See more But in truth, public opposition to the change has been relatively muffled, especially when compared to the huge street demonstrations by social conservatives which were triggered by a similar measure in France in The very fact that German bishops insist they see some value in same-sex partnerships so long as they are not described as marriage might be surprising to an American who is accustomed to tooth-and-nail culture wars.
In France, gay marriage became law in May Street protests by social conservatives, including four huge rallies in Paris within six months, failed to stop the change. But they made history nonetheless, as unexpectedly large social and political phenomena. Some came from the political right and far-right: Some supporters even spoke the language of the anti-capitalist left, arguing that gay adoptions and surrogacy might lead to a heartless market in embryos.
As in France, the rallies have received discreet encouragement from politicians and clerics. But the German assemblies focused in particular on moves to liberalise education about sex and gender have been smaller, and they have drawn counter-demonstrations. It is still possible that same-sex marriage will be contested in Germany, on grounds that it violates the constitution. But the argument will be conducted in the courts, not on the streets.
This Franco-German contrast seems paradoxical. Although each country comprises a wide spectrum of opinion, German social norms are in some ways more conservative than French ones. Take the issue of abortion. Although both countries have quite liberal regimes for terminating a pregnancy up to 12 weeks, the German one lays down that women must have counselling—in which they are told that fetuses have rights—before undergoing the procedure.
That would be hard to imagine in France. Some reasons for the French-German difference are clear enough. Any popular street movement that shades into the far-right feels toxic in Germany, more so than in France, for the obvious historical reasons. But perhaps a deeper, albeit unproveable, reason has to do with the formal status of religion in the two countries. The language of victimhood and grievance even among wearers of blue blazers or silk scarves does not feel strange.
In Germany, by comparison, the main Christian chuches Lutheran and Catholic have a privileged position. Although their membership is dwindling, as recently released figures confirm, they still haul in taxes from tens of millions of citizens under a system overseen by the state. Within most German federal states, the churches have an entrenched position as advisers on education and, sometimes, broadcasting. Too much assertiveness would be expecially imprudent at a time when the Catholic church, in particular, is reeling from scandal.
In the cathedral city of Regensburg, the local bishop was among those who urged his flock to send messages to legislators in Berlin in support of traditional marriage. But his diocese is more likely to attract attention for another reason: In a way, the difference between France and Germany on this score epitomises the dilemma facing Christian leaders across Europe.
Is it better to enjoy historically inherited privileges, and practise political self-restraint for fear of exasperating an already rather sceptical public?