Historic step by Flemish bishops shows shift in Church approach to LGBTQ Catholics

The decision by the Dutch-speaking bishops of Belgium formally to recognise gay partnerships has sparked a pushback.

Pope Francis leads an audience with a delegation from Deloitte Global in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican Sept. 22, 2022. The pope said financial professionals can help remedy today’s economic, environmental and social crises and help create a more humane, just and fraternal world. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Francis said the Church cannot give a credible witness to Jesus Christ through “legalism or clerical moralism”.

by Christopher Lamb

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

Official text 

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.

Structural anchoring

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.

For example:

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

live.

For example:

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

• Benediction

Brussels, 20 September 2022

The Flemish Bishops

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Defying Vatican, Flemish bishops allow blessing same-sex unions

A rainbow flag is seen on the wall of a Catholic church as the building is open for same-sex couples to receive a blessing in Cologne, Germany, May 10, 2021.

By and

Flemish Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday issued a document effectively allowing the blessing of same-sex unions, in direct defiance of a ruling against such practices by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

The document published on the website of the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium suggested a ritual that included a prayer and a benediction for stable same-sex unions. But it stressed that it was not “what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage”.

It said the Church wanted to be “pastorally close to homosexual persons” and be a “welcoming Church that excludes no one.”

The ritual would start with prayers and includes a commitment by the two people in front of family and friends to be faithful to each other. It would end with more prayer and what the document called a “benediction”.

A Vatican spokesman had no immediate comment.

In March 2021, in response to formal questions from a number of Roman Catholic dioceses on whether the practice of blessing same-sex unions was allowed, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), ruled that it was not. read more

At the time, the CDF said its ruling was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of the sacrament of marriage and the blessing associated with it.

In response to that ruling, Bishop John Bonny of Antwerp said he felt “shame for my Church” and apologised to those he said had been hurt by the “painful and incomprehensible” decision.

POPE SUPPORTS CIVIL UNIONS BUT NOT MARRIAGE

Pope Francis has said he is opposed to same-sex marriage in the Church but supports civil union legislation to give same-sex couples legal protection and rights such as inheritance and shared health care.

A spokesman for the bishops, Geert De Kerpel, said their intention was not to defy the Vatican ruling.

“This is first and foremost a positive message,” he told Reuters, adding that it conformed with the pope’s calls for a more inclusive Church.

The Flemish bishops document said that some Catholic gays remained celibate and that the Church appreciated it. The Church teaches that while homosexual orientation is not sinful, homosexual acts are.

But the document added that “some prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner” and that such a relationship “can also be a source of peace and shared happiness”.

The bishops denounced “homophobic violence,” and said they wanted to “structurally anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons.

They announced the appointment of Willy Bombeek, a gay Catholic, as an additional staff member to their department for pastoral care of families to oversee care of gay Catholics.

One with similar duties would be appointed to each diocese in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

“I’m proud to belong to the Flemish Church,” Bombeek told Reuters. “I hope that religious people in other countries will also get to experience this, and hopefully, this is only the beginning”.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of U.S.-based Catholic LGBTQ group New Ways Ministry, said the move would be a blessing for both the couple and for the Church.

“These prelates recognise that love is love. Love is more important than sexual behaviour, and love is something that the Church should always bless,” he said in a statement.

Complete Article HERE!

Priest says it’s ‘sad’ Catholic Church will bless tractors but not same-sex couples when they marry

Kellie Harrington and Mandy Loughlin on their wedding day.

By Sarah Mac Donald

A well-known priest has congratulated Olympic medallist Kellie Harrington and her wife Mandy Loughlin on their wedding and criticised the Catholic Church’s stance on same-sex blessings as “out of date”.

Fr Paddy Byrne, parish priest of Abbeyleix, Ballinakill, Raheen in Co Laois, lamented the “sad” fact that he can bless tractors and cars but not a loving same-sex couple.

Speaking to the Irish Independent he said the boxer and healthcare worker “encompasses and personifies all that Christianity is about”.

In a tweet, Fr Byrne described Kelly Harrington as “a national treasure” and said he wished her and her partner health and happiness.

