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Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 21, 2023
A same-sex couple attends a ceremony after receiving a blessing at a Catholic church in Cologne, Germany, May 10, 2021. (OSV News photo/Thilo Schmuelgen, Reuters)

Global reaction among bishops has varied in response to the Vatican’s declaration that priests may now bless same-sex couples and other Catholics living in “irregular” situations, such as those cohabiting or divorced and remarried Catholics. The response appears most divergent among bishops from some European and African nations. (A number of U.S. bishops have also released statements, which America reported on Dec. 19.)

Bishops from some Western European countries, including Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, where some priests have long called for the opportunity to bless same-sex couples, welcomed the news. Several bishops’ conferences in Africa, however, condemned the document and stated that they would bar priests from offering such blessings, citing both church teaching and local laws that criminalize homosexuality.

Some bishops in Germany have encouraged the blessings of same-sex unions, and bishops in Belgium published a guide in 2022 that could be used for such prayer ceremonies.

The Vatican document released Monday in some ways restrains priests from offering the kinds of blessings being offered in those countries. Even so, the document was greeted warmly by some German and Belgian church leaders.

“It is surprising and positive news,” Bishop Johan Bonny, the bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, said in an interview with a European radio station. “No one expected this to be decided now. It’s been talked about for years. Such blessings have also been given for years, in an unofficial way.” Bishop Bonny called for the church to bless same-sex relationships as far back as 2014.

Speaking this week about the Vatican’s new document, which stops well short of the 2022 Belgian framework, Bishop Bonny called it “a step in the right direction.”

“You have to accept that things are moving forward step by step,” he continued. “It’s great that the pope is now taking this step. Years ago, no one expected him to do it like this. And this is the step that we need now.”

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said he was also surprised, and he seemingly addressed concerns from some L.G.B.T. Catholics that the new document is not inclusive enough because of the rules attached to the blessings. The declaration insists that priests offering blessings to same-sex couples must take measures to ensure that it does not resemble a wedding, with stipulations about clothing and location. Earlier this year, German church leaders petitioned Rome for approval to bless same-sex unions.

Cardinal Marx said on Tuesday that he was a little surprised at the release of the document. He had not expected “that such a signal would come so quickly” and called it a first step that may look small to Catholics in Germany, “but for some in the universal church, it is huge to hear that this should be possible.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller called the document “self-contradictory” and called on diocesan bishops to ban the blessings.

But another prominent German cardinal and former head of the Vatican’s doctrine office released a lengthy essay on Thursday condemning the declaration.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller called the document “self-contradictory” and called on diocesan bishops to ban the blessings.

“As pastor of his local church, he is obliged to prevent these sacrilegious acts, otherwise he would become an accomplice to them and would deny the mandate given to him by Christ to confirm his brethren in the faith,” the cardinal wrote.

Some other European bishops also shared disappointment in the document.

Bishops in Ukraine released a statement calling the declaration “vague” and lamenting that it fails to state explicitly “that the Gospel calls sinners to conversion, and without a call to leave the sinful life of homosexual couples, the blessing may look like an approval.”

Homosexual activity is illegal in about 30 African countries, punishable by death in some instances, and bishops in some of those nations released statements distancing themselves from the document. In several instances, they went so far as to say that the document would not be implemented at all and banned priests from offering such blessings.

Bishops in Malawi released a joint statement on Dec. 19 in which they said any blessings to same-sex couples by priests would be prohibited.

“We direct that for pastoral reasons, blessings of any kind and for same sex unions of any kind, are not permitted in Malawi,” the bishops said in a statement.

The statement says that the Vatican document is not meant to expand who is eligible for a blessing but instead reiterates what the church believes about marriage and reminds Catholics that they are eligible to ask for blessings for any number of reasons.

“It is in this context that same sex union couples or those living in irregular unions can ask and access non-liturgical ordinary blessings which the Church has always given to whoever asks of them,” the bishops said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi.

Priests in Zambia, where homosexuality is also illegal, will also be prohibited from imparting blessings to same-sex couples.

A statement from bishops there called homosexual acts a “grave depravity” and cited church teaching that calls them “intrinsically disordered and contrary to natural law.” In order “to avoid pastoral confusion” and so as “not to break the law of our country,” the Zambian bishops continue, the Vatican declaration is to be the basis for “further reflection and not for implementation in Zambia.”

As in Zambia, homosexuality is also illegal in Nigeria, and bishops there released a statement explaining the declaration and declaring that there remained “no possibility in the Church of blessing same-sex unions and activities.”

Such blessings, the statement continued, “would go against God’s law, the teachings of the Church, the laws of our nation and the cultural sensibilities of our people.” The bishops also instructed priests “to continue in all they do to sustain the sacrament of holy matrimony and never to do anything that would detract from the sacredness of this sacrament.”

In Kenya, meanwhile, political leaders are pushing for a crackdown on L.G.B.T. people, and the bishops’ conference there released a statement that reiterated the document’s prohibition on blessing same-sex unions and sought to contextualize what is now allowed. (The Vatican decree allows for the blessing of a couple in a same-sex or irregular relationship but not the relationship itself.)

“The church seeks to reach out to all individuals, in order to stir them to the path of conversion and salvation,” it reads.

Still, the Kenyan document sought to allay concerns that the Vatican document is trying to normalize same-sex relationships.

“In blessing persons we do not bless the immoral actions they may perform,” the statement continues, “but hope that the blessings and prayers offered over them as human persons will provoke them to conversion and to return to the ways of the Lord.”

Material from KNA was used in this report. Colleen Dulle contributed research to this story.

More: LGBT / Europe / Africa

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