That's not exactly accurate, though.
The report came from an English-language recapitulation of news of an exchange Woelki had with a critical crowd of laymen and women and the Jesuit priest who exposed the German church's cover-up of years of sexual abuse of children, Father Klaus Mertes.
Mertes is something of a hero to many Germans, a trusted representative for many Catholics in an institution that has not seemed particularly concerned with trust in recent years. He has, however, faced major obstacles in getting church officials to even acknowledge the seriousness of sexual violence, much less entertain questions about making changes to the church. There has been, he has said, "silence about the abuse and silence about the silence." When he first began asking questions about rumors in the mid 1990s, a fellow Jesuit shouted at him, "I know exactly what you want. You just want to lambast your fellow brothers." When his investigative report on systematic abuse and cover-up was released in 2010, an Italian cardinal called it "the petty gossip of the moment." A leading conservative in Germany, Archbishop Joachim Meisner, has ignored calls for dialogue about the abuse.
At Katholikentag, a major annual conference of Catholics in Mannheim, the Jesuit priest was able to facilitate a dialogue between Woelki and lay Catholics concerned about the direction of their church. This in itself was significant. Perhaps because of previous statements Woelki has made about how homosexuality goes against the "order of creation," Mertes took the opportunity to challenge Woelki to "Hören Sie sich die Geschichte des Leidens an, die Lesben und Schwule in den christlichen Kirchen machen." (Listen to the history of the suffering of the lesbians and gays in the Christian churches).
According to The Local, which reports German news in English and alerted some American observers to the cardinal's comments, Woelki told the crowd "the church should view long-term, faithful homosexual relationships as they do heterosexual ones."
If that were accurate, it would be very significant.
For one thing, it would be a dramatic turn around, as Woelki's previous statement on the subject is that homosexuality is in opposition to "Schöpfungsordnung," creation order. For another, as a relatively young cardinal, Woelki is likely to influence the direction of the church for years to come, along with the other cardinals selected by Pope Benedict XVI. If Woelki is open to some doctrinal change on this issue, that might say something about where the Catholic church hierarchy will be in 10, 20, 30. Thirdly, if Woekli called for recognition of the equality of homosexual and heterosexual relationships, he would to be the highest-ranking church official to do so, going perhaps even further than Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who said the church should judge homosexuals by the quality of their relationships, rather than just whether or not they have homosexual sex.
That report, however, misses the context of the cardinal's statement -- both the immediate context, which qualified what he said, and the larger one, the way in which Woelki has positioned himself on this issue, and was not announcing his own evolution on this subject.
"Der Berliner Erzbischof Rainer Maria Woelki hält es für möglich, dass die katholische Kirche ihre strikte Haltung gegenüber Schwulen und Lesben langfristig aufweicht. [...] Es sei denkbar, dass die Kriterien dafür verfeinert würden. So halte er es für vorstellbar, dass «dort, wo Menschen Verantwortung füreinander übernehmen, wo sie in einer dauerhaften homosexuellen Beziehung leben und umgehen, dass das in ähnlicher Weise zu einer heterosexuellen Beziehung anzusehen ist», sagte Woelki am Donnerstag beim Katholikentag in Mannheim.
"Allerdings dürfe niemand mit einem schnellen Sinneswandel der Kirche in dieser Frage rechnen. Schnellschüsse werde es nicht geben, ein solcher Prozess könne sehr lange dauern. Vor allem werde sich auch nichts daran ändern, dass die Ehe zwischen Mann und Frau für die katholische Kirche eine besondere Stellung habe, betonte Woelki."
(My German is far from perfect, but this translates: The Berlin Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki considers it possible that the Catholic Church will soften its strict position against gays and lesbians in the long term .... It is conceivable that the criteria will be refined. He considers it is imaginable that, "where people take responsibility for each other, where they live and practice a longterm/permanent homosexual relationship, that that is to be regarded in a similar way as a heterosexual relationship," Woelki said on Thursday at the Catholic Congress in Mannheim.
However, no one can expect a quick change of heart from the Church on this question. There will be no quick fixes, such a process could take a long time. Above all, this would not change it, that the marriage between man and woman for the Catholic church has a special rank, emphasized Woelki).