“I find it sad that as church we can bless cars, tractors…I’m not assuming this couple may want such ritual, but for many likewise who do we should,” he wrote.

He was congratulated by Labour TD, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, for his comments.

Fr Byrne told the Irish Independent the Church’s ban on same-sex blessings is “one of the reasons why the level of practice among under 60s at the moment is in freefall”.

He added: “It is not about diluting the truth of Christianity – it is about embracing the consequences of the radical love of Jesus Christ.”

Referring to the sense of exclusion many gay couples feel within Catholicism, he asked: “How can we continue to alienate these couples at such a happy moment in their lives and not offer at least some form of recognition – spiritual nourishment – and ritual?”

He said he did not know Kellie personally or anything about her religious background or tradition, but he felt it was a “paradox” that cars and tractors can be blessed when a committed couple could not.

“I wanted to acknowledge a happy moment in her life particularly in the context of Holy Week, which is a narrative about inclusion, love and welcome.

“These couples aren’t from the moon, they are from loving families, they are our siblings, they are our people, they are us – they are humanity.”

Stressing that he was “not a maverick in any way”, he said people on the ground in the Church buy into the need to offer gay couples a ritual to mark their commitment.

“I speak on behalf of the vast majority of the members of the parishes that I serve and particularly the younger members of those parishes. I speak on behalf of clergy as well. The majority of us find it not just disappointing but almost embarrassing that we cannot celebrate these occasions in our churches,” he said.

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German Catholic Priests Defy Rome to Offer Blessings to Gay Couples

More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany held services to bless gay couples, in defiance of the Vatican’s refusal to recognize same-sex unions.

The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe blesses Christine Walter and Almut Muenster during a service at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on Sunday in Munich.

By

More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany offered blessings to gay couples on Monday in defiance of church teaching and their own bishops.

The call for nationwide blessings came in response to a decree issued by the Vatican on March 15, reinforcing the church’s prohibition of priests asking for God’s benevolence for gay couples, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

A group of 16 German priests and volunteers organized a petition that within days collected more than 2,000 signatures. Encouraged by the response, they decided to take their action one step further and declare May 10 — chosen because of its association with Noah, who in the Bible is recognized by God with a rainbow, a symbol that has more recently been adopted by the L.G.B.T.Q. community — as a day to hold blessing ceremonies for any and all couples, but especially those in same-sex unions.

“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the group said in a statement. “We will not refuse a blessing ceremony.”

The Vatican had no comment on Monday, but the head of the conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany, Georg Bätzing, who is also the bishop of Limburg, rejected using public blessing ceremonies as what he called “instruments for symbolic actions on church policy or for protests.”

“It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church to treat all of these people fairly in their respective concrete situations on their life’s journey and to accompany them pastorally,” Bishop Bätzing said in a statement, speaking for the country’s bishops. “In this context, however, I do not consider public actions such as those planned for 10 May to be helpful or a way forward.”

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because that is God’s plan for the creation of life. Church doctrine says that while gay people must be treated with dignity, homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis has not changed this teaching, but has occasionally raised the hopes of gay Catholics by speaking of the need to love and welcome gay and transgender people.

The German church is among the most powerful and liberal in the world, and Roman Catholics everywhere were watching the response to the blessings for signals of how the church might respond to attempts at reform from those in the pews and from the priests who are often among those most active in finding ways to include gay men and lesbians in the church.

“There has been this incredible discussion in Germany about same-sex couples specifically that has not taken place anywhere else,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. “No other group has done something like that.”

A few German parishes held blessing services on Sunday and dozens more took place Monday, many of them in churches in the heavily Roman Catholic western regions of the country, home to many of Germany’s most liberal Catholics. Some were streamed live, while others offered virtual blessings over social media, “whenever and wherever you want.”

By contrast, only a few parishes in the heavily Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria, the more deeply conservative region where Pope Benedict XVI grew up, held services.

Churches that were not offering ceremonies were encouraged to fly a rainbow flag or other banners recognizing and celebrating love in all of its forms as worthy of God’s graces.

The Rev. Bernd Mönkebüscher, pastor in the Church of St. Agnes in the western town of Hamm and one of the initiators of the campaign, said that every Valentine’s Day, his parish holds blessings for all couples, including those from same-sex unions and those who remarried after a divorce.

