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German bishops in tug of war over blessing same-sex unions

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki faces mounting pressure from multiple fronts, including local media — and some clergy: In open defiance, several priests conducted an event blessing same-sex couples outside the iconic Cologne Cathedral Sept 21, 2023. / Credit: Archdiocese of Cologne

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 11:23 am (CNA).

The German Bishops’ Conference convenes its plenary assembly today, setting the stage for what promises to be a pivotal gathering amid a period of unprecedented tension within the Church in Germany — and with the wider Catholic Church. 

On the official agenda for the gathering from Sept. 25–28 in the town of Wiesbaden are topics ranging from handling spiritual abuse to preparations for the upcoming Synod on Synodality in Rome.

However, overshadowing discussions are the profoundly divisive issues brought to the surface by the controversial German Synodal Way, particularly the blessing of same-sex unions — an issue that has seen acts of open defiance across Germany against clarifications from the Vatican. 

At the center of this maelstrom is Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, who faces mounting pressure from multiple fronts, including local media — and some clergy: In open defiance, several priests conducted an event blessing same-sex couples outside the iconic Cologne Cathedral Sept. 21.

According to AP, the ceremony was punctuated by people singing the Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love” while waving rainbow flags. 

Such stunts, covered extensively by the media, are a challenge to Woelki. The Cologne archbishop has reprimanded a priest over blessing same-sex unions, emphasizing that such events are not possible, as explained by the Vatican.

This admonishment drew sharp criticism from Birgit Mock, vice president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), who labeled Woelki’s actions “beyond incomprehensible.” Mock, who also heads the Synodal Way’s working group on sexuality, has been a staunch advocate for blessing same-sex unions, putting her at odds with Woelki and the official Vatican stance.

Delegates at the fifth assembly of the German Synodal Way, meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023, applaud after the he passage of a text calling for changes to the German Church’s approach to gender identity. Credit: Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register

Adding fuel to the fire, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, on Sept. 14 criticized Woelki for having “lost acceptance” with people, CNA Deutsch reported

Addressing Pope Francis’ criticism of the German Synodal Way, in which the pontiff said Germany does not need two Protestant churches, Bätzing said that he could, in principle, tolerate contradiction. But, “I find the Protestant thing disrespectful; I disagreed. [Pope Francis] also accuses us of being elitist, by which he means the theologians. However, we are envied for [German theologians] in the universal Church.”

Some German theologians have publicly turned their back on the Synodal Way.

Bätzing’s recent public criticism of Pope Francis comes after a July meeting in Rome attempting to bridge the deep concerns and growing divide between the Germans and Rome. 

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a formal declaration on March 15, 2022, stating unequivocally that the Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions.

The continued open defiance over blessing same-sex unions — supported by prominent prelates such as Cardinal Reinhard Marx — is a symptom of how difficult attempts to dovetail the German Synodal Way with the Synod on Synodality are.

The stakes could not be higher as the German bishops convene in Wiesbaden, and Woelki, portrayed in some German media as a polarizing figure amid the tensions, according to CNA Deutsch, could face a critical juncture. 

With financial, social, and theological pressures mounting across German dioceses, the decisions made this week in Wiesbaden could have far-reaching implications, not just for Woelki and his brother bishops but also for the global Catholic community as it gears up for its synodal gathering in Rome.

The Church in Germany is facing an exodus of historic proportions. More than half a million baptized Catholics left the Church in 2022, the highest number of departures ever recorded. These mass departures led several German bishops critical of the Synodal Way, including Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau and Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, to acknowledge the Church’s need to regain trust with “patience and credibility.”

The meeting in Wiesbaden is a crossroads of whether any agreement about finding the right direction ahead can be achieved — or if concerns over another schism from the land of Luther are justified.

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