sex couples, there were also about a dozen Catholics who demonstrated against the outdoor service, dpa reported. They held up a banner that said “Let’s stay Catholic.”
The changes came from new guidelines on sexuality and gender issued by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland at the close of last month. In a press release, the diocese clarified that the guidelines were a formal policy version of existing church teachings on the subject.
“Since questions of sex, sexuality, and gender identity have become increasingly prevalent in our society, it is our hope that the policy will help to ensure these matters are addressed in a consistent and authentically Catholic manner across our diocesan institutions and diocesan Catholic schools, and that those we serve will have a clear understanding about expectations and accommodations related to those matters,” stated the diocese.
The policy requires parental notification in the case of minors experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion; declares that parental rejection of a child’s preferred pronouns don’t constitute grounds for nondisclosure; bans use of preferred pronouns; restricts bathroom and facility usage to biological sex; prohibits admission of students to institutions, programs, and activities like sports designated for the opposite sex; bans same-sex dates to school dances and mixers; requires students to comply with dress codes aligning with their biological sex; bans any celebration or advocacy of LGBTQ+ ideologies or behaviors, such as Pride flags; and bans gender transitions of any degree, whether social or medical.
The policy acknowledged the existence of gender dysphoria, but rejected the modern belief that feelings determine truth.
“This understanding erases those intentional, embodied distinctions between men and women. As such, this view is contrary to the divinely revealed reality of our true, God-given human nature,” stated the policy.
Under the policy, individuals experiencing gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction would be admitted into their schools and allowed to participate in activities, with the contingency that they don’t openly express their disagreement with Catholic teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender.
Reverend Edward Malesic, the Bishop of Cleveland, stated in an accompanying letter that biological sex coincides with God’s divine plan.
“The human person is a unity of body and soul; we experience the world through our bodies, and it is through the virtuous expression of our bodies that we reveal God,” said Malesic. “Through times of questioning and confusion, we must accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ with compassion, mercy, and dignity so that we might lovingly help them navigate the confusion and arrive at truth.”
Malesic directed those with further questions or concerns to contact the diocese’s Marriage and Family Office. He also noted that the guidance page would be updated regularly with additional information and resources on the subject.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb posted on X (formerly Twitter) that he believed the policy represented a “shocking betrayal” of church teachings. Bibb offered his own definition of Christian faith, sans Scripture.
“For me, faith is about universal love and acceptance,” said Bibb. “Instead, the new policy forces LGBTQ+ kids to hide their authentic selves and attend schools in fear of persecution for who they are.”
Ohio’s Democratic minority leader for the Senate, Nickie Antonio, said the diocese should not be given school choice funds over the policy.
“I am extremely disappointed that the diocese has chosen to focus on policies of exclusion over acceptance,” said Antonio. “State taxpayer dollars should not subsidize exclusionary education, and if these policies stand, then the diocese should not accept state-funded vouchers.”
— 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.
When Pope Francis spoke of “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” that opposes him within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and, in comments that became public this week, warned against letting “ideologies replace faith,” some American Catholics recognized their church immediately.
“He is 100 percent right,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and commentator who is considered an ally of Francis. The opposition to Francis within the American church now, he said, “far outstrips the fierceness of the opposition to Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict,” the two previous popes.
When Father Martin visits Rome these days, he said, the first question many people there ask him is, “What is going on in the U.S.?”
It’s essentially the same question that prompted the pope’s sharply critical remarks, which were made impromptu last month and published this week by the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.
In a private meeting with Portuguese Catholics in Lisbon, a priest told Francis that on a recent sabbatical to the United States, he had observed that many Catholics, and even bishops, were openly hostile to the pope’s leadership.
“You have seen that in the United States, the situation is not easy: There is a very strong reactionary attitude,” the pope replied. “It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”
There are conservative Catholics all over the world who emphasize the church’s teaching on sexual morality and obedience, and who prefer traditional forms of worship. But they are especially prominent and influential in the United States, where Francis faces a church hierarchy that is uniquely hostile to his papacy, led by several outspoken bishops and fueled by a well-funded ecosystem of right-wing Catholic websites, radio shows, podcasts and conferences that have shaped the landscape of American Catholicism and politics more broadly.
