Does the Church have the power to bless same-sex unions? That was the question posed in a dubium submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in February, and the answer that was made public some weeks later is by now well known: no. That the response received the assent of Pope Francis also received a lot of attention, much of it negative, especially in the secular, liberal-progressive circles of the West. Those Catholics who see Francis as an ally and potential game-changer on Church teaching on homosexuality and same-sex relationships were also disappointed. But maybe the most interesting reaction came out of Germany, where, on May 10, about a hundred Catholic churches around the country held blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
This was no surreptitious, underground initiative. Indeed, many of the ceremonies were held in front of the cameras of state-owned media, under the banner of the movement Liebe Gewinnt (Love Wins). Nor was this an anti-Catholic or anti-Christian protest; the blessings were understood as an act of ecclesial reappropriation. Liebe Gewinnt includes priests, deacons, and volunteers, as well as theologians and the Catholic reform movement Maria 2.0. If the blessings were akin to an act of public disobedience, they were also an act of pastoral responsibility, undertaken in a peaceful, non-antagonistic way, with no outrage or anger directed at the institutional Church. True, the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, called the action “unhelpful.” But this is the same Bishop Bätzing who leads the German “Synodal Path” (on par with the powerful lay organization, the Central Committee of German Catholics, or ZdK), attempting to navigate perilous waters between a watchful Vatican and the increasingly radical demands for reform in his Church. There are numerous bishops in his conference who also criticized the CDF’s response, while hundreds of German theologians issued a manifesto in protest.
Bätzing added that the blessings “are not suitable as an instrument of church political manifestations or political actions.” On the other hand, Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said they are not “acts of political demonstration.” Yet what happened in Germany reflects the religious sentiments of the wider German-speaking Catholic regions of Europe with similar ecclesial sensibilities (Austria, Switzerland, parts of central Eastern Europe, Belgium, and northern Italy). For example, the highest ranking member of the clergy to criticize the Vatican statement was the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, who had spoken with remarkable honesty and courage about gay couples during the assembly of the Bishops’ Synod in October 2015.
How has the Vatican responded to the blessings in Germany? Vatican News, the official media outlet, reported on the blessings in an article available in German and English (though not in Italian). But in the last two months, there’s been nothing else on the CDF statement to come from the Vatican. Since the beginning of the backlash, it has never been clear just how involved Francis might have been in the statement. Journalists and spin doctors close to the pope have tried to distance him from it, but as of now there is very little to support the (unlikely) hypothesis that he somehow disavowed it. It seems that Francis prefers to play alone, without identifying himself with the Roman Curia, especially when his Curia says unpopular things.
The blessings in Germany should be seen in the larger context of that Church’s split with the Vatican over the past four decades. (It would be wrong to attribute these latest developments only to the legacy of the recently deceased Hans Küng: prominent theologians and Church leaders with views quite different from Küng’s are part of a larger, non-partisan ecclesial and theological movement.) Tensions first arose during the pontificate of John Paul II, and then again during the Benedict XVI papacy: on women deacons; on the participation of Catholics in state-run centers that release “certificates of counseling” to women seeking abortions; on the role of lay pastoral ministers (with degrees in Catholic theology) who are on the payroll of dioceses and parishes; on issues of sexual morality; on intercommunion with Lutherans. Just as in other churches, including the U.S. Church, the rifts became especially salient with the explosion of the sex-abuse crisis, which reached its peak in Germany in 2010, when Benedict was pope.