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Photo: Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, Vice President of the German Bishops Conference
January 25, 2018
The German bishops pushed hard for “accompaniment” of the divorced and “remarried” at the Synods of 2014-15. The new idea percolating in the German Bishops Conference is whether the Church should have a “blessing” for homosexuals who “marry” or have civil partnerships.
Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, the Conference’s Vice President and chair of its Pastoral Committee, floated the idea in his New Year’s Eve homily and in an interview in a local newspaper.
Bode admits that the Church’s understanding of marriage “differs” from the civil—Germany’s Bundestag legalized same-sex “marriage for all” (Ehe für alle) as of October 1, 2017—but insists that the latter is a political reality and that the Church needs to read “the signs of the times.” How shall we “accompany them pastorally and liturgically,” in a way that is “just” to them, Bode asks. While offering no definitive answer in the secular newspaper, Bode floats the trial balloon of considering a “blessing.” He adds immediately that such a “blessing” should not be “confused with a wedding” rite, but nevertheless also asks whether “there is not much positive, good, and right [in such relationships] that we should be more fair” towards them. He implicitly rejects the view that in the Church “a same-sex relationship is first of all classified as a grave sin.”
Bode says that these issues cannot remain “silent and taboo,” but I would question his prudence in raising them in a secular journal, especially in the manner he did. Nuanced theological problems addressed in a few sentences in a newspaper, given that Western public culture is largely indifferent to if not at least mildly contemptuous of those nuances, seems at least to pose a question of balance: too much or too little. If Bishop Bode intended a serious discussion, then his loquacity is too restrained: these issues are too complex to handle in 13 sentences. If he intended to signal that he disagrees with Catholic teaching and its application on the subject, then his loquacity is both too free and too limited: too free, because he raises questions while leaving the matter in doubt; too limited, because he ought to be forthright enough to admit what appears to be at least practical dissent from received ecclesiastical teaching and praxis.
Bode continues the same line of ambiguous speech in his New Year’s Eve sermon, speaking of the need for “the Church to reorient herself in relation to … new orientations on questions of marriage, family, sexuality, and lifestyles.” A readiness to read “the signs of the times” requires the Church to “give consideration to … gender justice ….”
Going beyond the prudence of this interview, let’s consider the ideas Bode proposes, albeit in fragmentary form. The danger, of course, is that we can be accused of inferring things that the bishop did not, but since the bishop himself chose to broach the topic (and assures us “silence and taboo” are no longer possible) then he can’t object to public responses. He should either say clearly what he means or accept that others will try to divine his murky intentions.
Bode proposes a “blessing” for homosexual couplings. He also pretends that such a “blessing” is distinguishable from a marriage rite.
But is it? Consider what modern day “marriage” has become. Caesar’s abolition of sexual differentiation as sine qua non to marriage synergizes well with the post-1960s leitmotifs that “love” is self-justifying (“no matter whom they love”) and that “marriage” is but a social convention (a “license for sex”). From this viewpoint, marital love has no inherent requirement that it find social expression or affirmation. A marriage ceremony might be “your thing” (or, more likely “mom’s” or “grandma’s thing”) but, in the end, it is truly optional to “partnership,” “union,” or sex. That is how the 1960s and 1970s justified fornication to the detriment of marriage as an institution: as long as we “love” each other, who needs a “license”? If one doubts that thesis, consider how marginal the discussion of the morality of premarital sex is today? The crise de jour is how to have ethical hook-ups.
Marriage was always seen as associated with procreation. Marriage naturally established the opportunities for and context within new life could be conceived and nurtured. Marriage and parenthood in principle went together, even if one could cite individual cases of barren marriages. And, before the era of Dolly the Sheep and human breeding, marriage was the justification of the sexual act—which was also called the conjugal act. (That nexus, of course, has been progressively eroded since the Sexual Revolution, starting with contraceptive intercourse and ending its final divorce in law articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges.)