“The pope has only spent six days in the U.S. in the last 10 years, so it’s difficult to understand how he really understands Catholics in the U.S.,” said C. Preston Noell III, public liaison for the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a right-wing Catholic organization that describes itself as “on the front lines of the Culture War.”
“All we’re trying to do is defend the traditional teachings of the church,” Mr. Noell added, singling out opposition to same-sex marriage and artificial contraception.
Francis’ latest, unusually sharp comments about the American church landed at a delicate moment, about a month before a major gathering in Rome that has drawn escalating anxiety and outrage among some American clergy members and commentators. The gathering, an assembly of the Synod of Bishops, will be the first at which women and lay people will be allowed to vote, and it is expected to prompt wide-ranging debate on the church’s teachings and its future.
The Vatican recently announced that on the opening day of the synod, Francis will release a second part of his encyclical Laudato Si, a forceful call to reframe care for the environment as a moral and spiritual imperative. Some conservatives see the encyclical as an attack on capitalism.
After three decades of leadership by popes who generally affirmed American conservative priorities, “Francis has been a complete shock to the system,” said John McGreevy, a historian at the University of Notre Dame. “It just has been tough for a big chunk of the American church, who thought these questions were settled and now seem unsettled.”
The first pope from the global south, Francis has emphasized making the church he leads a more expansive and inclusive one, in contrast to the smaller and more ideologically homogeneous church that some conservatives would prefer. Devotees of the Tridentine Mass, a traditional form of worship said in Latin, fiercely resent that Francis has narrowed their latitude to celebrate the rite, which was largely phased out in the 1960s.
Francis has shown a penchant for seemingly off-the-cuff remarks that poke at conservative priorities. His reply to a question in 2013 about gay priests — “Who am I to judge?” — is perhaps the most memorable single moment so far in his papacy, widely quoted by his supporters and critics alike.
He has worked to cement his legacy by replenishing the College of Cardinals, who will choose the next pope, with men of voting age who share his priorities. By now, he has appointed a strong majority of the group.
Among conservatives in the United States, the pope’s latest comments felt personal. A headline on the conservative website First Things asked, “Why Does the Pope Dislike Me?”
Part of what makes the American opposition to Francis’s agenda unique is that a drumbeat of direct defiance is coming not just from commentators, but also from high-ranking clergy members.
A coterie of outspoken clerics have recently fanned speculation that the synod might undermine core Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, salvation and sexual ethics. In a public letter in August, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, warned that many “basic truths” of Catholic teaching would be challenged at the synod, and that the church could split irrevocably in its wake.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American former archbishop and leading voice among conservative Catholics, wrote in the foreword of a book published last month that the synod’s collaborative process was inflicting “evident and grave harm” on the church.
An English translation of the book, “The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box,” was published by Mr. Noell’s organization, which recently mailed copies to all the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons and religious brothers in the United States — about 41,000 in all.
Like other conservative Christians, some Catholics in the United States see themselves as embattled, surrounded by a culture that is hostile to Catholic doctrine and practices.
Catholics make up about 20 percent of adults in the United States, but Mass attendance has been declining for decades, and dropped sharply during the pandemic.
As a whole, Catholics in the United States are a politically diverse group, but those who still attend Mass more frequently also tend to be more conservative. And young men entering the priesthood in the United States are increasingly conservative, surveys have consistently found.
Father Martin said that in many places, Catholics who support the pope’s vision “don’t feel comfortable in their parishes, because the way that Francis’s vision of the church is ignored or downplayed discourages them,” and added, “The opposition to Francis is so loud that it dominates the conversation.”
Kevin Ahern, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said that many of his students, both Catholic and not, arrive in his classroom totally unfamiliar with Catholic social justice teachings, a historically robust strain of Catholicism that has played a role in labor movements and debates over immigration and the death penalty.
Students who have been exposed to the Church only through its most prominent voices in the wider culture, he said, “are surprised to learn that the Catholic Church doesn’t map onto Republican talking points.”
Francis himself appeared undisturbed by the reaction to his latest comments by his critics in the United States. “Yes, they got mad,” he told reporters on Thursday as he flew to Mongolia for a formal visit. “But move on, move on.”
