A pro-LGBTQ+ bishop has said the Flemish bishops’ decision to bless same-gender couples is accepted by Pope Francis, a fact he grounded in his personal conversation with the pope. But not all church leaders agree.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp explained why he knows the blessings to be, in his words, “aligned with Pope Francis” during an interview with Katholisch.de, the German bishops’ news outlet. The interview proceeded as follows (via Google Translate):
“Question: Since 2015 you yourself have campaigned for the blessing of homosexual couples. How did you react to that [the Flemish bishops’ blessings liturgy]? After all, you are still a bishop…
“Bonny: Yes, I am still a bishop. I was called to Rome and said there what I thought about it. I also spoke personally with Pope Francis about this.
“Question: What was the result?
“Bonny: I know now what he thinks about it. That’s the most important thing for me. And I know that our recently published guidance on blessing gay couples is aligned with Pope Francis. This is important to me because communion with the Pope is sacred to me. It is the personal responsibility that the Pope has given us bishops and that he also supports. However, the same topics do not have to and cannot be discussed all over the world at all times. In addition, the Pope does not have to record everything on paper. Just as I, as a bishop, do not record every conversation on paper.”
The interview came after Bonny, who is an observer to Germany’s Synodal Way, spoke in a private session to that country’s bishops during their recent episcopal assembly. In the interview, the bishop also expressed his belief that the traditions around homosexuality are “subject to change,” even while they are “not free of tension” because change is “fundamentally difficult” for many Catholics. The pace of this change, however, may differ globally.
But other church leaders have reacted strongly against the possibility of blessing same-gender couples.
Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht in the Netherlands voiced his opposition to the Flemish bishops’ stand in a letter published by the Daily Compass. Eijk wrote that the Flemish bishops’ permission to bless same-gender couples is ethically objectionable, defies the Vatican’s ban, and risks leading Catholics to immoral views supporting such relationships. He concluded:
“Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching, including on sexual morality, therefore fervently hope that the Flemish bishops will soon be asked by ecclesiastically competent circles to withdraw their statement and that the latter will comply.”
Cardinal Francis Arinze, former prefect for the Vatican’s then-Congregation for Divine Worship, also issued a brief letter condemning the Flemish bishops, saying that even if their “aim is to be pastorally helpful to homosexual couples” doing so as they have is “an error on the part of the Bishops.”
Bishop Bonny’s claim that the Flemish bishops’ initiative has the permission of pope is backed by some evidence. After the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s ban on such blessings was issued in 2021, Francis seemed to distance himself in his Sunday Angelus address. Later, he reassigned the Vatican official thought to be behind the ban in what was considered a demotion. And, in 2018, Fr. Daniel Duigou said the pope told the French priest to continue blessing same-gender couples, which Duigou claimed Francis fully supports.
Bonny has been a prophetic voice for blessing same-gender couples, which he called for back in 2014. After the Vatican announced its ban on such blessings last year, the bishop said he was “ashamed” of the church and offered an apology. Later, he stated that more than 700 Catholics in his diocese left the church because of the ban. In 2018, another Belgian church leader, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel of Malines-Brussels, also affirmed his openness to blessings.
Willy Bombeek, a gay Catholic tasked with implementing the Flemish bishops’ document on LGBTQ+ pastoral care, also stated that such work was in line with Pope Francis. And the bishops themselves cited the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia as the basis of their outreach.
Without Pope Francis himself issuing a statement, it is impossible to know for certain where he stands on blessing LGBTQ+ couples. But even if he personally objects, which seems unlikely, as the pope, Francis is allowing other church leaders to enact the pastoral care which best fits their communities. Viewed against the tenures of John Paul II or Benedict XVI, when silencing and sanction would have likely resulted for Bishop Bonny and his Flemish counterparts, this allowance is near revolutionary and a moment to celebrate.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 4, 2022