The Vatican on gay marriage
The Vatican recently declared that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions, which sent shockwaves around the world. In the weeks since its announcement on gay marriage, many within the Church have moved to challenge it.
The Vatican’s reassertion
On March 15, 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the oldest of the Vatican’s Curia – administrative bodies composed of Church officials – formally addressed the question: ‘Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?’ The Congregation, in a statement written by Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, responded with a clearcut: ‘no’. Citing speeches given by Pope Francis, Catholic catechisms, and previous Catholic letters and releases, Ladaria explained that while God blesses sinful individuals, neither God nor the Church can bless sin itself. Sin, in this instance, being a same-sex relationship or union.
Given the Church’s historical views towards same-sex relations, the declaration did not come as a theological surprise and reflected a reassertion of long-held beliefs. Yet, in the days and weeks following the announcement, criticism of the Congregation’s decision has abounded – from the tweets of pop stars to petitions of concern circulated amongst Catholic clergy members themselves.
Within days of the CDF publication, signs of clerical pushback began entering the public sphere. For instance on March 17th, the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, published an opinion piece in which he expressed how he felt shame for the Church following its announcement.  Bonny’s viewpoint has been echoed by several other clerics in Europe, particularly Austria and Germany.
In Germany, two pastors, Burkhard Hose of Würzburg and Bernd Mönkebüscher of Paderborn, started an initiative of clerical signatures, aimed at collectively expressing disappointment with the Vatican’s position and a desire for further discussion. By the end of March 2021, when the initiative was formally sent to members of the German Catholic Church’s official forum on ‘Living in Successful Relationships’, it had received over 2,600 signatures. Coinciding with the initiative, the Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, announced that he would not penalise priests who continued to bless same-sex marriages. Overbeck’s move was not altogether unexpected, as he has forcefully called for Church acceptance of same-sex marriages in the past.
As the German initiative garnered popularity, several Austrian pastors expressed a similar level of discontent and a desire for further discussion. Along the same vein as the German initiative, a letter criticising the CDF’s announcement for lacking “theological depth” had gained over 277 signatures by the end of March. Joining the criticism of the Vatican’s decision, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, claimed the CDF’s response was marked by a “clear communication error.” The Church, according to Schönborn, ought to act like a “mother,” who blesses all of her children.
The German-speaking world has not provided the only criticism, as pockets have cropped up throughout the world – including in Italy, not so far from the source of the announcement. In a particularly dramatic move, a priest in northwestern Italy refused to bless palm branches at a Palm Sunday Mass, refusing to do so until he could bless same-sex marriages.
A welcome step to some
Not all clerics or Catholic believers have responded with criticism, though. Many – including several German Catholics – have agreed with the CDF’s statement. Others expressed appreciation at the clarity of the statement, as diverse opinions over blessing same-sex unions have divided the Church for years, particularly since Francis became pope.
Pope Francis’s mixed messaging
Pope Francis’s opinions on gay marriage have garnered significant attention since his 2013 election. Shortly after assuming the papacy, Francis responded to questions on the presence of a ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican with: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”  In October 2020, the issue of civil union legitimacy in the eyes of the Church shot to the forefront of discussions again when a documentary on Francis contained comments many swiftly interpreted as a lurch towards recognising civil unions. Though the Vatican ultimately asserted that such a change in policy was not the pope’s opinion, speculation remained.
Even in the current situation, despite the definitive nature of the CDF’s responsum, which received the pope’s approval, questions remain regarding where Francis’s opinions truly fall. For instance, some have wondered if a speech he gave on March 21st, in which he emphasised “closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” served as an attempt to distance himself from the official, doctrinal elements of the CDF’s statement.
Far from settled
Needless to say, despite the CDF’s attempts to generate a clear, universal response on the issue of blessing same-sex relationships, the issue is far from settled. Moreover, it will, most likely, require extensive discussions, clarifications, and amendments in the weeks, months, and years to come.
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