As a teenager growing up in Colorado, Alana Chen — known by loved ones for her generosity and kindness to others — dreamed of becoming a nun.
But Alana’s life came to a tragic end on Dec. 8, 2019, when she died by suicide at just 24 years. Now a new podcast, Dear Alana, explores the diaries she wrote as a young woman trying to reconcile her strong Catholic faith with her sexual identity — an exhausting challenge that drove her to conversion therapy.
According to the podcast, Alana attended two church summer camps in Boulder when she was 13 years old: Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus, where she met and soon entrusted a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas, who would eventually become her spiritual director.
With the help of her best friend, Alana began sneaking behind her mother’s back to attend early evening mass at St. Thomas. Then, one day, she told her mom the truth.
“She just said, ‘I’m sneaking out. I lied. I’ve been going to mass every day at 5:30, taking the bus,'” her mother, Joyce Calvo, tells PEOPLE.
“I just remember saying, ‘Why? Why are you doing that?’ She said, ‘I love it,'” adds Calvo, who was shocked by her daughter’s goal of nunhood. Although she hadn’t been a religious person in her youth, Calvo’s sobriety journey sparked the search for a spiritual home for family.
But Alana was hiding another secret: she was struggling with her sexual identity. At 14, Alana came out to the priest, who instructed her not to tell anyone, not even her family, according to the podcast.
“[He] noticed me. He knew me. He knew I loved God. He knew I did not want to marry a man,” Alana wrote in one of her journal entries. “He forgave my unspeakable sin. He took my defilement and buried it. ‘You ought to pray the rosary everyday.’ Later, he said, ‘I better pray it five times per day to keep temptation away.'”
The priest did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment, but the Archdiocese of Denver — where he is now a diocesan hermit, a monk-missionary, per his blog — says in a statement: “Commenting on specifics regarding Alana Chen is improper, but as the Archdiocese of Denver has previously stated, conversion therapy was never practiced. Trying to explain Alana’s story with a simplistic explanation is unfair to her memory. We reject any practices that are manipulative, coercive, or pseudoscientific. Alana, and every person, is beloved by God and deserves to be treated with mercy, dignity, and reverence. We continue to pray with and for everyone who is affected by Alana’s untimely death.”
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center says in a separate statement: “Our deepest prayers and condolences continue for the Chen family, who experienced the tragic loss of their daughter, Alana. The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center does not practice conversion therapy and remains against any form of coercion or manipulation. As Catholics, we reverence the dignity and free will of each and every human person and view every person’s life as a beautiful gift from God. We strive to live and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Reflecting on the revelations in her daughter’s journals, Calvo tells PEOPLE, “I love the Saints and Mary and Jesus, but [in] a lot of churches, I didn’t like the language and how strict it was. That’s why I was always church-hopping. But I was shocked [by] this, what he was doing, seeing her in private.”
Her nearly two-dozen journals explore the pain she experienced as a result of conversion therapy, which she publicly opened up about in The Denver Post in August 2019.
“I felt a lot of shame and anxiety,” Alana told the Post. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I going to hell? But I was still extremely faithful, and I felt like the church and the counseling was the thing that was saving me. The worse I got, the more I clung to it.”
Alana said she eventually broke free from conversion therapy after a suicide attempt that led to her receiving professional mental health treatment.
“I was feeling so much shame that I was comforted by the thought of hurting myself,” she told the newspaper of her heartbreaking mindset. “I’ve now basically completely lost my faith. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I think if there is a God, he doesn’t need me talking to him anymore.”
Four months after the Post interview, she vanished and was found dead by suicide. Nearly four years later, her life is the basis of the eight-episode podcast. In the series, host Simon Kent Fung explores his personal connection to Alana’s story, the origins of conversion therapy and the death of a young woman who, according to Fung, “had it all.”
“I learned about Alana’s story in the news, like a lot of people did,” Fung, a gay Catholic man, tells PEOPLE. “I think what stuck out to me was how devout and religious she was and her family’s suspicion of the role that that community played, as well as the role that conversion therapy played in her disappearance and death.”
Fung — who has worked in tech at Patreon and Google and as a designer at Time — says he “recognized very similar experiences in my own life with my faith community and with the subculture of the American Catholic Church that I was a part of.”
