A bishop has reported that more than 700 people left his diocese in the wake of the Vatican ban on blessing same-gender couples.
The Tablet reported:
“[Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny] spoke about the ‘dramatic’ backlash among ‘mainly straight people’ who saw the Vatican document as ‘a step too far’ during a discussion about the Church’s ministry to LGBT Catholics and same-sex couples.
“In the webinar, hosted by The Tablet, he said that as many as 2,000 people had cancelled their baptismal registrations in the Flemish dioceses in Belgium, a traditionally strongly Catholic country. . .
“. . .the practical cost of this, he underlined, was the loss to the faith of Church members. ‘It’s not about principles or theories – it is about real people and that is my concern. That is our responsibility in front of God our Father,’ he said.”
Bonny, who is a theologian by training, also criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its responsum for possessing a ‘theological weakness” and for failing to integrate contemporary knowledge. He suggested the document was “as if it was written in the time of Pius XII.” The responsum failed to seriously account for Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and the Synod on the Family process that gave rise to that document, he added.
The bishop also criticized the responsum’s complaint that sacramental marriage as a heterosexual institution could be misunderstood in light of same-gender blessings. Bonny replied to this critique:
“‘There are plenty of similarities. Nobody says it is the same, it is not the same. And there are indeed major differences. But to say that there are no possible similarities or analogies, not even the slightest, it’s not true. So, it’s repeating something that everybody knows is not true.’ . . .
“‘What we propose here is not to extend sacramental marriage. . .There are different ways of loving and taking care of one another and taking up your responsibility in the Church and in society. So not all should be the same, there are differences. But there are so many possibilities that are coming from the Scripture and from the tradition of the Church, to walk together with people, to bring it before God and to ask God’s blessing on it.’”
During the webinar, Bonny also spoke the bishop’s role and the church’s teachings on co-responsibility as they relate to LGBTQ people, saying:
“‘…it’s my responsibility to make them feel part of that family that is the Church, not only by welcoming them in a passive way, but also by giving them a responsibility in an active way to make them together co-responsible for what is happening in the Church.’ . . .
“‘Are there ways to do it more or less in a liturgical way – there are; and we have to work carefully on that. But to be able to work on that we first have to be open to discussing it, not ignore it – not put it away.’”
Finally, Bonny affirmed that it is possible to reform the Catechism of the Catholic Church in light of new developments since its publication several decades ago, commenting, “The Catechism is not of divine right, it can be changed by the Pope. . .The Catechism is a book that is open to historicity and progress.”
Another panelist on The Tablet webinar, Sr. Gemma Simmonds, from the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Cambridge, also spoke to the loss of people from the church in the wake of the Vatican ban. Simmons stated:
“‘We are losing people in the Church. We are bleeding women who were walking away, we are bleeding young people, and we are bleeding older people who find that the reality in which they live no longer finds a response within the church of acceptance and blessing.’”
In a separate article in The Tablet , Christopher Lamb examined what might be done to stop Catholics from leaving, a question that includes, but also goes beyond, blessing same-gender couples. Lamb makes three points:
First, Pope Francis emphasis on synodality means “now is a crucial for time and space to be given for discernment rather than Rome panicking and issuing premature judgements.” Bonny, an expert in Christian unity, rejected the suggestion that Germany’s Synodal Way is leading to schism. Lamb wrote:
“‘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’.”
Second, the church needs to reappraise its teachings on homosexuality, a point in the webinar that will be taken up in a future Bondings 2.0 post.
Third, our understanding of the church as a structure is essential. Bishop Bonny’s suggestion that the church be seen as a family is one path to moving forward. He suggested to Catholics, “Invite your bishop for an evening meal at home and talk with him. It will be a conversion for him.”
On that point, Bonny spoke about his own experience with LGBTQ people:
“‘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.’”
Previously in March, Bishop Bonny said he was “ashamed” of the church due to the Vatican ban on same-gender blessings. His record on this question is quite positive; indeed, in 2014 he became the first Catholic bishop to call explicitly for the church to bless same-gender couples. A participant in the 2015 Synod on the Family, he told Bondings 2.0 that it was ultimately better that LGBTQ issues were not too prominently mentioned the meeting’s final document because “it was better to avoid it than push it and arriv[e] that is something wrong.”
Bishop Bonny’s latest comments are refreshingly honest about the harm that anti-LGBTQ statements and actions by church leaders cause not only to LGBTQ people, but to the wider church. Studies have shown that the church’s LGBTQ-negative posture is a main, if not the primary reason why people leave the church. The Vatican ban on blessing same-gender couples was an unnecessary and particularly cruel realization of this posture. And so people are leaving. But this exodus shows something else: how great the solidarity of heterosexual and cisgender Catholics is with their LGBTQ coreligionists. We can stymie the exodus, but only happen if more bishops follow Johan Bonny’s lead.
On Monday, Bondings 2.0 will cover more responses from Catholics about whether the Vatican ban on same-gender blessings has prompted them to leave the church, recommit to making it inclusive, or finding alternative ways forward.
For Bondings 2.0’s ongoing coverage of responses to and original commentary about the Vatican’s ban on blessing same-gender unions, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 1, 2021