This interview with Johannes zu Eltz, Catholic Dean of the city of Frankfurt am Main, is the preface of the German edition of ‘Building a Bridge.’
Father, when we asked you for a preface for the German edition of James Martin's book, you immediately agreed after reading it, but you preferred to have a dialogue instead of writing a fixed text.
Yes, I liked the book. I was kind of prepared because I am in constant dialogue with a friend, Klaus Mertes, S.J. Together, we discuss this topic regularly. For him the attitude of the church towards homosexuality and the church’s conduct with homosexual men and women are primarily a matter of justice. I like how James Martin in his book—in full knowledge of the church's doctrine—takes her by her word of pastoral care and addresses it as a question of justice, as well. He pleads—very Anglo-Saxon—for fairness.
The way these people listened to the Word of God and broke the bread had such an impact on me that I converted.
James Martin says that the silence of the official church after the mass killing of gay men in Orlando seemed like a lack of empathy to him. This shocked him so deeply that he had to write this book. What made you support the concern of his book?
It was an experience I made during the first months of my time as Dean of Frankfurt. In Frankfurt a group called Project: Gay and Catholic (“Projekt: schwul und katholisch”) existed for decades. This group of primarily homosexual men regularly met on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist. When this project started, some people were very hostile; including myself, who observed it from a distance. But the Limburg bishop, Franz Kamphaus, held his protecting hand over it. Before I moved to Frankfurt and started my office as dean of the city I thought: One of the first things I shall do would be to end this project. Yet, one of the duties of my new office was to celebrate Eucharist once a year with these men of the Project: Gay and Catholic and to talk to them. So I visited them. And then this Holy Mass: from the outside a calm, sincere atmosphere but moving from inside—I was deeply touched. The way these people listened to the Word of God and broke the bread had such an impact on me that I converted.
Your attitude changed just by the first encounter?
Yes, by this very first encounter. Ever since this first Eucharist, I have been visiting the group on a regular basis. I preside over the service, and I really enjoy doing so. I had many talks with members of the group. People told me their stories. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of the project as an event of the Catholic Church in Frankfurt. The theme of the anniversary celebration was “Stories of Transformation.” At this event, I talked in my welcoming speech about the story of my own transformation that I mentioned above:
[I take this opportunity] to ask for your forgiveness for me and for my colleagues in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for all theses many times, when we talked about you without knowing you, without understanding you, without any mercy—instead of talking with you. For all those times when we denied your being Christians, and when we would have denied your very being, if such a thing is possible, at all. I mentioned that you claimed your rights as human beings and as Christians gently and frankly, while dealing with the same persons who offended you and sinned against you. And that is quite an accomplishment! A German proverb says: “One should celebrate festivals the way they fall.” Today, we celebrate the Saturday of the Easter week. So, we are still celebrating Easter. You asked a priest to talk to you and you see the lectionary in my hands. Please, allow me to ask the biblical readings of today for advice. They tell us that the fundamental transformation, the Easter transformation that overcomes death and releases life, is nothing made by us human beings, but something that seizes us. This is God’s power of transformation. According to the Acts of the Apostles (Act 4:13–21), it is the frankness of the apostles which made their adversaries speechless. Frankness is a primal Christian virtue. It empowers Christians to speak the truth without fear, but in a way that people are able to listen and to consent. The apostles say: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Act 4:19f). This is true for us as well, if we experienced God’s power of transformation and talk about it authentically. According to the Gospel of Mark (Mk 16:19–35), which is not known for many words and which seems to be rough sometimes, the Risen Christ rebukes the apostles because of their impenitence to not believe the women who returned from the grave, nor the disciples who came back from Emmaus. All of them said that He lives and that they had seen Him. Nonetheless, in the end Christ says to all of them: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Marc 16:15). This is said to us, too: We should not be fixed to failure, neither to our own nor to the failure of others. If we are creatures to whom the gospel has been preached, creatures who have accepted it and who have been released to freedom, then our task is to turn ourselves towards the others. This is my hope for the future of the Project: Gay and Catholic. By this, you would continue to make your important and precious contribution to the service of the Catholic Church in this city.
