When the Church “blesses” someone, it usually does so for one of two reasons: to ask God to protect that person from evil, or to confirm that person in the good. Because our spiritual lives are dynamic—at no point are we “holy” enough to rest on our laurels—those two reasons are usually two sides of the same coin: protection against evil should lead us at the same time to progressive growth towards the good.
We bless travelers to shield them from the perils of the journey; we bless the sick to ask God for their recovery or at least enable them to carry their crosses; we bless expectant mothers so that they may be protected from danger in childbirth and receive the divine gift of a child.
Likewise, we bless families so they can be faithful to their vocations as the domestic Church; we bless readers, altar servers, and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to perform ecclesial functions; we bless newlyweds and the parents of the baptized to discharge their matrimonial and parental vocations.
All these blessings are envisioned in the Church’s Book of Blessings, the English edition of the Roman Ritual.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments 2001 “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy” also provides insights into the nature and structure of ritual blessings: among other things, they should be based on “authentic faith in God” (#272) and be intelligible to the faithful who grasp “the importance of commitment to observing the commandments of God, which is ‘implied by asking for a blessing’” (#273).
In the light of that understanding of blessing, I am at a loss to explain the push of the German Catholic bishops to “bless” homosexual “marriages.”
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. On February 3, 2018, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich repeated a similar proposal on Bavarian State Radio, which he then walked back, saying he was musing about the conundrum of how to provide pastoral care to homosexual persons. He was not (necessarily) calling (yet) for ritual blessings. Bishop Bode, of course, hedged his ruminations similarly.
Some of my own cogitations:
Rejecting Current Pastoral Practice
The Church has reflected on how to provide pastoral care to homosexual persons. Those reflections were even authored by one of Cardinal Marx’s predecessors in the See of Munich, Josef Ratzinger in his 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”
The problem is not that the Church lacks a plan for pastoral care of homosexual persons. The problem is that some people do not like that pastoral plan.
The “Letter” itself foresaw that conflict 32 years ago: it acknowledged explicitly that there are people both outside and inside the Church who “condone homosexual activity.” It says frankly that they “are guided by a vision opposed to the truth about the human person, which is fully disclosed in the mystery of Christ” (#8).
The difference between 1986 and 2018 is that, three decades ago, the Church was not as clearly at odds with official cultural mores that often enjoy sanction by the state (which is otherwise supposed to “keep out of morality”).
An opinion piece in the National Catholic Reporter discussing the controversy Bode and Marx have set off, corroborates what the CDF “Letter” said. The authors (both involved with Dignity, the “Catholic” movement which—like “New Ways Ministry”—rejects Catholic teaching) admit such blessings “would be … contrary to Church teaching.” Their modus operandi is one of ecclesiastical guerilla warfare: “… the only way for the institution to change is through an incremental approach, whereby the number of individual cases gradually increases, and the experience of those involved somehow convinces a sufficient number of those in authority that a change in doctrine is merited” (emphasis added).
An Example of Faithful Pastoral Care
The Church in the United States also has an organization with a tested track record in pastoral care for homosexual persons: Courage. The late Father John Harvey did yeoman’s work to develop an apostolate that provided positive pastoral care to homosexual persons in a manner faithful to Catholic teaching. He did it at a time when there was no such apostolate, and his enduring work lends itself to application beyond the United States.
Courage has always been criticized by groups like DignityUSA and “New Ways Ministry” because Courage rightly insists that Catholic pastoral care has to start with what being Catholic means. “Pastoral care” means tending to persons in light of the truth the Church teaches about persons. What DignityUSA and others want was a faulty notion of “pastoral care” that enjoyed a certain run from the 1960s to the ’80s (and seems to have an encore in some circles today) that contraposes “doctrine” to “pastoral care.” Its advocates sometimes call it a “gradual approach.” In practice, it puts “doctrine” over there (a notional ideal to be mentioned and then put back on the shelf) and “pastoral care” over here (a local priest’s or bishop’s “wink wink nod nod” that, having checked the box of mentioning the relevant teaching, no longer really expects its implementation).
Poor Pastoral Care Emboldens Dissent
One illustration of this kind of poor pastoral care is what, in fact, Cardinal Marx and Bishop Bode did. It was arguably scandalous. To suggest that both bishops should not have expected that their very terse but controversial ruminations—floated by one in a local general circulation newspaper and the other on the major local broadcaster—would embolden dissidents from Church teaching to press harder for “a change in doctrine” would not be charity but pure naïveté.
One must then ask whether the bishops are sincerely interested in having that honest theological debate, or whether they are interested in preparing the groundwork for the next subterfuge to follow the earlier German push for Communion for the divorced and adulterous. In the German-speaking countries, a custom has arisen of blessing “couples” for St. Valentine’s Day. I have no issue with that: we need to reinforce marriage, and desperately need to do more for the engaged than a premarital course and inquiries. But note the ambiguity: the blessings of “couples” rarely refers to “him and her.” Once upon a time, that might have seemed redundant: American law and custom did not mention sexual differentiation regarding marriage because—before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had its own revelation—nobody disputed the obvious. But such ambiguity today is not a matter of “it’s obvious” but, rather, “let’s not be obvious.” That seems also to be the pastoral approach the German bishops are pushing, except for the occasional avant-garde German-speaking parish, which in the name of “marriage equality” and “Ehe für alle” (marriage for everybody) admits what they are up to.
As I have previously written, every person is entitled to seek God’s blessing, and every person needs it. But, as I have also written, the local German Church’s initiative seems not so much about seeking and needing blessings as accommodating cultural mores and bending Catholic teaching to do so. Catholicism has a particular vision of love, especially sexual love, which presupposes sexual differentiation. One is free to take it or leave it—but one is not free to expect the Church to tailor its teachings (or its blessings) to accommodate those that leave it.
I fully expect this issue to the joined soon in the United States. Looking at the Book of Blessings, especially rituals for engaged couples and families, there is a strong emphasis on “mutual love” (which the Church has never understood to mean whatever two people think that is) and less emphasis (though it is also there) on parenthood, life-giving, and the family as a center of life. It would not take much to edit these rituals to accentuate the “mutual love” (taken to mean whatever two people think it is) and downplay the life-giving role of the family. After all, dissident theologians have had 50 years since Humanae vitae to engage in how being “creative” and “life-giving” has nothing to do with procreation. Expect it to be coming to a parish near you.
(Photo credit: Cardinal Marx of Munich from Wikicommons)