“We held a blessing service this Valentine’s Day, but it was important to us in view of this story from Rome to send a clear signal that the church must recognize, honor and appreciate life in all of its many colors,” said Father Mönkebüscher, who identifies as gay. “It is an important gesture toward those people who the church for years, if not decades, has viewed as second-class citizens.”

At least 30 couples had registered to take part in the ceremony in his parish on Monday, he said, adding that the number of participants was limited because of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are fully booked out,” he said.

During the ceremony, Father Mönkebüscher walked around the nave, approaching couples who sat in pairs, socially distanced and masked. They rose as he placed a hand on their shoulders and spoke a blessing as they bowed their heads. After one lesbian couple had received their blessing, they dropped their masks and shared a kiss, wiping away tears.

Not everyone has been receptive of the initiative. One parish in Bavaria received threats from members of an arch-conservative Roman Catholic group and had to call the police to ensure the safety of participants at their ceremony.

The initiative is the latest strain between the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Many parishioners in Germany have left the church, including those frustrated with what they see as an outdated approach to sexual morality and a failure to punish priests accused of abusing children.

According to official statistics, 272,771 people formally quit the Church in 2019, a record number that helped to galvanize efforts among the bishops to discuss with the church a series of issues they believe were contributing to the loss of members. Among them were the role of women in the church, its teachings on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and clerical power structures.

In 2019, they began a series of talks on these topics, discussions of which would be off-limits for the church in many other countries. The talks were to take place among the faithful and church leaders over the course of two years but were extended because of restrictions on gatherings that were introduced last year at the outbreak of the pandemic. They are now to continue into February 2022.

Among those leaving the Church in Germany are many same-sex couples, who are tired of feeling they are not accepted for who they are, said the Rev. Reinhard Kleinewiese, who held a blessing at the Church of St. Mary in the western town of Ahlen on Sunday evening. Ten couples attend, all of them heterosexuals.

“We can’t ignore the fact that a lot of homosexual couples have already left the church. There are many who don’t come anymore,” Father Kleinewiese said. “Nevertheless, it is good and important for this situation and beyond that we make clear that we are not in agreement with Rome on certain issues and prohibitions.”

Complete Article HERE!

So what went wrong in Rome over same-sex blessings?

An analysis by Christopher Lamb following Bishop Johan Bonny’s comments at The Tablet webinar.

by Christopher Lamb

The high cost of the Vatican’s ruling against same-sex blessings has been laid out in stark terms by the Bishop of Antwerp. During a discussion with The Tablet, Bishop Johan Bonny explained that in his diocese large numbers of young people had cancelled their baptismal registrations because of the ruling. Across the traditionally Catholic heartlands of Belgium’s Flemish dioceses, he believed the number who have disaffiliated from the Church stands at around 2,000. Similar findings are likely to be found in other places.

So what might be done to retrieve the flock who are leaving? During the 28 April webinar hosted by The Tablet, Bishop Bonny and a panel of theologians explored how the Church could include and recognise same-sex couples and LGBT Catholics. Yet this question goes deeper than whether or not it is possible to bless gay unions. Instead, it raises profoundly important ecclesiological issues including how to live the “Catholicity” of the Church differently.

Three areas of discussion are emerging as crucial to the debate.

First, is the process the church adopts when making decisions on contentious topics. It is now crucial for time and space to be given for discernment rather than Rome panicking and issuing premature judgements. This is where synodality, which Pope Francis wants to see at every level of the Church, comes in.

Some voices argue that synodal processes such as the one in Germany will result in “schism” because it will lead local churches into divergent stances on questions of sexuality or that challenge official teaching. But Bishop Bonny, who once worked at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, pointed out the threat to unity is in the other direction.

“You cannot have real unity or communion unless local churches can find the best solutions for their problems,” he said during the webinar. “There are basic lines, that’s clear, but for so many questions like ministry in the Church or moral theology, we need more differentiated solutions since the questions are not the same.”

On same-sex blessings, Bonny said there would have been “a different outcome” if Rome had invited bishops from a group of countries where gay marriage is the law to “sit together and make a common proposal”.

