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Failure to communicate – Cardinal Marx and gay blessings

Claims German cardinal gave his blessing to gay blessings were erroneous

(COMMENTARY) Our review of the US press coverage of claims that Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the president of the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (DBK), had given his permission to clergy to bless same-sex unions has sparked rigorous debate on social media.

Criticism of the article “Let your Ja’s be Yes” has taken two general lines – discussion of the underlying issues and discussion of our criticism of the Daily Caller – the U.S. publication singled out in the review. The question of whether Cardinal Marx should, nor should not, endorse same-sex blessings is outside the parameters of this site – we focus on journalism. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?) the Roman poet Juvenal asked in his Satires (VI, lines 347–348). This website seeks to answer this question as it pertains to the coverage of religion in the secular press.

The criticism of our reporting can be summarized in a tweet from reader Samuel Johnson, who challenged our translation of the German-language interview. He stated our review was “a very problematic criticism, because the writer of the Crux published CNA authored piece, Anian Christoph Wimmer, is a native German speaker who also writes for CNA’s German website. This is not a case of an English-speaking reporter misunderstanding.”

I responded by noting the critique was of the Daily Caller, not CNA. To which, Mr. Johnson responded:

The problem is that you write in criticizing the Daily Caller, “If we listen to the Marx interview then through German ears, rather than through the filter of English print, the story is turned on its head.” But evidently, listening through German ears doesn’t necessarily turn the story on its head, since after all Wimmer listened with German ears and heard a, “Yes.”

While I am not a native German speaker, I do have some small fluency in languages, and am persuaded I had the better translation. The discussion essentially ended there, as it had become a question of competing truths – mine versus the translation used in the Daily Caller story.

A new day, however, brought new developments to the story. The DBK released its own translation in English of the cardinal’s remarks, which rejected the Daily Caller’s assertion the cardinal was giving carte blanche to his clergy to bless gay unions.

On February 7, 2018 the Catholic News Service released a “second day” story on the Marx interview. Its lede stated:

The president of the German bishops’ conference urged priests to provide better pastoral care to Catholics who are homosexual, but he said, “I think that would not be right” when asked if he could imagine the Catholic Church blessing gay couples.

German Catholic media had interpreted the cardinal’s remarks as moving a step back from a suggestion made by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck in January that the Catholic Church should debate the possibility of a blessing ceremony for Catholic gay couples involved in the church. But some English-language media and blogs portrayed Cardinal Marx’s remarks as meaning he “endorses” such blessing ceremonies.

It was not only the Catholic media in Germany, but the secular press too saw the interview as a tentative, ambiguous – but in the end, non-affirming statement about gay blessings. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 3 reported:

He stressed, however, that each individual case (of a same-sex couple seeking a blessing) must be decided in the churches on the ground. He continues to reject the granting of a general permission for a church blessing of homosexual couples. “There are no general solutions, I do not think that’s right, because this is pastoral care for individual cases,” said Marx. (My translation)

As an aside – under what circumstances might the church bless same-sex couples? Some of the ideas floating about the German Catholic Church (not mentioned in the CNS story) are akin to those seen in the Church of England – where clergy are permitted to enter into same-sex civil partnerships, so long as they abstain from sexual relations.

The DBK also reached out to CNA, asking it to retract its translation of the cardinal’s interview, or print alongside it the translation into English made by the church. CNA reported:

The spokesman of Cardinal Marx at the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising has contacted CNA with a request for correction of our translation of the interview in question, expressing concern that CNA’s translation constitutes a false reference and does not properly reflect the position of Cardinal Marx.

CNA has agreed to publish the relevant passage from the translation that the office of Cardinal Marx has provided as part of this correction.

Cardinal Marx’s spokesman states they will not take further questions on this issue. So where are we now?

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” Strother Martin, playing the prison warden, told Paul Newman in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. The German church and secular press heard a different interview than the one read by English language only reporters – and two stories emerged. One in German saying the cardinal was being hedging around the propriety of whether the church could bless gay unions, but with the clear statement he was not giving blanket permission to bless gay unions. One in English that the cardinal supported gay blessings and his clergy were now free to perform the rites.

Setting the issue of gay blessings to one side and focusing on the questions of journalism – this story illustrates the desirability of having reporters able to “get religion” – the discourse of the U.S. political arena cannot be transposed onto the world of religion, if one wants a true picture of what is happening, and why.

Read it all in the Media Project

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