BERLIN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Arturo Blazquez started studying theology three years ago, he approached it as a hobby, because he couldn’t conceive that he would be allowed to work in Germany’s Catholic Church as an openly gay man living with his husband in Berlin.
For decades, the Catholic Church has had the right to fire a gay employee if they were open about being in a same-sex partnership.
But last week, Blazquez’s pastime suddenly had the potential to become something more, when the German Catholic Church passed a change to its labour laws to allow openly LGBTQ+ people, including those in same-sex partnerships, to work for its institution.
“I never thought a change like this was possible,” the 33-year-old Spanish teacher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It gives me a lot of hope that the German (Catholic) Church has had the courage to change this, to walk towards a more humane Church.”
The Catholic Church teaches that same-sex attraction is not inherently sinful, but homosexual acts are.
In Germany, the Church is the second-largest employer behind the state, with an estimated 800,000 employees.
While welcoming the changes, LGBTQ+ Catholics in Germany warn that the new wording – which bans discrimination on the basis of “gender” and “sexual identity” – could leave transgender and non-binary employees unprotected.
“Trans people aren’t explicitly named in the new employment law,” said Theo Schenkel, an openly trans man and religion teacher in the small southern German city of Waldshut-Tiengen, near the border with Switzerland.
“It’s not really possible to rely on the new rules, we still depend on the bishop,” referring to the fact that each diocese can decide how to interpret the new law.
Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German Bishops’s Conference, which represents the Church in the country, said that concern was unwarranted.
“The criticism is wrong,” he said in a written statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The term ‘sexual identity’, in contrast to the term ‘sexual orientation’, makes it clear that sexuality is one of a person’s self-image (and) is not only determined by a sexual relationship with another person.”
The law changes, which also add protections for employees who previously risked losing their jobs if they remarried after divorce, do not impact LGBTQ+ priests and nuns – because they live in celibacy, they never came up against the ban on same-sex partnerships or remarriage.
But for the Church’s other employees, from nurses to librarians, the new reforms are “a step in the right direction,” said Bern Moenkebuescher, an openly gay Catholic priest in Hamm, near Dortmund.
FEARS OF A SCHISM
The amendment comes nearly a year after more than 120 Catholic Church employees in Germany came out as LGBTQ+ together as part of a campaign to end discrimination under Church rules.
In March 2021, the Vatican’s doctrinal office ruled that priests cannot bless same-sex unions.
The move surprised many because Pope Francis has been more conciliatory towards gay people than perhaps any other pontiff, saying in the past that parents should not condemn their gay children, and same-sex couples should be “legally covered” by civil union laws.
As a response to the blessings ban, over a hundred Catholic priests in Germany defied the Vatican and staged a series of blessings of same-sex unions across the country.
The clashes between the German Catholic Church and the Vatican go beyond LGBTQ+ inclusion.
The so-called “Synodal Path”, a movement bringing together bishops and ordinary German Catholics, has been outspoken in its demands for the Vatican to let priests marry, let women become priests and let the Church bless same-sex relationships.
“Pope Francis’s positive gestures are not resulting in true changes in the Vatican,” said Blazquez, the teacher in Berlin.
Germany’s Church, though far from the world’s largest, has an outsized influence within the broader Catholic Church because of the enormous wealth it derives from publicly collected church taxes.
When its largest archdiocese, Cologne, first published its accounts in 2015, its 3.35 billion euros ($3.50 billion) in assets made it richer than the Vatican.
But despite Germany’s power to impact the wider Church, few expect the Vatican to follow its latest move.
“We have to have realistic expectations from the Vatican. It’s going to walk (towards change), but at a much slower pace,” said Francesco Gagliardi, a member of the Italian LGBTQ+ Christians group La Tenda di Gionata.
“One of the beautiful things about the Catholic Church is that it’s global and incredibly diverse, but that’s obviously a double-edged sword, because it goes far beyond Europe,” he added, referring to more conservative branches of the Church in Africa and Asia.
In response, Thierry Bonaventura, communications manager for the Synod of Bishops, said the Vatican has been listening to the needs of LGBTQ+ people long before the German institution changed its rules.
“Pope Francis has asked that nobody should be excluded, especially those who ‘are or feel’ (they are) at the periphery of the Church,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Pope Francis’s teaching (in words and deeds) clearly shows his desire for the Church to become ever closer to the men and women who feel wounded in one way or another by life, or misunderstood by the Church itself.”
‘THERE IS HOPE’
Some in the Church wonder if the German institution’s new reforms are less about progress and more about trying to win back the many members it has lost recently.
Years of abuse scandals and controversies around women’s and LGBTQ+ rights have led to a surge in departures – about 360,000 Catholics left the church in 2021, nearly 138,000 more than the year before, according to data published by Church officials.
Father Moenkebuescher said the Catholic Church could decide to go further down the path of gay and trans inclusion – for example, by fully recognising same-sex blessings – in time to slow the exodus.
“I think there is hope, but if it takes too long for the Catholic Church to do something about it, many people will be gone,” he said.
But many LGBTQ+ Catholics in other parts of Europe are not optimistic about seeing the changes Germany made last week reflected in their own countries.
“I admire what German Catholics are creating from inside the Church, I’m impressed by their courage,” said Urszula Pawlik, an openly bisexual woman working as a translator in Poland’s capital Warsaw.
“But I doubt I will see something similar in my lifetime.”
Poland’s Catholic Church often takes a stronger stance than the Vatican on social issues, with some of its senior members arguing against what they term “LGBT ideology”.
Some Catholics in Poland point to the Church’s views on LGBTQ+ rights as one reason behind the country’s shrinking Catholic base.
Only 23% of Poles under 25 regularly go to church, a third the level of three decades ago, according to a 2021 report by CBOS, a government-funded polling agency.
“I think (LGBTQ+ inclusion) is the way that the Church will inevitably have to go, but a quick change in the Catholic Church can take 200 years,” said Pawlik.