There seem to be cracks in the rampant institutional bigotry of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Last weekend, New Ways Ministry — a pro-LGBT Catholic ministry founded by the courageous Sr. Jeannine Gramick (whom the Vatican attempted to silence after she refused to renounce her support for the LGBT community) — posted about a fascinating story from a German English-language newspaper called The Local. Apparently, in an address last week to a conference of 60,000 Catholics in Mannheim, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin called for an end to the Catholic Church’s refusal to recognize and affirm loving, committed same-sex relationships:

 He told a crowd on Thursday that the church should view long-term, faithful homosexual relationships as they do heterosexual ones:

“When two homosexuals take responsibility for one another, if they deal with each other in a faithful and long-term way, then you have to see it in the same way as heterosexual relationships,” Woelki told an astonished crowd, according to a story in the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Woekli acknowledged that the church saw the relationship between a man and a woman as the basis for creation, but added that it was time to think further about the church’s attitude toward same sex relationships.

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, pointed out that Woelki joins a chorus of Catholic voices demanding a change in the way that church views LGBT people:

Last December, London’s Archbishop Vincent Nichols made headlines by supporting civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples in the U.K. That same month, Fr. Frank Brennan, a Jesuit legal scholar in Australia, also called for similar recognition of same-sex relationships. In January, Bishop Paolo Urso of Ragusa, Italy, also called for recognition of civil partnerships in his country.

March of 2012 saw an explosion of questioning from prelates of the hierarchy’s ban on marriage equality. At New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia called for a total re-examination of Catholic sexual ethics to allow for, among other things, moral approval of same-sex relationships. The Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, supported a bill that would legalize civil unions (albeit as a stopgap measure to prevent marriage equality). Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine,announced that the diocese would not take an active role in opposing the state’s upcoming referendum on marriage equality, as it had in 2009. In Italy, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan stated in his bookCredere e Cognoscere (Faith and Understanding), that “I do not agree with the positions of those in the Church who takes issue with civil unions.”

Just last week, dozens of current and former Catholic priests in Minnesota held a press conference to announce their opposition to a proposed constitutional marriage discrimination amendment on the ballot in that state this November.

As I’ve said before, prelates like Cardinal Woelki of Berlin who dare to challenge their church’s persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face a very real risk of retribution from their superiors. Their acts of courage should be commended, so that this positive and encouraging trend can continue.