Ashamed of his sexual identity, he spent “all of my twenties in various forms of conversion therapy in my attempt to become a priest,” Fung says. During this period, he was taught that his sexuality was “the result of an underdeveloped bonding with my father and male peers and encouraged to deconstruct his attractions in order to connect them to trauma.”
“I remember I was in a coffee shop and I just read [her story], and I was just sobbing in the corner by myself … I couldn’t believe that somebody had an almost identical story, at least from the way it was reported,” Fung says. “I didn’t know all the details.”
Fung was then inspired to reach out to Calvo. “A couple of months later, we had our first phone conversation,” he says.
He soon began traveling back and forth between Colorado and California to speak with Calvo, Alana’s sisters and her friends, ultimately deciding to create the podcast.
“In the two years of making this, I had this incredible privilege of being able to read about Alana’s inner life through the journals that her family provided me,” he says.
As Fung learned about Alana’s life outside of what was reported, the host began to understand who she was and the inner turmoil she went through.
“She had many friends [and] was kind of this all-star child and young person,” the host says. “She was an ultimate frisbee champ. She was a top student, getting all the best grades. She was this extremely active kid in her church, but it was really when she was a teenager, an early teenager, that she became more serious about her faith and met a priest who offered to be her spiritual director.”
Alana “sought out conversion therapy” for the next seven years under the guidance of the priest and other spiritual leaders, hoping to “fix herself” to become a nun, according to Fung.
In addition, Alana pursued two years of individual counseling from the ages of 18 to 20 with a therapist she sought through her spiritual mentors and provided by the Archdiocese of Denver, Fung tells PEOPLE in a statement.
Alana attended meetings with Courage International, a Catholic ministry “whose founder explicitly encouraged conversion therapy and whose writings are based on conversion therapy theorists,” he adds. Throughout her treatment, she was “consistently” directed to conversion therapy resources, blog posts and spiritual programs by spiritual mentors like priests and nuns, he claims.
Alana was even referred to a conversion therapist who was formerly on the board of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, the largest clinical network of conversion therapy practitioners, Fung says. In 2014, the organization rebranded as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, which did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment.
The American Psychiatrist Association said it has been “opposed” to “any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or conversion therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or that a patient should change his or her homosexual orientation,” since 1998.<
Colorado is one of the 22 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, to ban conversion therapy for minors, per the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
However, Colorado’s 2019 law, which was passed months before Alana died, may not have fully protected her — not only because she was over the age of 18, but also because the law doesn’t touch pastoral counseling and only prohibits state-licensed medical or mental health care providers from the controversial practice, the Post noted.
Fung says “a lot of people are unaware” that conversion therapy is happening and that what’s depicted in Hollywood is often far from the reality of what people experience.
“I think the podcast shows the ways in which conversion therapy doesn’t have to look like a very Hollywood, physically violent form or very dramatized way,” he adds. “It can look like talk therapy. It can look like it happened in a clinical setting.”
“A lot of us go down the rabbit hole of believing these ideas and really struggling with what I call a triple shame,” Fung continues. “First of all, the shame of being gay or feeling different in this way, the shame of feeling like you’ve had something horrible happen to you that makes you damaged in this way. Then the shame of not being able to change.”
“I just felt so damaged and broken,” he shares of his experience with conversion therapy. “I think that’s the impact and the harm that it has on people.”
In order to stop conversion therapy, the host argues, it’s important to foster conversations within churches in a “compassionate and sensitive way rather than an antagonistic, accusatory way.”
Alana’s story has paved the way for a new mission: the Alana Faith Chen Foundation, launched by her family to provide “financial support to LGBTQ+ [people] who are at risk of suicide so that they can receive the mental health treatment and therapy they need on their path to healing,” per their website.
Though Calvo says a priest and people at church would come up to her to tell her Alana was a “saint,” she never wanted to put that pressure on her daughter.
Still, Alana “always wanted to help people,” she says, and the foundation is a “beautiful tribute to Alana and keeps Alana’s desires going.”
Meanwhile, Fung hopes Alana’s story and the podcast help others as much as they’ve helped him.
“It’s really given me the courage to tell my own story, which has been an incredibly healing process for me,” he adds. “I hope in hearing that, other people will feel similarly and will feel they’re not alone.”