Jesus Christ caused a stir when He reached out to prostitutes and ate with tax-collectors, but He did so because He came for the sick, for sinners. In this, however, Our Lord did not bless their sin. On the contrary, He challenged them to sin no more and follow Him.
The Flemish bishops caused their own stir this week by reaching out to those living a homosexual lifestyle. They issued a document outlining a liturgy for blessing same-sex couples who wish to live “in lasting and faithful union with a partner” and “express before God how they are committed to one another.” The Flemish bishops say they want “a welcoming Church that excludes no one.” But in their efforts to be inclusive, they exclude Christ Himself.
The document, published by the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium, offers a suggested ceremony and a “benediction” while acknowledging, at least (and perhaps surprisingly), that it does not confer what the Catholic Church understands as a sacramental marriage. Instead, it expresses that this blessing is intended to offer pastoral closeness to people who are in homosexual relationships. The trouble here is that while the Church doesn’t exclude anyone, she does exclude our sins—and this move by the bishops of Flanders fails to do that.
It is difficult to say with any confidence that there are at least good pastoral intentions here, for the tenor of this outreach falters in following the example of Christ in its seeming, or even overt, denial that there is any sickness present, seeking instead to give the Church’s approval for sin, which is false and outrageous. In doing this, the Flemish bishops seem to be in a race for the schism line with the German bishops, their document coming days after the German bishops overwhelmingly supported “a re-evaluation of homosexuality in the Magisterium” during their topsy-turvy Synodal Way.
With this, the Belgian bishops are defying the Vatican and flying in the face of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent reaffirmation, due to diocesan requests, that the blessing of same-sex couples is not permitted as they are not aligned “to receive and express grace according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.”
The response from Belgium was Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp saying he was ashamed of his Church and her “painful and incomprehensible” decision. And now we have the Flanders document by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels, “Being Pastorally Close to Homosexuals: For a Welcoming Church that Excludes No One.”
This has been a long time coming. Though the Vatican has held the line regarding the illegitimacy and immorality of same-sex “marriage,” Pope Francis’ chaotic papal style has certainly flirted with that line over the years. From his infamous “Who am I to judge?” to broad condemning of homosexual discrimination in Amoris Laetitia, to his off-the-cuff, out-of-context comments in the documentary Francesco where he claims support for civil unions for homosexual couples, the way has been pretty well paved for this Belgian scandal.
But, for all the fuss and fear that our pope and bishops are laboring to normalize deviancy (which they may be doing, some more, some less), it is vitally important for Catholics not to lose their heads or their hearts in these alarming days. To go back to basics, The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition” (CCC 2358).
The Catechism also affirms that homosexual acts are acts of “grave depravity” and are “intrinsically disordered.” Therefore, “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,” (CCC 2359). The Catechism does not deny the trials that homosexual people undergo who refrain from their biological or psychological inclination. Nor does it deny the love we all owe them free of uncharitable judgment.
Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” has become idiomatic, but it shouldn’t be reduced to sodomite acceptance. On that flight from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, he said that a “gay lobby” in the Curia as a pressure group remains a concern, but he does not judge people who are homosexual. “If someone is gay and accepts the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?… They should not be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem…they are our brothers.” That is all true—but its interpretation and application has caused considerable problems.
In Amoris Laetitia, the pope writes:
We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.
That’s all true as well. But again, the tone of acceptance has been branded as acceptance of sinner and sin.
Finally, from last year’s documentary Francesco, the pope says in an interview, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it… What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
Though there is a sleight of hand in film editing here that omits that Francis is talking about homosexuals being denied privileges like visitation rights at hospitals because they are not legally married, comments like these—though not strictly unorthodox and generally pastoral and certainly confusing—have led to the situation where bishops who wish to approve of homosexuals and homosexuality have heard enough liberal-leaning language from Rome to fuel their rebellion against Church teaching.
At the same time, people who suffer from homosexual tendencies should not be excluded from the Church. The crisis that has materialized is that sinners would rather see the Church change her ways rather than change theirs. The truths of the Catholic Church do not change, but the world does—and the world tends to stray from the truth.
Efforts must be made, therefore, to bring the Church to a world that has lost its way. However ineffectively or even problematically, Pope Francis is, to give the benefit of the doubt, attempting to teach the timeless truths of the Church to a people who have lost their hold of truth. He cannot do this without making a stir, but the stir he tends to cause is not the stir that Christ caused.
While the Church shouldn’t stagnate in the name of timeless truth, that doesn’t mean it should rethink the structures of tradition and nature in order to remain relevant in a worldly sense. But it must address people in a voice that will be heard and understood, which is the challenge of our day when godlessness has rendered all things permissible, to borrow Dostoevsky’s line.
Pope Francis may be failing (and the Belgian bishops certainly are) in the defense of doctrine by reaching out to those who, through ignorance—whether willful or not—have felt marginalized by the Church, thinking that the Church hates the sinner together with the sin. By trying to engage this particular group of sinners with a loving heart, the pope is not redefining dogmatic truth but, rather, applying eternal truths to modern problems, which changes their aspect but not their essence. While he may set a charitable, pastoral tone for his brother bishops and priests, it is one that can all too easily lead astray in the reigning atmosphere of politically-correct inclusivity.
The overarching problem is that confusion or rebellion caused by the pope’s lead is due to a fundamental misunderstanding or rejection of what the Church teaches. The Flemish bishops are overthrowing the Church’s authority when they demand that the Church alter her position about something that is immutable and immemorial. They are opposing truths that the Universal Church has acknowledged and enshrined in giving in to the pressure of a world that wants inclusivity on its own terms. The world wants to make the rules, not follow the rules.
Moreover, the Church cannot bless what is wrong; but it can forgive it and give the grace to enter into the goodness of the created order, as difficult as that may be for all of us in one way or another. We are all sick. We are all sinners. We all need the Church. The Church can still, so to speak, redeem prostitutes without prostituting herself. She can still, so to speak, eat with tax-collectors without rendering to Caesar what is God’s. But that will involve making a stir that is not motivated by shame for what the Church teaches but, rather, by making a stir in the explicit exercise of the Catholic understanding of human perfection.
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