Here’s a simple question for future historians: How is it that the same Catholic Church in Germany, in the space of a single lifetime, could produce the courage of an Alfred Delp, the fidelity and genius of a Joseph Ratzinger, and the inadequacy of her current leadership? We’re a long way now from the murder regime that martyred the Jesuit Delp in 1945. We live in more enlightened times. But there are still days when Delp’s words, written as he waited to be hanged, have an odd resonance:
The great question to us is whether we are still capable of being truly shocked or whether it is to remain so that we see thousands of things and know that they should not be, and must not be, and that we get hardened to them. How many things have we become used to in the course of the years, of the weeks and months, so that we stand unshocked, unstirred, inwardly unmoved.
Today we’re “unshocked” by very different things; things far less dramatic, far more acceptable to the culturally enlightened, but finally toxic nonetheless. Does anyone anywhere, for example, remember Romans 1 and its comments on sex and human integrity? Is anyone anywhere “shocked” by any kind of sexual dysfunction today, or the excuse-making that seeks to accommodate and normalize it? Apparently not in northern Europe.
Earlier this month the vice president of Germany’s bishops’ conference, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, suggested that the Church’s current “silence and taboo” on the issue of same-sex marriage were unproductive. In his words, “[s]houldn’t we be fairer, given that there is much that’s positive, good and right in [same-sex unions]? Should we not, for example, consider a blessing—something not to be confused with a wedding ceremony?”
Good and right? Not to be confused with a wedding ceremony? The notion that same-sex blessing ceremonies and sacramental wedding liturgies won’t be confused by the wider public demands an impressive self-hypnosis. This isn’t the first time Bode has floated such ideas, but given recent history, including the record of the 2015 synod, it’s unlikely he could act without the tacit support of other, higher-ranking Church leaders. And all this in the context of a local Church that seems headed for disappearance.
What to do? Let’s imagine the kind of letter American bishops might make their own and then share, privately, with their German brother. It might go something like this:
** ********, 2018
Most Reverend Franz-Josef Bode
Bishop of Osnabrück
Federal Republic of Germany
I write as a brother bishop who shares your compassion for men and women who experience same-sex attraction. We’re also united by a common desire to deepen the Church’s role as a source of mercy and understanding.
Nevertheless, in various recent comments, you have openly suggested a discussion among German bishops about developing a “blessing” for Catholic same-sex couples. Perhaps you’ll permit a broadening of the discussion to include a brother bishop from a different country, for I must tell you, in a spirit of collegial candor, that such a suggestion is gravely mistaken and damaging.
Allow me to elaborate briefly.
An ecclesial blessing given to a person in view of his or her particular form of life constitutes a sign of encouragement in that state of life. In this case, a “blessing” would signify an encouragement of homosexual unions. This would necessarily affirm as moral what is in fact morally wrong. Moreover, such a “blessing” would further compound the moral confusions in our culture and, over time, create greater suffering. Many faithful Catholics would be misled in serious ways.
The Church rightly stresses the ancient maxim, lex orandi lex credendi: The law of worship is the law of belief. Creating a new rite is thus a matter of promoting a new doctrine, one that will be learned, not theoretically, but by practice. The new rite you seem to propose will contradict what the gospel demands and what the Church has taught for two millennia—perhaps in an ambiguous way, but in a damaging way all the same.
The main ethical standard among our secular contemporaries is found in the free consent to consensual pleasure. In this case, all sexual activity is morally warranted, as long as it is freely exchanged. And that means, in principle, that heterosexual and homosexual sex, married or uncommitted sex, experimental or purposefully sterilized sex can all be good. This secular redefinition of sexuality is contrary to the gospel, to the deep truths inscribed in the human person, and to authentic human flourishing.
In contrast, the Catholic ethic of human love seeks to help people achieve happiness, personal integration, and a life grounded in Jesus Christ and the truth. These are not merely abstract notions for any of us who have served in concrete pastoral ministry. Legalism and excessive rigorism have no place in that ministry. But neither do untruths.
Finally, were the German episcopate to adopt such a “blessing,” the risk of public schism in the Church would inevitably grow. The introduction in Germany of a ritual that served to give warrant to homosexual relationships would divide the body of Christ. What is believed and celebrated in Germany would differ dramatically from what is believed and celebrated in the Church in the United States, in Africa, in Poland, and elsewhere. For the bishops of Germany to affirm such a “blessing” collectively would thus fracture our communion within the Church. For how can we be in true communion in the Eucharist if we disagree on the most basic issues of charity, the moral life, and the state of grace?
St. Irenaeus notes that the unity of the Church's teaching is founded on the truth of apostolic doctrine. This unity is crucial to the meaning and inner coherence of the episcopal office. Any damage to that unity in truth, even in the name of a supposed compassion, works to the detriment of the whole Church and the mission of the gospel.
Please accept this expression of my grave concern as one offered in friendship for the sake of our Catholic faithful.
With fraternal best wishes in Jesus Christ,
It’s a modest proposal, a letter like this. But, if the truth is spoken with love, not an unreasonable one. And for the sake of the Church and her witness in the world, very clearly a needed one.
Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia.