By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Mar 14, 2023
In an interview posted today, Cardinal Pietro Parolin expressed opposition to the German bishops’ decision to offer blessings for same-sex unions. So far, so good. But the reasons that the Vatican Secretary of State gave for that opposition are troubling.
Cardinal Parolin said that the German episcopal conference “cannot make such a decision that involves the discipline of the universal Church.”
Well, first of all, the German bishops did make that decision. The German bishops voted 38-9 in favor the statement passed by the Synodal Path, “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other.” When he says that the German bishops “cannot” make that decision, presumably Cardinal Parolin means that they do not have the authority to do so. But with or without proper authority, the clear majority of German bishops have given their support for the measure, and thrown their support behind the Synodal Path.
So now what?
The German bishops (the majority, at least) have done what they have no right to do. How will the Vatican react? To date the statements from Rome—including this statement by Cardinal Parolin—have been cautious, measured, obviously designed to avoid a confrontation. But the German bishops have ignored the counsels of caution and pressed the issue. Cardinal Walter Kasper—no stodgy conservative—has characterized the Synodal Path as an “attempted coup,” and warned that the German hierarchy is on the brink of schism. The cautionary statements from Rome are now routinely ignored. Sooner or later the Vatican must draw the line.
But there is another disturbing note in Cardinal Parolin’s statement. He says that the German hierarchy “cannot make such a decision that involves the discipline of the universal Church.” The discipline of the Church—as opposed to the doctrine? Perhaps the cardinal misspoke, or perhaps the translation is faulty. But Cardinal Parolin is usually quite careful with his words, and this is the official translation from Vatican News.
The discipline of the Church can change; the doctrine cannot. Just this week Pope Francis drew some headlines when he observed that the discipline of priestly celibacy could change; there is nothing in Catholic doctrine (although there is a great deal in the Western spiritual tradition) that demands priests be celibate.
A proposal to bless same-sex unions falls into a different category. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its statement issued last year, taught that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” [Emphasis added] To say that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions indicates that there is a permanent barrier: a doctrinal principle that cannot be abrogated.
The CDF statement said that:
…it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.
A homosexual union cannot serve God’s designs, the CDF explained, because even if it is a loving and stable relationship, insofar as it is based on illicit sexual activity, it is “a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” As Pope Francis himself wrote in Amoris Laetitia (251), quoting the Synod of Bishops, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
The German proposal does treat same-sex partnerships as analogous to marriage—as unions that should be blessed. The CDF said that such unions cannot be blessed. The two statements cannot be reconciled; something has to give.
From Rome come unconfirmed reports that Pope Francis was not entirely happy with the CDF statement—that he thought it too strong. Could that explain why Cardinal Parolin speaks of Church “discipline” rather than immutable doctrine?
Again, the Vatican has repeatedly cautioned the German bishops. But those cautions could be interpreted as complaints that the Germans are moving too fast, that they are not acting prudently, that they must consult other bishops of the universal Church. Such complaints would leave open the possibility that at some point, the universal Church will accept what the German bishops now proclaim.
But if the CDF statement is correct, that acceptance will not ever come, and the German hierarchy has already rushed headlong into territory where the universal Church can never go.
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