He went on: “We could have gone to Rome to discuss [the matter] with the Pope, not with all the cardinals, but the Pope himself, to find the best way possible, according to the Gospel, and what Jesus is teaching us, in the general interests of the Church and the Salus Animarum [good of souls]…That would be real collegiality.”

This requires a different role for Rome and a reimagined relationship between the papacy and local churches. Just issuing a repetition of old formulas to complex pastoral questions is inadequate. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document, which said same-sex blessings are impossible because “God cannot bless sin”, was issued without consultation with bishops or the relevant Vatican departments.

By contrast, Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s family life teaching, emerged after two synod gatherings on the family. Synodality offers ways for a discerned judgment to be reached. Rather than issuing condemnations, Amoris Laetitia focussed on accompaniment, integration and discernment and the positive elements in so-called “irregular” relationships. Fr James Alison, another of the webinar panellists, sees this as the magisterium of the Church walking alongside people. The learning process, he said, happens “sideways” and through “dialogue”. He explained: “It is sideways that we learn who we are. It is from and who each other.”

The second area is how Catholic teaching on homosexuality could be updated. Fr Alison, who is openly gay, argued that the stumbling block on the Church’s ministry to LGBT Catholics remains the definition in the Catechism that same-sex orientation “is objectively disordered” and that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.

He added: “Until someone lets them off having to treat us as a negative definition from the heterosexual act, we are never going to move on. That is at the root of this.” A proposed amendment to the catechism could be to change the phrase “objectively disordered” to “differently ordered”, something which Jesuit priest Fr James Martin has called for.

Bishop Bonny pointed out that the catechism can be updated, adding: “I think there are paragraphs that in a very reasonable, collegial way could be changed for the good of the Church and for the pastoral work we have to do.”

Moral theologian Professor Lisa Sowle Cahill, another panellist, argued that change is more likely to come from the “bottom-up” in the Church, and less from top-down changes.

“I think it’s a mistake to keep trying to work out the reality of same-sex couples or gay and lesbian people within this older terminology which is so concerned with tying everyone down into very careful definitions so that we know exactly where to put everyone and how to set boundaries around them,” she said.

“The Catholic Church never changes its teaching by rejecting or revising what is from the past. Instead, we allow it to die a decent death.”

Professor Cahill, who teaches at Boston College, Massachusetts, said the Pope was offering a Gospel-based morality of “care, compassion and closeness” which should be at the centre of decision making. Amoris Laetitia, she points out, draws from the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas on the application of the natural law and the way it takes into account different factors even in “what is objectively true and right.” Professor Cahill pointed out that Amoris Laetitia states that even couples in “irregular” situations are not deprived of “sanctifying grace”.

The third area is which model of the Church people are using. Bishop Bonny says he likes to see the Church as a family seeing his role as a father or grandfather. It is his responsibility, he said, to make LGBT Catholics “feel part of the family that is the church, not only by welcoming them, but also by giving them a responsibility.” He also recommended that bishops take the time to meet with same-sex couples in their homes.

“Invite your bishop for an evening meal at home and talk with him. It will be a conversion for him”, he advised gay Catholics.

“Once I was invited by two women in a civil marriage with two children, that evening changed my ideas about what it means to live together as a homosexual couple, even having children. I can have many questions, but it changed my ideas.”

If the Church is a family, then it cannot adopt the characteristics of a sect. Sects tend to see themselves as a club and are willing to exclude or throw out people who don’t conform. If the Church is a family then it will always be distressing to hear of people leaving.

Sr Gemma Simmonds of the Margaret Beaufort Institute in Cambridge said the Church cannot operate a system of “you don’t have a ticket” so you are not welcome.

“We are losing people, we are bleeding people…who find that the reality in which they live no longer finds a response within the church of acceptance and blessing,” she said. She offered 1 John 4:16 as encouragement for same-sex couples: “God is love, and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them.”

The Vatican’s doctrine office may have thought that issuing a ruling against same-sex blessings would be enough to close down further discussion about the topic. In fact, it has had the opposite effect, only sparking more debate which go to the heart of what it means to be the Church.

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