The Vatican’s directive banning the blessing of same-sex unions has sparked defiance among some priests in Europe and left bishops perplexed on how to minister to gay Catholics.
Conservatives praised the ruling, issued on Monday by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but it greatly disappointed gay Catholics, who felt their Church was becoming more welcoming under Pope Francis.
“I feel vicarious shame for my Church,” Johan Bonny, the Roman Catholic bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, wrote in a commentary on Wednesday in the Flemish newspaper De Standard.
“I want to apologise to all those for whom this response is painful and incomprehensible… their pain for the Church is mine today … God has never been stingy or pedantic with His blessing on people,” he said.
Bonny’s response was among the most blunt by a bishop. Others, such as Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, pointed to the challenges the Church now faces.
“It’s one thing to say we can’t bless same-sex unions. Well let’s then commit ourselves to grappling with the question about how else we might include same-sex couples,” Coleridge said on Wednesday in a webinar with the Catholic magazine The Tablet.
“It’s just not enough to say ‘we can’t, we can’t’”.
Father James Martin, a New York Jesuit, said he feared the directive may prompt “some LGBTQ Catholics to leave the church, after years of feeling rejected and unwelcome.”
In Germany, more than 1,000 people, most of them priests, had by Wednesday signed a petition in which they said they would not refuse to give blessings, according to Burkhard Hose, a priest who launched an initiative calling for “pastoral disobedience”.
In some countries, parishes and ministers had begun blessing same-sex unions in lieu of marriage, and there had been calls for bishops to institutionalise de facto such blessings, although the practice caused alarm among conservatives.
The ruling, which the pope approved, came as a surprise to many in the 1.3 billion-member Church because he has been more conciliatory towards gay people than perhaps any other pontiff.
He has held meetings with gay couples and encouraged those who want to raise their children in the Church to do so. In 2013 he made the now-famous remark “Who am I to judge” about gay people seeking God and trying to live by the Church’s rules.
The Catholic Church teaches homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are.
Bill Donohue, president of the U.S.-based Catholic League, which backs conservative views, welcomed the ruling in a statement in which he also criticised bishops in Germany who have expressed support for the blessing of same-sex couples.
“It is one thing to say all persons possess equal dignity in the eyes of God; it is quite another to say that whatever they do is acceptable to God. Human status and human behaviour are not identical,” he said.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said the disappointment of gay Catholics was “understandable,” and that the Church now had to “redouble our efforts to be creative and resilient in finding ways to welcome and encourage all LGBTQ people into our family of faith.”
While Coleridge and Cupich, both seen as progressives, appeared to have chosen their words carefully, Tobias Schaefer, the provost of the cathedral in Worms, Germany, did not hide his outrage.
“If the Church does not have the power to bless wherever people yearn for blessing, has it not abandoned its most fundamental duty? Blessings are not a way of passing a moral judgement!” Schaefer said on Facebook, adding he would disobey the directive.