The decision by the Dutch-speaking bishops of Belgium formally to recognise gay partnerships has sparked a pushback.
Francis said the Church cannot give a credible witness to Jesus Christ through “legalism or clerical moralism”.
The Flemish bishops have taken an historic step in the Church’s ministry to gay Catholics by producing an official recognition of same-sex couples within the context of a prayer service.
Their bold move seeks to follow the pastoral approach of Pope Francis rather than the one taken by the Holy See’s doctrine office, which last year said the Church cannot bless same-sex couples. The initiative seeks to balance the pastoral care for gay Catholics while remaining within the bounds of Church teaching and loyal to Rome. It is also another sign that the Church is beginning to make a decisive shift in how it handles LGBTQ Catholics.
Crucially, the bishops say their initiative to couples is in line with the Pope’s family life document, Amoris Laetitia, with its emphasis on discernment, accompaniment and integration and demand that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity”.
They also point out that in Amoris Laetitia, Francis argued that an individual’s conscience can recognise what “God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” even if it does not live up to the “objective ideal”. In other words, unmarried couples or those in “irregular” unions can still make decisions based on conscience and undertake spiritual discernment and development.
“It is the first time that bishops say it’s okay to be LGBT and that this group is to be respected, have a place inside the Church and say ‘we give you a ministry, and a place of exchange and dialogue’,” said Willy Bombeek, who will be coordinating ministry to gay Catholics for the Flemish bishops.
Mr Bombeek is an openly gay Catholic who for decades had worked in Catholic education and as a spokesman for Flemish Catholic schools. Inspired by Francis’ call to give a voice to the voiceless, he started to explore ways for same-sex couples to be accepted and recognised but to do so in a manner that is loyal to the Church.
The matter needed to be addressed, he felt, because clandestine church services for LGBT couples had been taking place for some time. Mr Bombeek brought together a group of gay Catholics, theologians, and parents who produced a document that was submitted to the bishops. To their surprise, the bishops then produced their own prayer text and statement, which was published on 20 September.
The decision by the Dutch-speaking bishops of Belgium formally to recognise gay partnerships has already sparked an aggressive pushback from certain voices in the Church. Some even accuse the bishops of a “schismatic” act that defies Catholic teaching. But this claim has been dismissed by Church commentators in Belgium.
“The Flemish bishops are the last ones to be schismatic,” Hans Geybels, a theologian who is the former spokesman for the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels, said. “They try to keep in line with Rome.”
By coincidence, the bishops are due in Rome in late November for their “ad limina” visit, where they will have meetings with Pope Francis and officials in the Roman Curia.
The same-sex blessing topic is likely to be on the agenda, with the question focussing on the extent to which the Flemish bishops are in breach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 15 March 2021 ban on blessings for gay couples, which Francis signed off on.
That document emphasised that any blessing ceremony for gay couples “would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing” given to married couples. But the bishops have repeatedly stressed that what they have sanctioned is distinct from a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
There is also a theological debate about how far the bishops have formally given approval to the “blessings” of same-sex couples. The prayers to be said with couples asks that God “may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity” and at the end advises that a “Benediction” or blessing be given to the couple.
Nevertheless, there is enough creative ambiguity in the wording of the prayers, which makes them difficult to “pin down” into a neat category, while the service of recognition of a same-sex couple is described as a “moment of prayer” and is presented as a proposal.
The Flemish bishops have adopted a very different tone, style and approach to the Holy See’s doctrine department, which has produced several harshly worded rulings on homosexuality in recent decades.
Their pastoral, rather than legal, approach is in keeping with Francis, who has called for an approach to LGBT Catholics based on “closeness, compassion and tenderness.”
He told the British comedian Stephen K Amos, a gay man, that giving “more importance to the adjective [gay] rather than the noun [man]” is not a good and people who “select or discard people because of the adjective…don’t have a human heart”. Even though the Vatican issued a document in 2003 setting out why it is “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions”, the Pope has given his support to civil partnerships, and last year Francis said the Church cannot give a credible witness to Jesus Christ through “legalism or clerical moralism”.
He made the latter remarks just a few days after the doctrine office had released their ruling on same-sex blessings.
Both Bombeek and Geybels said the Flemish bishops are seeking to respond to the needs of the local church and are not trying to implement a Church-wide policy. The Dutch-speaking part of Belgium has traditionally been very Catholic but, in recent decades, has seen a huge drop-off in Mass attendance and participation.
Bishop Johan Bonny told me last year that as many as 700, mainly young people, had formally left the Church in the two weeks following the Vatican’s same-sex blessing ban. The move by the Flemish bishops will not re-fill the pews or stem the decline in numbers. But it is an attempt to respond to the signs of the times. It opens a door for other churches to do something similar.
