Tuesday, February 6, 2018

When Yes Means No: Astonishing Attempt of Catholic Right (and Some Religion Journalists) to Evade What Cardinal Marx Said About Blessing Same-Sex Couples

This posting is, in some ways, a footnote (but it's more than that: read on) to what I posted yesterday about Catholic News Agency and its recent report entitled "Cardinal Marx endorses blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples." As my posting yesterday indicates, within hours after CNA published that report, fierce pushback began from right-wing groups accusing CNA of, among other things, having mistranslated what the president of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Marx, said to an interviewer on Bayerischer Rundfunk's radio station when she asked him if the Catholic church can bless same-sex couples. Cardinal Marx responded by saying "yes," and then he noted that implementing any policy to offer such blessings will require pastoral discernment on a case-by-case basis.

Almost immediately following CNA's publication of Cardinal Marx's remarks, one of the suggestions that the fever swamps of the "traditionalist" and rabidly anti-LGBTQ sector of the Catholic commentariat began floating around was that, in responding to the interviewer's question with a ja — yes — Cardinal Marx did not actually mean yes. His yea was not a yea. It was ambiguous, a refusal to state clearly that, yes, in fact, the church can offer blessings to gay couples. If you care to wade into the fever swamps, you can see this tactic being developed and discussed at Father Dwight Longenecker's blog site.

So, as Longenecker suggests, CNA misunderstood what Cardinal Marx said and mistranslated what he stated. Goodness, Longenecker has this information from a German speaker in England who listened to the interview and heard a ja that meant something other than yes! 

It's because of pushback from folks like this that CNA issued the following editorial note about four hours after it published its initial report:

Questions have been raised regarding CNA's characterization of the cardinal's remarks as an "endorsement." Our headline is intended to reflect that Cardinal Marx directly answered in the affirmative ("yes") to the question of "bless[ing] homosexual couples in the Church," saying that such a decision must be made by "the pastor on the ground," in each "particular, individual case." 

Given what CNA was dealing with here — bullying very much like the bullying of Father James Martin that has been under discussion lately in many places, bullying emanating from the same set of people  imagine my surprise to read, at the Religion News Service site yesterday, an article about this very same story with the headline "Top German cardinal signals cautious support for blessing same-sex couples." The author of this report, Tom Heneghan, states, 

Noting that his interviewer mentioned same-sex blessings, he said: "Concerning homosexuals, we must be pastorally closer to those who need or want pastoral care. Here, I think, we should also encourage priests and pastoral workers to give people in concrete situations some encouragement. I don’t see any problems there."
When the interviewer directly asked if that meant blessings, he gave an answer that was vague but pointed towards reform. "Yes, there is no general solution," he said. "I have to leave it up to the pastoral worker on the spot who is accompanying the person there."

Being the pesky kind of meddler and question-raiser that I am, I left a comment at RNS yesterday, challenging the statement that Cardinal Marx's clear, unambiguous yes in response to the question, Can the Catholic church bless same-sex couples?, was vague. It was anything but vague, in fact. This elicited a testy response from Tom Heneghan, which you can read in the comments thread there if you wish, telling me rather sniffily that he speaks German and has lived in German-speaking countries, and he listened to what Cardinal Marx said and heard ambiguity in that ja.

Heneghan challenged me to listen to the interview at the Bayerischer Rundfunk site. I did so. I read German and speak it, if haltingly.* Where Heneghan hears tomahto, I hear tomato. I hear an unambiguous yes — and I think it's rather silly to hinge an argument about whether or not Cardinal Marx replied to a question, Can the Catholic church bless same-sex couples?, on the claims of some people that they heard the word "yes" spoken but believe "yes" means something other than "yes."

Don't you?

And why is RNS replicating arguments from fever-swamp sites of the very worst — and most homophobic — sector of the Catholic church here? Heneghan went on to inform me (but I knew this, of course, since I know German sufficiently well to know what was said in that interview) that it was not Cardinal Marx but his interviewer who asked if same-sex couples might be "blessed" by the Catholic church — the question to which Cardinal Marx responded, "Yes." And then he went on to state that pastoral discernment would need to be applied about this in individual cases.

I have combed the German-language media to see what is being reported there about this story, and I fail to find any news sources stating that Cardinal Marx said anything other than yes — a plain yes — to the question, Can same-sex couples be blessed by the Catholic church? I am assuming that the people who issue reports in the German-language media speak German themselves and have the acumen to know when a native German speaker says "yes" but does not mean yes.

Without fail, almost every single report about this story I can find in the German-language media sums up the story in a headline that echoes what Bayerischer Rundfunk itself reports: "Erzbischof Reinhard Marx: Segnung homosexueller Paare ist möglich." If you're interested in seeing more links, see the comments thread following the RNS report, where I provide a smattering of them. And/or go to Google.de and google ""Kardinal Marx" and then choose the news option.

In German headlines you can find by such a search, no squeamishness at all about saying that Cardinal Marx responded positively to a question, Can the Catholic church bless same-sex couples? No beating around the bush about whether "yes" means "yes" or whether he was saying yes to a question about blessing such couples while he meant something quite different than blessing them.

Some conclusions:

1. The level of news reporting we get in the English-language media about religious matters occurring overseas is often abysmal. What American folks interested in religious news are going to take away from reports such as the RNS report about this story is an account of doubt, ambiguity — an account suggesting as its bottom line, Well, the gays remain very problematic for the Catholic church, and there is no one in the Catholic community who really wants to bless or include them.

What German-speaking readers are taking away from this story is quite the opposite: asked whether the Catholic church can bless same-sex couples, the president of the German bishops' conference said yes.

2. Middle-of-the-road American religious news sites permit themselves to be intimidated and even driven — far too much — by bullying tactics of the political and religious right. This is at the very center of the Father Martin story and the timidity of the Catholic media and academy to defend him against the bullying of right-wing Catholics. 

In what sane universe does a middle-of-the-road American religious news site provide a report about a story like this that actually channels the silliness of fever-swamp Catholic-right sites: Ah, yes, he did, indeed, say ja to that question. But ja doesn't mean ja and only the very stolid would imagine it does.

3. There is such need — such imperative need — for the world of religious journalism in the English-speaking world to begin including and listening seriously to gay voices. To openly gay folks and their perspectives. It has been dominated for far, far too long by one sector of the human race to the exclusion of all other sectors of the human race, and the unquestioned power and privilege that sector has enjoyed has not made it more humane, thoughtful, willing to engage in respectful dialogue with those it regards as lesser beings. Taken-for-granted unmerited power and privilege have a way of doing that, you know.

That is all.

* Being married to a spouse whose parents both grew up in households in which German was the first language spoken, and living with said spouse for almost fifty years, has a way of sharpening your ability to hear and speak German. Traveling with him on extended trips to visit his relatives in Germany and stay with them in areas where many people don't speak English well also has a way of sharpening your ability to hear and speak German. I would never claim that my German is anywhere near perfect and I'm quite sure Heneghan's is better than mine — but I have the ability to function in German. And I know what I heard Cardinal Marx say in that interview and have none of the doubts about what he said — and meant — that Longenecker and Heneghan have.

The graphic is a screenshot from the Bayerischer Rundfunk article linked above.

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