BERLIN — German priests across more than 100 churches have been blessing gay relationships in recent days in coordinated — and sometimes livestreamed — defiance of a Vatican order signed by Pope Francis.
For gay Catholics who have long felt marginalized by Catholic teaching, the events are a celebratory moment, marked by sermons on inclusivity and rainbow church decorations. But the events also amount to an open rebellion — and a test for a pontiff whose tenure has been marked by divisions over hot-button issues, especially the church’s stance on homosexuality.
“The rainbow is a political sign,” one priest, Hans-Albert Gunk of the Dominikanerkloster St. Albertus Magnus, told congregants at one of the first events in the multiday procession of ceremonies, culminating Monday. “God excludes no one from his love,” he said.
One by one, couples like Alexander Langwald, 42, and his partner walked up to Gunk to receive a blessing.
“It’s about equality, that we all belong to God’s creation, no matter in which relationship we live,” said Langwald, who grew up Catholic, and who, though married to his partner, had never until Saturday been blessed by the church.
The German ceremonies are taking place two months after Francis signed off on a declaration barring priests from blessing same-sex unions. Though the Vatican decree reaffirmed old teaching, it nonetheless sent shock waves through the church, as it marked a jarring message from a pontiff who has generally sought to welcome gay people, and who famously said, “Who am I to judge?”
Vatican watchers have tried to make sense of the document and Francis’s motivations. Many interpreted the order as a warning to Catholic leaders in Germany, who are holding a years-long series of meetings — to the alarm of conservatives — reexamining several major issues inside the church, including the role of women and teaching on sexuality.
The decree, issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal body, leaned on language that gay Catholics have long found alienating. It said that God “cannot bless sin” and said that acknowledging homosexual unions, for a priest, is “illicit.”
In the past, priests in Germany and some other parts of the world have quietly given blessings to gay unions. But the recent events, starting over the weekend and continuing Monday, were designed to be noticed. The decision will surely amplify the sense of Germany as a center of tension within Roman Catholicism. Some conservatives have accused German Catholic leaders of risking schism with Rome.
The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment.
The German ceremonies were a direct response to the decree, said Bernd Mönkebüscher, in the northwestern city of Hamm, who was the first priest in Germany to come out as gay without losing his post.
After the Holy See pronouncement, Mönkebüscher helped collect signatures from Catholic priests and pastoral officers across the country in support of same-sex blessings. Within two weeks, he and fellow colleagues collected 2,650 signatures.
“We noticed it made big waves in Germany,” he said. So they took it a step further, and conceived of a day of nationwide “blessing services for lovers,” and used the hashtag #liebegewinnt (“love wins”) to announce blessings for couples of all sexual orientations.
“We said that we wanted to send a conciliatory signal for people who feel misunderstood and who feel branded as sinners,” Mönkebüscher said. “And it encourages couples to think about receiving a blessing for themselves.”
Among the 100-plus events associated with the campaign, about 20 services have been or will be livestreamed.
The priest-led initiative is a first in recent German history, said Thomas Schüller, director of the Institute of Canon Law at the University of Münster. He compared it to protests by couples in 1969, when the Catholic Church spoke out against the use of birth control. But the “love wins” events, unlike those, are being led and organized by priests.
“They’re not doing it in secret, but they’re standing up and owning up to what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s remarkable.”
In the United States, gay rights activists have organized protests in the wake of the Vatican order, and Catholic universities have reaffirmed their welcome of gay students. But Catholic clergy have not been overtly defiant. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Vatican official Cardinal Peter Turkson have defended the Vatican’s position.
The German church has gone further than other national Catholic churches in considering dramatic changes, in part because it is so deep in crisis. Germans are abandoning the church in droves. The national-level meetings were spurred by a report of extensive child sexual abuse, released in 2018. German bishops have become among the most progressive voices among Catholic leaders.
Though some bishops criticized the Vatican’s pronouncement in March, they were not involved in organizing this particular initiative.
The president of the National Bishops’ Conference, Georg Bätzing of Limburg, objected to the “love wins” blessings in a statement, calling them not “helpful” and “not suitable as instruments for church political manifestations or protest actions.” He had spoken in favor of blessings for same-sex couples and said in a March statement that “the topic of successful relationships” should be discussed by the German church as part of its multiyear reevaluation of German Catholic practices and teachings.
Other German bishops, including Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Stephan Burger of Freiburg, have welcomed the Vatican’s ban on blessings, according to the National Catholic Register.
Although same-sex marriage was legalized in Germany in 2017, most Catholic churches still don’t perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Blessings, when done at all, mostly take place behind closed doors.
Monika Schmelter, a 65-year-old from Lüdinghausen, said she and her partner were secretly blessed by a Catholic priest in the Netherlands 31 years ago.
“Thirty years ago, we could only live out our relationship covertly and only privately and only under fear,” said Schmelter. “Today we live in a time of incredible transformation.”