Defiance: German Catholic priests bless same-sex unions after Vatican edict

Alberto Pizzoli/Pool Photo via AP

The Vatican thought they’d settled this question two months ago. The Congregation for the Defense of Faith usually has the last word in any matters of theological doctrine and practice, but priests in Germany have begun a defiant protest over same-sex unions. Despite Catholic teachings on marriage and family life, emphasized yet again by the CDF in March, priests in Germany will conduct public blessings of same-sex unions all week long:

Germany’s powerful Catholic progressives are openly defying a recent Holy See pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country this week.

The blessings at open worship services are the latest pushback from German Catholics against a document released in March by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”

The document pleased conservatives and disheartened advocates for LGBTQ Catholics around the globe. But the response has been particularly acute in Germany, where the German church has been at the forefront of opening discussion on hot-button issues such as the church’s teaching on homosexuality as part of a formal process of debate and reform.

The dozens of church services celebrating blessings of gay unions are the latest escalation in tensions between conservatives and progressives that have already sparked alarm, primarily from the right, that part of the German church might be heading into schism.

So much for fidelity and obedience, eh? Whether or not one agrees with the CDF’s position two months ago, there’s no doubting its consistency with the catechism and Catholic doctrine. Nor does it differ from efforts seven years ago to push this idea at the Synod on the Family, among other changes championed mainly by German bishops at that time — including access to the Eucharist by divorced-and-remarried Catholics without an annulment.

Is this the ghost of Martin Luther come to generate another schism? Perhaps it’s more the prospect of making lucre instead. Germany allocates a certain portion of tax revenue back to churches based on affiliation, which means that German bishops and priests have a financial incentive to get butts in the pews regardless of church teaching. A report from last summer by Catholic News Agency explains the mechanism:

The Church in Germany received more money in church tax than ever before in 2019 despite losing a record number of members.

According to official figures released Monday, the German Church received 6.76 billion euros ($7.75 billion) in 2019.

This represents a increase of more than 100 million euros ($115 million) compared to 2018, when the Church gained 6.64 billion euros from the tax. The rise is believed to be due to the growth of Germany’s economy in 2019.

If an individual is registered as a Catholic in Germany, 8-9% of their income tax goes to the Church. The only way they can stop paying the tax is to make an official declaration renouncing their membership. They are no longer allowed to receive the sacraments or a Catholic burial.

That is one good reason for churches to separate themselves from the state, as well as the other way around. This kind of state-revenue model creates all sorts of conflicts in any religious organization, let alone one as hierarchical as the Catholic Church. It’s very possible that the clergy in Germany are doing this out of conviction, but their defiance to the Vatican and contradiction of Catholic teaching certainly leave a more venal impression in this context.

But even if one credits the German clergy for sincerity on this point, theologian George Weigel argues that the priests are choosing popularity over scripture:

CNA: Bishop Bätzing seems to want to walk a fine line between remaining faithful to Rome while not displeasing those who are already announcing “reforms”. Is there such a middle ground? If so, what would that middle ground realistically look like?

Weigel: The issue is not “Rome” vs. “reforms.” The issue is fidelity to the truth of the Gospel vs. fidelity to the Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the times.” Put another way, the issue at stake in the German “synodal way” is whether divine revelation — on the indissolubility of marriage, on worthiness to receive holy communion, on the proper ordering of our human loves — is real and has binding power over time, in every cultural situation. That was also the issue at the Synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018.

CNA: Bishop Bätzing says: “The Synodal Way is striving, particularly with respect to the topic of affective relationships, to discuss in a broad context that also considers the need, possibility, and limits of developing the Church’s magisterium. The perspectives presented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will find space in these debates.” Are the CDF’s statements mere “perspectives” that can be debated, or are they the basis for debate?

Weigel: When the CDF speaks authoritatively, as it did in the matter of whether it was possible for the Church to “bless” same-sex relationships, it is not offering a “perspective,” but is speaking for the truth of Catholic faith. If Bishop Bätzing and others in the German hierarchy do not accept those truths, they should have the honesty to say so. If they do accept those truths, they should have the courage to say so.

The German bishops are claiming a “synodal path” that allows each national conference authority not just to define practice but also develop doctrine. That in itself is schismatic by definition. It’s the same argument used by Henry VIII in splitting the English church away from Rome, a move also supported by a number of the bishops in Henry’s time. In essence, German bishops insisting on the “synodal path” are arguing that Pope Francis is nothing more than the Bishop of Rome, Henry VIII’s argument in the 16th century that created the last major schism in Catholicism, shortly after Luther’s.

The risk here of schism is particularly worrisome for Catholics, but it has ramifications beyond that to Christian witness and activism. For all of the angst over issues of corruption and scandal at the Vatican, it plays a critical role in key debates over the sacramental nature of life. I point that out in my editorial for Salem Radio Network and Townhall.com commentary:

The Vatican has remained firm on its core teachings on marriage and abortion, one of the few global institutions to resist a wave of relativist reconstruction of truth and scripture. A German assault on the integrity and authority of the Catholic Church will damage everyone who works to spread the truth of the Gospel.

The ball has landed in the Vatican’s court. Will they remain firm on church doctrine? Or will they also begin bending toward the zeitgeist on this point?