As we wait for Pope Francis’ formal response to the bishops’ synod “Assembly on Marriage and Family”, it’s worth looking back and taking stock.
Many lgbt Catholics voiced disappointment with the assembly proceedings and report, because they had so little to say about same-sex relationships. Others saw this relative silence as a positive sign, concluding from it that the bishops realize that the whole issue of homosexuality requires deeper study. However, there is at least one reason why the report, when it comes, will be worth close attention from gay Catholics: Francis’ conclusions on divorce will have resonance for us, too.
Consider this extract from a Wall Street Journal article on the tension between reformist and conservative positions on communion for the divorced and remarried:
Starting in the 1970s, some German Catholic theologians argued that people who divorced and remarried might be able to receive Communion in at least some cases.
In 1981, St. John Paul II sought to squelch that notion, forcefully reaffirming the church’s ban on Communion for the remarried unless their first marriage was annulled. Otherwise, “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage,” he wrote.
Many German clerics defied the edict, encouraging people to follow their conscience. In 1985, Benno Hartmann, a divorced Catholic, married his second wife, a Protestant and a divorcée. A priest and a Protestant minister blessed the union in a joint ceremony.
“Real life is very far from what the church teaches,” said Mr. Hartmann, 68 years old. “It moves faster than the church can keep up.”
To a large extent, this tension between doctrinal theory and pastoral practice is mirrored in the situation of lesbian and gay Catholics in openly same-sex relationships. The same doctrinal rules for refusing communion to divorced and remarried Catholics can be equally applied to refusing communion to gay men or lesbians living openly with partners. Indeed, such people are sometimes refused communion – but the popular uproar that ensued for exampled, when a pastor used exactly that justification for refusing communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral, demonstrated clearly that in the USA, at least, the lay Catholics do not expect the rule to be applied.
The issue goes beyond that of permitting or refusing communion, to that of recognition of the relationship itself, whether between a previously divorced man and a woman, or between two people of the same sex. The WSJ article notes that even now, some German priests are already to offer “unofficial” blessings to the divorced and remarried – and, says the WSJ, more and more German priests would do the same for same-sex couples.
Last year, a church-funded council of lay Germans proposed in a public resolution that priests be allowed to bless same-sex couples. The bishops didn’t take the suggestion, but more and more priests are doing so. “If a gay couple came to me and asked me for a blessing, I would give them a blessing of course,” said the Rev. Raimund Blanke, pastor of a parish in Bonn.
So, it is unlikely that Francis’ response, when it is published, will have too much to say directly about gay and lesbian Catholics. Even so, if there is even a small movement towards greater accommodation for the divorced and remarried, than will inevitably result in continuing “unofficial” welcome and acceptance for lesbian and gay Catholics, and their relationships. For more substantive formal or doctrinal change, we shall have to wait for that more focussed, further study and debate – when it comes.