Being pastorally close to gay people
For a welcoming Church that excludes no one
For years, the Catholic faith community of our country, in all its sections, together with other social actors to create a climate of respect, recognition and integration. Many of them, moreover, are committed in an ecclesiastical context or a Christian institution. The bishops encourage their collaborators to continue to follow this path. In doing so, they feel supported by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which Pope Francis wrote after the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Distinguish, accompany and integrate: these remain the key words.
With these words, on 17 March 2021, we, the bishops of our country, published a communiqué on pastoral dealings with homosexual persons and couples. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explicitly states that every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be respected in his dignity and treated with respect (AL 250). We want to continue on that path by giving this pastoral a more structural character.
Pastoral care and guidance
The pastoral attention of the church community concerns first and foremost the homosexual persons themselves. Along the sometimes complex path of acknowledging, accepting and living positively, we want to remain close to them. Some remain celibate. They deserve our appreciation and support. Others prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner. They too deserve our appreciation and support. Because this relationship too, although not a church marriage, can be a source of peace and shared happiness for those involved.
Their family and relatives equally deserve this pastoral attention and guidance. An attitude of understanding and appreciation is of great importance. Pope Francis explicitly asks these families to offer respectful pastoral guidance so that their members who exhibit a homosexual orientation can enjoy the necessary support to understand and fully fulfil the will of God in their lives (AL 250). Our focus should also be on the wider society and church community. Notwithstanding a growing social recognition of the homosexual fellow man, many remain with questions. At the same time, homophobic violence can raise its head. A better understanding can promote better integration.
The Flemish bishops want to anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons and couples on a structural basis. The policy team of the Interdiocesan Service for Family Pastoral Care (IDGP) will have an additional staff member to take this to heart. The bishops have appointed Willy Bombeek for this purpose. In addition, each diocese will appoint someone to look after the same pastoral focus in the context of diocesan family ministry. He or she will be the point of contact for that diocese. As interdiocesan coordinator, Willy Bombeek will work with them and provide them with the necessary training and guidance.
Pastoral of encounter
This pastoral focuses on encounter and conversation. Even believers who live in a stable homosexual relationship desire respect and appreciation. It hurts when they feel they do not belong or are excluded. They want to be heard and recognised. That is what this pastoralapproach is: their story from uncertainty to growing clarity and acceptance; their questions regarding church positions; their joy of knowing a permanent partner; their choice of an exclusive and lasting relationship; their firm desire to take responsibility to take responsibility for each other and their desire to be of service in church and society. In this pastoral approach, there is room for spiritual discernment, for inner growth and for conscientious decisions. Pope Francis calls for people’s conscientious judgment to be people to be valued and supported, even in life situations that the objective ideal of marriage do not fully live up to it: Conscience can earnestly and honestly recognise this which is now the noble answer one can give to God, and it can recognise with some certainty that this answer is the self-giving that God demands amid the complexity of concrete limitations, even if the full objective ideal is not achieved (AL 303).
For homosexual persons or couples it is important to integrate in the community of faith. About that integration, Pope Francis writes: The important thing is to integrate everyone, to help everyone help everyone to find their own way of being part of the Church community, so that they would be personally touched by the ‘undeserved, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one should be condemned forever, because that is not the mindset of the Gospel! I address myself not only to divorced people and people in a new relationship, but to all, in whatever situation they find themselves (AL 297).
Prayer for love and faithfulness
During pastoral meetings, people often ask for a moment of prayer to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity. What concrete content and form that prayer can take is best discussed by those involved with a pastoral leader. Such a moment of prayer can take place in all simplicity. Also, the difference should remain clear with what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage.
For example, this prayer moment could proceed as follows.
• Opening word
• Opening prayer
• Scripture reading
• Engagement of the two people involved. Together they express before God how they
towards each other.
God of love and faithfulness,
today we stand before You
surrounded by family and friends.
We thank You that we could find each other.
We want to be there for each other
in all circumstances of life.
We confidently express here
that we want to work on each other’s happiness
day by day.
We pray: give us strength
to be faithful to each other
and deepen our commitment.
In your nearness we trust,
from your Word we want to live,
given to each other for good.
• Prayer of the community. The community prays that God’s grace may work
be active in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they
God and Father,
we surround N. and N. today with our prayer.
You know their hearts and the path they will take together from now on.
Make their commitment to each other strong and faithful.
Let their home be filled with understanding,
tolerance and care.
Let there be room for reconciliation and peace.
Let the love they share delight them
and make them of service in our community.
Give us the strength to walk with them,
together in the footsteps of your Son
and strengthened by your Spirit.
• Intercessory prayer
• Our Father
• Final prayer
Brussels, 20 September 2022
The Flemish Bishops
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