May 24, 2012

Hope and the cardinal

"Wir brauchen endlich wieder gute Nachrichten," said Father Klaus Mertes. "We finally need good news again."

There's some consensus forming about the "good news" of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki's response to that plea, a statement he made last week about homosexual relationships.

I read Woelki's words as guarded, a cautious concession with sharp limits.

That, I'm being told, is too pessimistic: It's actually significant, another sign of a major shift, and "good news again." A big deal.

My post on this the other day was intended to put Woelki's statements in context. A mistranslation and some disregard for serious qualifications in the original English-language report made it seem Woelki had actually gone so far as to call for a recognition of the equality of committed same-sex relationships. He didn't.

Looking at the various German reports about the exchange between Woelki and Mertes, one finds:
  • He believes it would be impossible for the church to view homosexual and heterosexual relationships as equal. 
  • He was only conceding it could be possible the church would one day see committed homosexual relationships in a "similar way" to straight relationships.
  • He did not modify or retract his previous statements that homosexuality is against the order of God and nature. 
  • He warned against expectations of any quick change, which is also an implicit critique of the critiques of the church as amounting to impatience.
  • He reiterated and emphasized the authority of the church hierarchy as the only legitimate body to deliberate on such questions.
My conclusion is limited to cultural history, so I'm not comfortable taking on any claims of whether this is good or bad. I try not to do theology in public. What I am trying to do is analyze what  happened and what is happening in the culture. The way I read Woelki, the real notable change, here, is not in what he said, but in that he was put in the position where he said it. It's Mertes' work that seems significant. He's the one making bold calls, and challenging cardinals and the hierarchy and the church as it is today, going so far as to accuse the church even of "verraten das Evangelium," betraying the gospel.

The argument being made, though, is that I'm underestimating the significance of what Woelki said, and it's actually a very big deal. These are people who watch the Catholic Church more closely than I, and read this situation very differently:

@WomenInTheology, who alerted me to the cardinal's comments in the first place, thinks that the concession was still huge, even given the fuller context of the statement. As she explained to me:

A commenter on my previous post made a similar argument. Slyvia wrote, "anything other than 'homosexuality is gravely disordered' from such a high Catholic official is huge."

Terrence Weldon of Queering the Church directly critiques my reading, saying "Daniel Silliman reads a pessimistic message into this, but ... I think the significance is not in the specific words of Woelki, but in the wider context of an increasing number of bishops, priests and others who are standing up and recognizing the need for a different approach."

Francis DeBernado of New Way Ministry reviewed what I wrote, and said it still seemed to him the cardinals comments were "a giant, hopeful step in the direction of full equality. He writes:
"The cause for rejoicing in Woelki’s statement is that a Cardinal of the Church has acknowledged goodness in same-gender relationships and has compared them to marriage–unlike comparing them to addiction, bestiality, and other human frailties or perversions, as some of his brother bishops have been known to do. Knowing that one Cardinal–especially one who may not see full equality between heterosexual and homosexual relationships as ideal–can make such a positive comparison indicates that the hierarchy of the church can indeed work for change in this area of doctrine."
I'm skeptical, still. It seems like a weird way to read what was said. It feels a bit too much like seeing what one needs to see, finding hope one needs to find. There may well be many reasons to think the Catholic church is going to change -- but is what Woelkididn't say really one of them?

Apparently. The consensus here is going against me. People are finding signals of change in what the cardinal said, and reasons to hope in what he didn't.

I recommend one look at Weldon's blog and DeBarnado's for their explanations for their reasons for hope, as well as their take on the "big picture" of change in the Catholic Church.