The bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, is the latest Catholic bishop to acknowledge that while the Church cannot approve of gay marriage, it should accept the value of same – sex civil unions.
As far as homosexual relationships were concerned, the church would have to appeal to people’s sense of responsibility, he continued. “The Christian concept of the human being emanates from the polarity of the sexes but we cannot simply say homosexuality is unnatural,” he explained. While the church must “hold fast” to the uniqueness of marriage between a man and a woman, it could not just ignore registered same-sex unions where the couples had promised to be faithful to and responsible for one another.
This is not the first time that Bishop Ackermaann has distinguished himself as supportive of LGBT equality. A few years ago, he hit the headlines when he made an entirely unannounced visit to an LGBT community centre, and spent his time listening to the views of LGBT people – highly unusual, and definitely very welcome, for a Catholic bishop.
These latest remarks were made in the broader context of an interview with the German paper, Allgemeine Zeitung, on the lessons to be drawn from the responses to the global consultation on marriage and family. His conclusions, that it is now obvious that doctrine is sadly out of touch with Catholic reality and needs to change, is completely consistent with the findings of the consultation and other, independent research – and should be self- evident to any independent observer.
Interviewed by the Allgemeine Zeitung Mainz, Ackermann, 50, said the responses showed “quite clearly” that for the majority of the faithful the church’s teaching on moral sexuality was “repressive” and “remote from life.” Declaring a second marriage after a divorce a perpetual mortal sin, and under no circumstances allowing remarried divorced people ever to receive the Sacraments, was not helpful, he said and added, “We bishops will have to make suggestions here. We must strengthen people’s sense of responsibility and then respect their decisions of conscience.”
It was also no longer tenable to declare that every kind of cohabitation before marriage was a grievous sin, and “the difference between natural and artificial Birth control is somehow artificial. No one understands it I fear,” Ackermann said.
Predictably, his thoughts have already drawn a backlash from some colleagues: not for their content, but for stepping out of line and publicly revealing the conclusions of a single diocese. Even so, he has also received some support:
Ackermann was sharply criticized by Bishops Heinz Josef Algermissen of Fulda and Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg.
For an individual bishop to react to the responses of the questionnaire on his own was “counterproductive,” Algermissen, 71, said. “I don’t hold with the normative strength of facts. Truth is not something that can be adjusted,” he insisted but went on to admit, “We bishops obviously have a problem. We have clearly not succeeded in putting across Catholic sexual ethics and its positive concept of the human being.” Decisions on such matters were, however, the world church’s concern and not the concern of an individual bishop or bishops’ conference, Algermissen emphasized.
But the Bishop of Magdeburg in former Eastern Germany, Gerhard Feige, 63, came out in defense of Ackermann and sharply criticized the bishop’s critics. He agreed with Ackermann’s views on the responses, Feige told KNA, the German Catholic news agency. “The time has finally come to face naked reality. We must struggle to find fair, responsible and life-serving solutions in the spirit of Jesus Christ. It is not helpful to keep on repeating prohibitions or reservations,” Feige underlined.
The Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, scheduled for October 2014, was never intended to be an occasion to change existing sexual doctrines, but merely an opportunity to formulate more appropriate pastoral responses. Actions, however, often have unintended consequences, and it is becoming ever clearer that even if the synod is not intended to change teaching, the results of the consultation will result in many serious discussions at the synod about the need to do so.
On Catholic sexual doctrines, I strongly suspect that the revolution has begun.
For the record – an updated listing of Catholic bishops and cardinals who have expressed support for same – sex civil unions:
- Feb 2014, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Dublin
- Feb 2014, Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier
- May 2013, Cardinal Godfried Daneels, Belgium
- April 2013, Fr Frederico Lombardi, papal spokesman (cautious acceptance of legal recognition)
- April 2013, Archbishop Piero Marini, President of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses (support for civil unions)
- April 2013, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, (support for civil unions)
- April 2013, Cardinal Rubén Salazar of Bogota, Colombia (support for civil unions)
- March 2013, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington (support for civil unions)
- Feb 2013, Archbishop Vincent Paglia, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family (supported “legal protections” for same-sex relationships)
- Jan 2013, French Bishops’ Conference’s Family and Society Committee (support strengthened civil unions as alternative to full marriage)
- Dec 2012, Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini, Locri-Gerace diocese in Calabria (supported “legal protections” for same-sex relationships)
- May 2012, Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Berlin (support for same-sex relationships)
- March 2012, Diocese of New Hampshire (civil unions as alternative to full marriage)
- March 2012, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson (complete reform of all sexual doctrine)
- Feb 2012, Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta (support for same-sex relationships)
- Jan 2012, Bishop Paolo Urso of Ragusa, Italy (de facto support for civil unions)
- Nov 2011, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Westminster (sees “value” in civil unions)
- July 2010, Bishop Willie Walsh, the retiring Bishop of Killaloe (respect for same-sex relationships)
- ? 2010 Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis (civil unions as alternative to full marriage).
- June 2010 Bishop Januario Torgal Ferreira, Portuguese ordinariate for armed forces (support for same-sex relationships) June 2010
- June 2010 Bishop Francis A Quinn, retired bishop of Sacramento (complete reform of all sexual doctrine)
- April 2010 Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, (support for same-sex relationships)
- Aug 2009 Portuguese Bishops, (civil unions as alternative to full marriage)
- Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
- Glaser, Chris: As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage
- Hunt, Mary: Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship
- Jennings, Theodore W. The man jesus loved
- Jordan, Mark: Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage
- Stuart, Elisabeth: Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships
- Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality
- Sullivan, Andrew: Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival
- Vasey, M: Strangers and friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible