Lesbian rehired; German church revises laws

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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The lesbian head of a Caritas afterschool day care center in Bavaria, who lost her job in April because she and her partner planned to register their partnership, can return to her job under a new, revised German church law.

At the time, her dismissal caused great agitation in Holzkirchen, a small market town south of Munich, especially among the parents of the children attending the center. Mayor Olaf von Löwis says he is "very relieved" that the head of the care center, who wishes to remain unnamed and does not want to speak to the media, can now go back to her job.

Suggestions to stop funding Caritas because of its "discriminating personnel policy" had been made in the town council, von Löwis said.

In April, 23 of Germany's 27 dioceses voted in favor of revising the German church's labor laws. Up to then, church employees could be dismissed from their jobs if they did not live according to the church's moral teaching.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne was one of the first to welcome the revision, which became effective Aug. 1. "The point is to limit the consequences of remarriage or same-sex unions to the most serious cases," he emphasized.

However, it is up to each diocesan bishop to decide whether he wants to enforce the revised law or not, and each case will still be considered individually.

Three Bavarian bishops, namely the bishops of Passau, Regensburg and Eichstätt, have decided to break ranks.

The wording of the revised law was not precise enough, said Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. Although it was not a case of "making it easier to throw people in difficult life situations out," he underlined on Facebook, the new law would make it "well-nigh impossible" to dismiss divorced and remarried people and those in same-sex partnerships from church employment.

The new archbishop of Hamburg, Stefan Hesse, has called for more realism as far as the church's teaching on sexual morality is concerned.

"We must have an eye on the diversity of present lifestyles in today's society," he told the German daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Aug. 1. He was "hesitant" regarding gay marriage, Hesse said, but if people in same-sex relationships "seek us out, we must of course be here for them."

"What is their image of the church, I wonder?" Hesse asked. "Do we want to be a church that has its place in the middle of the world and take part in people's lives in order to take as many people as possible with us, or do we want a 'church of the pure,' without any existential difficulties or breakdowns? That would be a very, very small flock indeed, with little contact with the world around it."

Meanwhile, 20 priests in the Passau diocese have written an urgent letter to Oster, deploring his decision not to adopt the new law. The previous ruling regarding people who have been divorced and remarried in church employment had led to such an "atmosphere of fear, secrecy and denunciation," they wrote, that some employees did not legalize their second marriages for fear of losing their jobs.

With 700,000 employees, the German church is the second-largest employer in Germany after the state.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]

A version of this story appeared in the August 14-27, 2015 print issue under the headline: Lesbian rehired; German church revises laws.

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