On Monday, I shared my concerns that the Pope Francis-approved CDF denial of blessings for same-sex couples would follow the same path as their similar reply to the question on intercommunion. Both times, the CDF said the thing in question was not permitted; both times, the pope signed off on the refusal. But within just a few months of the intercommunion decree, the pope effectively reversed his position when he said publicly that he thought it should be left up to the local bishop whether or not to allow Protestants to receive Holy Communion.
My sense of déjà vu notwithstanding, the world has reacted to the news as though it were the public launch of a new inquisition. People both within and outside of the Church are expressing shock and outrage that the Vatican would issue such a draconian statement in our enlightened age, let alone from this pope.
Elton John, of all people, asked a pointed question that has been on the minds of a lot of Catholics since news of Vatican investment in his autobiographical film, Rocketman, came out in 2019:
How can the Vatican refuse to bless gay marriages because they “are sin”, yet happily make a profit from investing millions in “Rocketman” – a film which celebrates my finding happiness from my marriage to David?? #hypocrisy@VaticanNews @Pontifex pic.twitter.com/sURtrWB6Nd
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) March 15, 2021
Here we see the heart of the problem: there was a real expectation that Francis would change the Church’s stance on this topic, and that expectation is entirely of his own making.
Recall that last October, he was on the record supporting same-sex civil unions – a first for any pope, and a direct violation of the Vatican’s own instruction in 2003, under then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s CDF, which said that “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” and that subsequently, “Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
Further, the instruction went on to say that
In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.
When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
When a pope is willing to endorse something his own Church has classified as “gravely immoral” and a moral duty to oppose, all bets are off.
But that leads us to a problem that’s much bigger than the pope: namely, the open rebellion from priests and bishops who refuse to comply with the CDF’s position, regardless of papal signoff.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German bishops conference, advocated for same-sex blessings last year, and replied to the CDF statement this week with a vague “no easy answers” assessment that left open the path to continued “discussions” on the topic in Germany.
A group of over a thousand “priests, deacons, parish and pastoral officers, religion teachers and professors” in Germany was less decidedly less mild than Bätzing in their response; they’ve said they will continue to offer same-sex blessings, despite the cease-and-desist order from Rome.
Similarly, an Austrian group of pastors has issued a “Call to Disobedience 2.0.” According to Reuters, the group, which has “around 350 members” from the clergy and “more than 3,000 lay supporters” has issued a statement of defiance:
“We members of the Parish Priests Initiative are deeply appalled by the new Roman decree that seeks to prohibit the blessing of same-sex loving couples. This is a relapse into times that we had hoped to have overcome with Pope Francis,” the Austrian-based group said in a statement.
“We will — in solidarity with so many — not reject any loving couple in the future who ask to celebrate God’s blessing, which they experience every day, also in a worship service.”
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, also didn’t hold back in expressing his contempt for the CDF response:
“I feel ashamed for my Church. I mainly feel intellectual and moral incomprehension,” Bonny said in an opinion for De Standaard.
“I would like to apologise to all for whom this responsum is painful and incomprehensible. Their pain for the Church is mine today,” he writes.
The document, he wrote, lacks scientific basis, theological nuance and ethical caution, in particular in the passage which states, “That in God’s plan there is no remotely possible resemblance or even an analogy between heterosexual and same-sex marriage.”
“I myself know gay couples, in civil marriages with children, who form a warm and stable family, and who also actively participate in parish life,” he writes. “Some of them are active full-time as pastoral or church employees. I am very grateful to them. Who has an interest in denying that no resemblance or analogy to heterosexual marriage is possible here?”
This is not an attempt on my part to compile a comprehensive list of dissenters. It’s only an overview of a growing problem: the Church is dealing with open schism, and there are no indications that anything at all will be done about it.
To revisit again my piece from earlier this week, I can’t help but wonder if this was, in fact, the plan. My prediction, even before reading of these rebellious clergy, was as follows:
Will Francis do the same thing he did with intercommunion, leaving same-sex unions to the local ordinary? Likely. Although perhaps not explicitly. He could hide behind a provision of canon law when he did the intercommunion gambit; this latest gayness will be couched, no doubt, under a pastoral provision, perhaps even in reference to Amoris Laetitia and its infamous footnote. More likely than not, this will be handled in a way that is never made public. The Vatican will simply refuse to enforce its own guidelines on this, and will not punish any bishop or priest who does things “the German way.”
Punishment for schism, or for open violations of the Church’s moral teachings, is simply not on the menu anymore. Only traditionalist groups like the SSPX wind up in the crosshairs of Vatican disciplinary action. And while we debate their “canonical status” for decades on end, we see time and time again how individuals like Fr. José Tolentino de Mendonça, an advocate of “Queer Theology,” are promoted for their deviancy. Mendonça had no sooner made headlines with his odd theological positions than he was snapped up to be first a papal retreat master, then archbishop, then cardinal of the Church with voting rights in the next conclave. His rapid ascendancy from obscure sweater-wearing priest to prince of the Church happened in only about a year’s time.
There are, of course, many examples.
Timothy Radcliffe, a priest who has advocated for acceptance of same sex relationships and has speculated about the Eucharistic nature of sodomy, was appointed by Francis as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
A priest notorious for his gay escapades, Battista Ricca, is the administrator of the papal household and the pope’s former liaison to the Vatican financial reform (before it was crushed under the boot of another corrupt papal pick, Cardinal Angelo Becciu.) It was also he about whom Francis famously echoed his rhetorical question, “Who am I to judge?”
James Martin, who is the squeakiest pro-LGBT wheel in the English-speaking clerical world, has not only held an official position with the Vatican secretariat for communications for years, he also enjoyed a 30-minute audience with the pope in 2019 which was highly publicized, after which Martin said it was, “a clear sign of [the pope’s] deep pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.” (Despite allegations that the pope was “displeased” with how Martin characterized their meeting, subsequent reporting indicates that this was not the case.)
And just this week, we’ve learned that the new head of the John Paul II institute for Marriage and Family, Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, is an advocate of the Amoris Laetitia to Communion for “remarried” Catholics, contraception, and is associated with publications arguing for a change in the Church’s stance on same-sex couples.
I could go on and on. The list is longer than I have the patience to recount.
None of these clerics have been disciplined. Many like them have been and continue to be promoted and given privileges despite the obvious danger they represent to the faith.
So why should we expect this open rebellion within the Church (against an issue the pope himself hardly seems to care about) will be met with anything but a shrug?
The enemies within aren’t just emboldened, they are positively empowered. As the de facto schism becomes more and more prominent, what will faithful Catholics be forced to do? What does it mean, at this point, to be “in communion” with the pope, if all these people are treated as though they are also in communion, and the pope’s own teachings have become so suspect?
These are questions we are being forced to find answers to, and they are not easy ones to resolve.
Our shepherds are employing wolves to hunt the sheep. May God guide and preserve us.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.