The German Catholics are at it again. Catholic priests across Germany have been blessing same-sex unions this week in open defiance of the Vatican, which explicitly forbade such practices in March, reflecting long-settled and unchangeable Church doctrine.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, such ceremonies have been conducted in private for years, but this year liberal German priests are doing it in public, sometimes inside their churches, in an effort to publicize the issue and push for changes to Catholic doctrine on marriage and sexuality.
Indeed, the blessing ceremonies come amid an ongoing national synod-like conference in Germany, dubbed the “Synodal Path,” that began two years ago to address the clerical sexual abuse scandal but has since expanded, encompassing broad considerations for changes to Catholic life, including altering Catholic teachings on homosexuality and the ordination of women.
The awkward designation of “Synodal Path” isn’t an accident. In the Catholic Church, a synod is defined by canon law, the objects it can consider are clearly demarcated at the outset, and it must be approved by the Holy See. A formal synod, according to a 2018 report issued by the German bishops, “slows down the necessary speed in dealing with the issues at hand.”
And what are the issues at hand? Recognizing (and blessing, apparently) same-sex unions and allowing the ordination of women. Addressing the problems that led to widespread clerical sexual abuse, it seems, was never a priority of the German bishops, who failed to include sexual abuse survivors in discussions until well into the second year.
The aims of the quasi-synod, like the blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples this week, don’t exactly come as a surprise. German prelates have been pushing for the liberalization of Catholic doctrine for a while now — and have been repeatedly stymied by Pope Francis, who has emerged as an unlikely obstacle to liberal German bishops who seem intent on forcing changes to the church, even at the risk of schism.
The tension has been building in recent years. In 2019, Francis warned the German hierarchy that it cannot strike out on its own in matters of doctrine: “Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.”
Then early last year, at the conclusion of a synod on the challenges facing the Catholic Church in the Amazon region, Francis declined to make any changes to church teaching on the celibacy of the priesthood. The German bishops who largely organized and pushed the agenda at the Amazon synod were hoping it would result in the sanctioning of married priests in that region, which they might later use as foothold for the approval of married priests in Germany.
Then in March, the Vatican issued an unequivocal statement, clearly aimed at the German bishops, that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” The document, specifically approved by Francis, states that the impossibility of blessing same-sex unions is not “a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.”
This seems to be what pushed German priests and bishops to move forward with their blessings of same-sex unions this week in more than 100 churches and other venues across the country. They are pushing back against Francis and the Vatican, and inviting the pope to either defy them or back down. Schism looms if Francis comes down hard on the German hierarchy, as some German bishops have already suggested.
But something worse looms for the Catholic Church if Francis does nothing. How do we know? Because something like this has happened before, in America.
Almost immediately after Pope Paul VI issued his famous 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae, a host of American priests and Catholic theologians rejected his teachings on contraception in a concerted and very public campaign. When Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., tried to discipline the dissenting priests and theologians in what became known as “the Washington Case,” the Vatican stepped in to stop him. The dissenters were never publicly rebuked by Paul VI. Why?
In his 2002 book, “The Courage To Be Catholic,” George Weigel writes that
everyone involved understood that Pope Paul VI wanted the ‘Washington Case’ settled without a public retraction from the dissidents, because the pope feared that insisting on such a retraction would lead to schism — a formal split in the Church in Washington, and perhaps beyond. The pope, evidently, was willing for a time to tolerate dissent on an issue on which he had made a solemn, authoritative statement, hoping that the day would come when, in a calmer cultural and ecclesiastical atmosphere, the truth of that teaching could be appreciated.
Weigel called this the “Truce of 1968,” and it’s instructive today because of what it produced in the U.S. church. Weigel writes that the results of the truce were that “a generation of Catholic bishops came to think of themselves less as authoritative teachers than as moderators of an ongoing dialogue whose primary responsibility was to keep everyone in the conversation and in play.” For Catholic laypeople, says Weigel, the lesson was that “virtually everything in the Church was questionable: doctrine, morals, the priesthood, the episcopate, the lot.”
Cafeteria Catholicism thereafter blossomed in America. If the Catholic hierarchy wasn’t going to defend the church’s teaching on contraception, then why should Catholics listen to the Holy See on other doctrinal matters? Why not just pick and choose what you happen to like?
The fruit of all this was profound disorder and moral confusion in the American Catholic Church, which produced a generation of Catholics, both priests and laity, who felt justified in shrugging off whatever church doctrine and teaching they found distasteful or outdated, no matter how central it might be to the Catholic faith.
Francis now risks something similar—and perhaps worse—with the German hierarchy, which seems intent on forcing changes that reflect the rather narrow liberal sentiments and theological errors of its older, white, dwindling congregations and clerics in Germany.
The lesson of 1968, for Francis and faithful Catholics everywhere, should be that if the German bishops want to break away, as another famous (or infamous) German Catholic did five centuries ago, they should go ahead and go. Better to let them and their withering parishes in Germany join the ranks of Protestant churches everywhere than risk sowing confusion about crucial and unchangeable matters of doctrine for the entire Catholic Church.