Still, marriage has not gone away. The same Sexual Revolution that marginalized institutional marriage in the case of heterosexual premarital sex found its cultural trappings useful to its desire to mainstream homosexual “weddings.”
In its contemporary attenuated form, marriage no longer is about what society says about marriage as such but only about what X and Y want to say in public—if they want to say anything in public—about their relationship. But at a certain point, X and Y do typically want to say something in public, because Caesar has traditionally attached certain benefits to that public declaration. Granted, the monopoly of rights flowing from the public declaration we call marriage has been eroded by all sorts of marriage wannabes, from “common law marriage” (you’ve been living together so long that the law will say you’re married even if you never did) or “civil union/partnership” arrangements for those who want to have a “relationship” they don’t want (yet) to call “marriage.”
If marriage is what X and Y want to say in public, then two homosexuals seeking an ecclesiastical blessing of their sexual relations (because that is what marriage is about) really want the Church to declare—like Yahweh in Genesis 1—that “it was good.” To “bless” such a “union” is to say, therefore, unequivocally if sotto voce, that “this sexual relationship is good.” And whatever one may think of that idea culturally, one must admit: it is utterly foreign to Catholic teaching.
People get married in connection with sex. Regardless of all the attention given today to the supposed transition of modern marriage from a “procreative” to a “soul mate” model, irrespective of all the lip service paid to the theoretical sundering of marriage from sex, marriage is connected with sex. These two people are not asking for a blessing to celebrate their platonic relationship. People don’t send out invitations, call in their friends, rent halls, and recruit bakers (even against their will) to celebrate their “friendship.” People normally don’t flee hand-in-hand to the nearest priest to bless them-and-their-best-buddy. They announce, celebrate, and seek blessing on a marriage relationship because it is a unique and intimate physical bond between two people “till death do us part.”
That is what Bishop Bode is being asked (and asking the Church) to bless.
And how is a priest supposed to bless a relationship that presupposes acts that the Church has always taught to be gravely sinful?
What kind of blessing does Bode want to confer? One can hardly bless what the Church teaches to be intrinsically evil? So, is the blessing to be prophylactic, i.e., asking God’s protection against being lead into temptation and delivered from the evil of sin? Somehow, I don’t think those who avail themselves of Ehe für alle are quite looking for that. Is the blessing to be penitential? Again, I doubt those who want a “blessing” want that kind of blessing. Furthermore, one cannot seek penance for a planned wrong(“forgive me, Father, for I will sin”), so such a “blessing” would be incoherent.
Of course, one hears the slogan that “if the Church can bless cars and pets, why not these ‘marriages?’” First, there is a fundamental difference between people and things (including animals): the former have free will, the latter not. We bless cars so that they do what they are supposed to do (drive well) and that their drivers be safe in them. We bless pets for the pleasure they bring us by being what they are. But people have free wills (and thus moral agency); they also have human nature, which is ordered to certain ends. Even those who advocate such blessings should recognize the insult in conflating people with things.
No, the logic of “blessing” makes no sense here, because the context of the blessing is to give ecclesial approval to what the Church does not approve. So, its advocates should be honest enough to say they reject what the Church teaches or abandon the project.
But I suspect Bishop Bode will not abandon the project. In my view, the Church in Germany has been quite willing to accommodate the changing cultural trends of the day, often misidentifying them with “the signs of the times.” Like Episcopal bishop John Spong, who back in 1987 set off a firestorm by urging the blessing of fornicators the avant-garde want to call ecclesiastical revolution as just a new form of “pastoral care.” On top of that, Bode seems convinced of the special status of the local Church in Germany: when, at the end of this interview, Bode is told that “the German bishops cannot simply decide these questions alone,” he replies that “ …the European churches and of course the German church play particular roles.” Presumably roles about which African prelates should hold their tongues?
(Photo credit: Diocese of Osnabrück)