People listened to your speech especially when you asked L.G.B.T. Catholics for forgiveness. Many have been deeply touched by these words.
To me, it was important not only as a Christian, but also as a dean of the Catholic Church, to assert that the Catholic Church in her conduct with homosexual men and women incurred guilt and that it is time to ask for forgiveness. When I did so, I knew that a lot of priests and most of the Catholic faithful in Frankfurt stood behind me. According to that spirit, we established a special offer of pastoral care for homosexual persons, their families and their pastors.
The hierarchy has to say more than just asserting that the church is no democracy.
Was there any resistance against you while doing all of this?
There was no open resistance. I am convinced that no reasonable person can object to our offer of pastoral care. Sure, you can hear some of the people in the parishes say sometimes: “You care too much for marginalized groups” or “You allow an aggressive gay lobby to infuse a bad conscience into the Catholic Church.” If possible, I try to name my reasons; if not, I just have to continue my path, together with the church of this city, hoping that my bishop may approve. To me, it is about having more confidence and less fear, to speak out frankly and to name things as they are. I learned two things which became important for me. First, in the Catholic Church there are not only failures of individual persons, but there are systemic problems and structural sins. I’ve experienced many times shepherds who tried to protect themselves and rescued themselves, leaving the sheep alone in their distress and disturbance when they saw the wolf. This had happened during the crisis of our diocese, during the last days of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst. (This bishop caused several scandals lying about money and building an expensive residence for himself. Eventually, he was removed by Rome.)
The scandal was not caused by individual weak characters, but by a certain system, by a certain logic of institution. Second, I’m formed by my experiences with members of the Project: Gay and Catholic, and by my listening to a lot of Christians in Catholic parishes who ask for fair conduct of their church with their homosexual members. This is not “nothing” in the discourse of Catholic doctrine. The voice of the faithful in the local communities is a locus theologicus, which means: It is the opportunity to learn about God’s will and to grow in your faith. The hierarchy has to say more than just asserting that the church is no democracy.
In Catholic parishes you meet faithful who—even if they are not gay or lesbian themselves—have sons, nephews and uncles who are gay, or daughters, nieces and aunts who are lesbian. They all are part of the family. And they have gay or lesbian friends who know about their homosexuality. As far as I see, I’ve got the impression that Catholics in our parishes are far more unbiased towards L.G.B.T. people than the hierarchy is.
Of course they have. One reason is that there are at least as many homosexual men among priests and bishops as in the rest of society. My guess is that there are even far more in our male circle of celibates. According to the rules of the formation of priests, “candidates who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are not to be admitted to the Holy Orders—with the result of creating a taboo, surrounded by a lot of anxieties and aggressions. In former times there was a well-known rule in the U.S. army: “Don't ask, don't tell.” But times have changed. This rule leads to hypocrisy and extortion. I don't know if it ever worked for the army, but I am sure, it never works for the church. Don't ask, don't tell is no dictum of the Gospel. Our charism is frankness. Squelching the truth by ordered silence is the opposite of freedom for God's children. Thank God, things are starting to change. You can witness more and more that Catholics encounter each other not with fixed opinions about each other, but start to talk to one another. As a pastor in charge, I don't want to talk about homosexual people. When I talk about homosexual people my words should be a result of my own experience. They should be measured by the Gospel message of how to treat fellow humans. Our path as the Catholic Church in Frankfurt leads to the right direction, but we have not reached our goal, yet.
Don't ask, don't tell is no dictum of the Gospel. Our charism is frankness.
I have noticed that you speak of homosexual men and women, not of Schwule und Lesben (gays and lesbians). In his book, James Martin pleads for naming people as they name themselves; this would be a matter of respect.
That's correct. I don't have any problems with labels like Projekt: schwul und katholisch [Project: Gay and Catholic]. Probably you are able to name a cultural centre schwul (gay), but not homosexual. I was taught at home to use gentle and indirect language. When I was a student at boarding school, being attributed schwule Sau (faggot, gay swine) was more than an invective, it was a deadly marginalization. Even today, you can still hear schwul(faggot) used as a cuss word at school. It's different than gay in the English language, which originally means cheerful.(The German term schwul could be compared to fag in English.) I understand the strategy to detoxify the word schwul by using it as self-designation. I understand, but I don't like the word, and I don't feel comfortable using it for naming other people. Nonetheless, I’m aware that it is not my business to judge how other people want to name themselves. And in any case, I simply don't want to offend other people by the language I use to describe them. So, I guess I will re-think my language—or better: I will talk to the homosexual people in my city about what they think about it.
In his book James Martin suggests that the Catholic hierarchy in the United States should develop a consistent ethic of respect, compassion and sensitivity towards their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members. This means: to see and perceive them, to accept them as full members of the church and to welcome them in the local communities; to watch the language describing and addressing them, to appreciate their charisms, to seek to know them personally, to listen to their stories and to try to understand them; finally, to actively stand up against any form of discrimination and marginalization. What are the next steps for the church here in Germany?
The steps which James Martin mentions in his book are important for the church in Germany, as well. To me, the next step for the church is to accept and appreciate the relationships of homosexual couples and to give them the opportunity to be blessed in a liturgical service. Put simply, the question is whether the church is able to learn that good things happen in those relationships; that homosexual couples who cannot celebrate the Sacrament of Matrimony (civil same sex marriage was established by law in Germany in 2017) by their companionship give birth to moral goods for themselves and for others: love, loyalty, commitment, fecundity, chastity. If this is true, then there is the possibility to confirm these goods and to ask for God's providence and guidance for this couple. That is what we call a blessing.
I will re-think my language—or better: I will talk to the homosexual people in my city about what they think about it.
Meanwhile the Stadtkirchenforum, an assembly of Catholic Faithful in the Catholic Church of Frankfurt, has recommended that the bishop (of Limburg) should allow the public liturgical blessing of same-sex couples.
Yes, the assembly of Frankfurt Catholics made this request in January 2016. We had a two years debate and talked to the responsible persons in the diocese. From the beginning, I declared that there has to be consent with the diocese. Liturgy is a public office of the church. Therefore, it is no viable way if some priests respond individually to the request for a blessing by offering a private celebration. I noticed that homosexual Catholics are quite sensitive about that. They know the difference between a blessing by an open-minded pastor, who feels not restricted by rules of the canon law, and the blessing of the church. This is the reason why we have to try hard to convince the bishop and to seek the consent of the whole diocese.
A path with an open end?
Yes, a path with an open end. To me, Pope Francis is a great inspiration for the church: “Don’t be afraid of open processes. Have the courage to walk a path where you don’t know where it will lead you at the end.” This is not easy, especially here in Germany. Germans are not used to bearing the tension of theory and practice, of rules and reality for a long time. People of other cultures are more flexible. In Germany, you always seek to subject reality to the rules or to modify the rules according to reality. Therefore, we need an official agenda and the consent of the diocese. Only then can we be safe from causing friction within the church.
Not acting without the consent of the diocese, maybe you won't cause friction this way. But if the desire of L.G.B.T. Catholics is to be accepted as full members of the church, they will be frustrated at the end, and you might cause a silent exodus of them, out of the church.
When I meet homosexual Catholics, the greatest impression they make and the biggest respect I feel is that so many of them share the experience of being hurt and offended by the church. Yet, they continue to believe and to wish to be full members of the church. They have all my respect! Meanwhile, I understand people who think they can recover only by leaving the church and putting an end to their Catholic faith. I don’t want this to happen, and I try to work hard that it does not seem necessary to them; that their wounds will be healed inside the church. But as I said before, I can understand those who are not willing to wait any longer and who leave.
What is your request for gay and lesbian Catholics regarding their relationship to the church?
I have no other request than I ask every Catholic for: Love the Church despite all legitimate criticism. And, if possible, have benevolence for her representatives. It's hard for those who have been hurt by the church. Processes of healing and recovering take time, I know. Therefore, I don't want to encounter homosexual Catholics with special requests. I can only articulate my hope: That one day a project like the Project: Gay and Catholic in Frankfurt is not necessary anymore, because homosexual people with their stories, with their rage and their tenderness, with their faith and their charisms are a fully welcomed part of the Catholic parishes so that there will be no need for a special space where they feel safe and protected. This is where I hope we go. But we are not there yet.