Questions about whether a German cardinal and adviser to Pope Francis suggested he could envision church blessings for same-sex couples have led the German Bishops Conference to release a translation of his remarks, in which they seek to clarify that he was endorsing pastoral care for gay Catholics rather than recognition of relationships.
According to a transcript provided by the German Bishops Conference, when Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising is asked if he “can imagine that there might be a way to bless homosexual couples in the Catholic Church?” he responds by saying, “There are no general solutions and I think that would not be right, because we are talking about pastoral care for individual cases, and that applies to other areas as well, which we cannot regulate, where we have no sets of rules.”
He says pastoral ministers are better suited to understand individual cases.
“That does not mean that nothing happens, but I really have to leave that to the pastor on the ground accompanying an individual person with pastoral care,” the president of the German bishops conference said. “I really would emphatically leave that to the pastoral field and the particular, individual case at hand, and not demand any sets of rules again—there are things that cannot be regulated.”
This is not the first time the German cardinal has made headlines for his words on L.G.B.T. issues. In 2016, he said Catholic leaders should consider issuing an apology for historic mistreatment of gays and lesbians, telling The Irish Times that the church and society as a whole had been “very negative about gay people.”
In that interview, he noted that the church’s position on marriage, but he also said he “shocked” some other bishops when he suggested during a 2014 meeting at the Vatican that it is not right to say of long-term relationships between people of the same gender, “that is nothing, that has no worth.”
The German bishops’ conference released an English translation on Feb. 7 of remarks Cardinal Marx made during a radio interview on Feb. 3.
German Catholic media had interpreted the cardinal’s remarks as moving a step back from a suggestion made by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück in January that the Catholic Church should debate the possibility of a blessing ceremony for Catholic gay couples involved in the church.
At issue is how the cardinal responded to the question, “So you really can imagine that there might be a way to bless homosexual couples in the Catholic Church?”
But some English-language media and blogs portrayed Cardinal Marx’s remarks as meaning he “endorses” such blessing ceremonies.
At issue is whether the cardinal responded affirmatively to the interviewer’s question, “So you really can imagine that there might be a way to bless homosexual couples in the Catholic Church?” A report initially published by the Catholic News Agency said the cardinal responded “yes,” before giving the rest of his answer. But the site has since updated its story, replacing its original transcript with the one provided by the German bishops conference, which does not have the cardinal saying “yes.”
That initial reports led some pro-L.G.B.T. groups to praise the cardinal, seeing the cardinal’s remarks as the latest thaw in the relationship between the Catholic Church in Germany and L.G.B.T. people.
New Ways Ministry wrote on its blog, “Cardinal Marx is now the latest German bishop to raise the possibility of blessings for same-gender couples,” linking to articles about two other German bishops who have expressed an openness to blessing same-sex couples.
“Bishops in Germany seem to be taking the next step in enacting Pope Francis’ vision for the Church, namely the movement from abstract conversations about inclusion and accompaniment to concrete acts that help realize those ideals in the Church’s life,” wrote New Ways Ministry’s Robert Shine. “If pastoral ministers now take the further step of actually celebrating such a blessing for a same-gender couple, what was unimaginable five years ago could very soon become a reality.”
Archbishop Chaput said, “any such 'blessing rite' would cooperate in a morally forbidden act.”
The initial coverage of Cardinal Marx’s remarks led Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia to write a blog encouraging bishops to be clear about what they intend or don’t intend to suggest on the subject.
And, Archbishop Chaput said, “any such 'blessing rite' would cooperate in a morally forbidden act, no matter how sincere the persons seeking the blessing. Such a rite would undermine the Catholic witness on the nature of marriage and the family. It would confuse and mislead the faithful. And it would wound the unity of our church, because it could not be ignored or met with silence.”
The Catholic Church insists marriage can be only between a man and a woman. It teaches that while homosexual people deserve respect and spiritual care, homosexual activity is sinful.
In the interview with Cardinal Marx, the journalist said many people believe the church should bless gay unions, ordain women to the diaconate and end obligatory celibacy for priests in the Latin-rite church.
According to the bishops’ conference translation, Cardinal Marx said he did not believe those changes were what the church needs most today. “Rather, the question to be asked is how the church can meet the challenges posed by the new circumstances of life today—but also by new insights, of course. For example, in the field of pastoral work, pastoral care.”
Following the teaching and example of Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx said, “we have to consider the situation of the individual.”
Following the teaching and example of Pope Francis in pastoral care, he said, “we have to consider the situation of the individual, his life history, his biography, the disruptions he goes through, the hopes that arise, the relationships he lives in—or she lives in. We have to take this more seriously and have to try harder to accompany people in their circumstances of life.”
The same is true in ministering to people who are homosexual, he said. “We must be pastorally close to those who are in need of pastoral care and also want it. And one must also encourage priests and pastoral workers to give people encouragement in concrete situations. I do not really see any problems there. An entirely different question is how this is to be done publicly and liturgically. These are things you have to be careful about and reflect on them in a good way.”
While excluding “general solutions” such as a public ritual, Cardinal Marx said, “that does not mean that nothing happens, but I really have to leave that to the pastor on the ground, accompanying an individual person with pastoral care. There you can discuss things, as is currently being debated, and consider: How can a pastoral worker deal with it? However, I really would emphatically leave that to the pastoral field and the particular, individual case at hand, and not demand any sets of rules again—there are things that cannot be regulated.”
Other German bishops have also discussed same-sex relationships in recent weeks.
Last month, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, the deputy chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said the Catholic understanding of marriage differs from civil law, but he said church authorities should consider blessing married same-sex couples who are active in the church.
“We have to ask ourselves how we should deal with people who tie this knot. Some of them are active in the church. So how are we going to accompany them with pastoral care and in the liturgy?” he said. “We could think about giving them a blessing.”
Religion News Service reported in January that another German bishop had offered a similar suggestion a few weeks prior.
“I’m not for ‘marriage for all,’ but if two homosexuals enter a same-sex relationship, if they want to take responsibility for each other, then I can bless this mutual responsibility,” Bishop Dieter Geerlings of Münster said. “This is valuable and praiseworthy, even if this bond is not in complete agreement with the church.”
The spokesperson for the German bishops’ conference said Cardinal Marx was unavailable for further interviews.
This includes reporting from Catholic News Service