Belgian Bishop Bashes CDF’s Affirmation That the Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Unions

Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny said the recent CDF document on same-sex relationships “undermines the credibility of both the ‘synodal path’ advocated by Pope Francis” and the “Year of Amoris Laetitia Family”

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp speaks at a press conference in Brussels on Jan. 12, 2012.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp speaks at a press conference in Brussels on Jan. 12, 2012. (photo: Benoit Doppagne / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — A Belgian bishop has strongly criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent clarification that the Church cannot bless same-sex relationships, saying it is contrary to the “dynamic” of the 2015 Synod on the Family and undermines the “credibility of the ‘synodal path’ advocated by Pope Francis.” 

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, who was in favor of the blessing of same-sex unions at the family synod, apologized in a March 17 article in Belgium’s De Standaard newspaper “to all those for whom the Vatican’s position is painful” and said he felt “vicarious shame for my Church.”

“I feel especially intellectual and moral incomprehension,” Bishop Bonny continued, adding that the statement’s teaching that the Church cannot approve of sin was “precisely the language the [family] synod fathers didn’t want to use” and is “not the language of Amoris Laetitia” — Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation on the synod.  

In its responsum to a dubium, or formal question, about whether the Church has the authority to bless same-sex unions, the CDF affirmed March 15 that the Church does not have the authority to bless same-sex unions.

In a two-page explanation approved by Pope Francis and jointly signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the congregation’s secretary, the CDF stressed that blessings are sacramentals and have “singular importance” in the Church’s liturgy. As such, they can only be imparted on that which conforms to the nature of sacramentals. God, the CDF said, “does not and cannot bless sin.” 

The declaration went on to say that the clarification was not meant to be “a form of unjust discrimination,” but rather a “reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.” 

Cardinal Ladaria and Archbishop Morandi also said pastors are called to welcome and accompany such individuals, and that the declaration does not preclude blessings given to persons who have homosexual inclinations and try to live in fidelity to God and Church teaching. 

But for Bishop Bonny, the responsum “lacks the pastoral care, scholarly foundation, the theological nuance and ethical rigor” that, he said, was present among the family synod fathers “who then approved the final conditions.” 

He then took issue with the declaration’s statement that homosexual unions are not “in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” — even though the CDF was quoting directly from Paragraph 251 of Amoris Laetitia.

“I myself know gay couples, civilly married, with children, who form a warm and stable family, and moreover participate actively in parish life,” Bishop Bonny insisted. “Some of them are active full time as pastoral or church workers. I am particularly grateful to them.”

Until the 1960s, Belgium was one of the staunchest Catholic countries in Europe with a rich Catholic culture and heritage but has faced a collapse in the faith ever since. In 1981, the registered Catholic population was 72%, but by 2018 it had fallen to 57% with Sunday Mass attendance below 7%. 

In the space left by the Church, Islam has taken its place in the country which now has proportionally one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe. In 2019, Antwerp’s Muslim population stood at 16.9% while in the capital Brussels it was 25%.

Bishop Bonny served many years under Cardinal Walter Kasper as a Vatican official in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was appointed Chaplain to Pope St. John Paul II in 2002, and was consecrated bishop of Antwerp by Benedict XVI in 2008. 

In 2014, he said he was in favor of the blessing of same-sex unions but he didn’t bring the subject up at the family synod; instead he “asked for recognition of the values that are present in that kind of relationship.” 

But there was no mistaking his open endorsement of same-sex union blessings in his March 17 article in the Dutch-language news outlet as he went on to criticize the CDF’s mention of sin. 

The concept of sin, he said, is “one of the most difficult theological and moral categories to define and one of the last to pin on people and their way of living together” and “certainly not on general categories of persons.” Classical moral theology, he contended, “has never dealt with these questions simply.” 

Lastly he took issue with the declaration’s reference to liturgy, asking “from what ideological backroom” did those references come from. 

“Again,” he said, “this was clearly not the dynamic of the synod,” and added that the synod fathers “did not opt for a liturgical black-and-white approach or for an all-or-nothing model.” On the contrary, he argued, “the synod gave impulses to wisely seek intermediate forms that do justice to both the uniqueness of these and of their relationship.” 

Bishop Bonny said he thought it sounded “disrespectful” to approach the question of possibly blessing homosexual couples from the “Order of Service for Blessings,” where the “blessing of animals, cars and buildings is also provided for.” 

Same-sex blessings, he argued, should only take place “in the broader context” of the “Order of Service for Marriage,” with an “honest recognition of both the actual similarities and differences.” God, he said, “has never been stingy or pedantic with his blessing on people.” 

He concluded his article by saying he felt homosexual couples, their families and friends had not been treated “fairly or truthfully,” and that the CDF document “undermines the credibility of both the ‘synodal path’ advocated by Pope Francis” and the “Year of Amoris Laetitia Family,” which begins on Friday and runs until June 26, 2022. He ended by asking: “Will the real synod stand up?” 

Bishop Bonny, who was a member of a French-language working group in the 2015 family synod along with Cardinal Robert Sarah, clashed with the Guinean cardinal and complained of being prevented from raising the issue of pastoral care for homosexual Catholics in the discussions. He claimed it was not possible to discuss the issue “in a peaceful way.” 

Belgium’s bishops also released a statement on Wednesday saying they “realized” that the CDF declaration “is particularly painful for many gay believers, their parents and grandparents, their families and friends.” 

They added that “for years,” the Church in Belgium has been working to create a “climate of respect, recognition and integration,” and that the bishops “encourage their collaborators to continue on this path.” They said they felt supported in this by Amoris Laetitia and its call to “discern, accompany and integrate” which, they said, “remain the main keywords for the bishops.”