Der Tagespeigel, the news source cited The Local, reports the cardinal's words slightly differently, slightly more emphatically, quoting him as saying, "Wenn zwei Homosexuelle Verantwortung füreinander übernehmen, wenn sie dauerhaft und treu miteinander umgehen, muss man das in ähnlicher Weise sehen wie heterosexuelle Beziehungen." (If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they deal with each other faithfully and permanently in practice, one must regard that in a similar way as a heterosexual relationship.)
There's still the very significant difference between "the same way" and a "similar way." And even the more emphatic version of the quote might not be as strong a statement as it sounds sans context, as a qualification is added: "Das Lehramt der Katholischen Kirche müsse sich mit solchen Entwicklungen beschäftigen, leider dauere das oft lang und helfe den Menschen nichts, die heute leben, sagt Woelki." (The Magisterium of the Catholic Church must deal with such developments. Unfortunately, this often takes a long time, and would not help people living today, said Woelki).
The qualification seems to undercut the idea Woelki was calling for a change in church doctrine. Even if one accepts the stronger version of the quote -- which I suspect is overstated, and less reliable than the Deutche Presse-Agentur's version -- this isn't a bold challenge to church orthodoxy. It seems he was speaking generally in terms of conceding a possibility. I.e., that he was telling those who want such a change that it's possible the church will eventually, over time, moderate it's position, and that there are, at least in theory, some viable positions the church could hold that would be less severe than current ones.
That's not nothing, but it's a far cry from a call for equality.
Terence Weldon at Queering the Church argues that, even though the Berlin cardinal's statements were over reported, they still signal a shift in the Catholic church, and are good news for those who hope to see the church be more inclusive. He writes,
"But for all that, good news indeed, as a further straw in the wind, pointing to the change that is coming. And that, I think, is the real conclusion to be drawn: not that the Church 'should' change its sexual teaching, or that it 'should' change, but that it surely will change: the process has begun. We just don’t know how long it will take."Perhaps. Another way to read this is as a reiteration of the church's current position, and Woelki's own position, couched in a very limited concession to ongoing dialogue.
The concession, such as it was, amounts to an acknowledgement the Catholic church's doctrine develops. Woelki himself is apparently willing to say, "Wir müssen uns über diese Frage weiter Gedanken machen" (We must think over this question further), but there are two significant caveats to that concession. First, the further reflection he's speaking of does not include the whole church, but specifically the hierarchy. It's Das Lehramt, the Magisterium, that will be doing the considering, with little if any input for the concerns of law Catholics. Second, diese Frage is specifically limited so as not include the possibility of same-sex marriage. Whatever conclusion the church authorities might come to in the future, Woelki does not think it possible that homosexual relationships could ever be seen as equal to heterosexual ones.
While homosexual and heterosexual relationships could be seen "in ähnlicher Weise," in a similar way, that's not to suggest they'd be seen as equal.
It was only a year ago, shortly after Woelki's appointment to cardinal was announced, that he told a Catholic journalist, homosexuality was "aus katholischer Sicht vor Gott nicht geordnet" (from a Catholic perspective, not God-ordered), and contrary to the "Schöpfungsordnung," creation order.
Nothing in the reported statements from Mannheim really go towards revising or refining that position. If, above all, heterosexual relationships are of a different rank, a different class, than homosexual ones, and that's necessarily the Catholic church's position, regardless of whatever developments and further consideration may occur, then "equality" is not up for consideration.
The context for Woelki's statements about homosexual relationships -- both the narrower context of where the statements were made and what was said before and after, and the broader context of how Woelki has positioned himself -- don't support the idea he has stepped out of line and made a bold proclamation and call for change. If he's read as calling for any sort of change, it's not for a recognition of the essential sameness of gay and straight relationships, but for a recognition that homosexual relationships could have qualities the Catholic church approves of. He doesn't actually go so far as to "acknowledge the moral goodness of lesbian and gay relationships," but only acknowledges one could imag
It's a very guarded, very cautious statement on the part of the cardinal.
The only unquestionable concession here should be attributed, actually, to Mertes, who took the opportunity to push Woelki to acknowledge the church's position on these things is not final.
If there is a sea-change, it's really only clear that it's this: Even Cardinals can expect to be asked questions they'd really rather not answer, and the many forms "silence about the silence" are not going to last.