Flemish Bishops’ Document Undermines the Spiritual Quest of Homosexual People, Belgian Theologians Warn
NEWS ANALYSIS: Critics of the recent text proposing a liturgy for blessings of same-sex couples note that the Belgian bishops are adopting an erroneous interpretation of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia.’
The Flemish bishops of Belgium announced Sept. 20 the creation of a specific liturgy to bless homosexual couples, as well as the establishment of a “contact point” in parishes for homosexual Catholics.
It’s a project that some theologians consider deeply harmful to the spiritual life of homosexual believers, as well as being in contradiction with the content of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on which it claims to be based.
The three-page document, entitled “Being Pastorally Close to Homosexuals: For a Welcoming Church That Excludes No One,” also directly contradicts a March 2021 opinion from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which stated that the blessing of homosexual unions “cannot be considered licit.”
This initiative of the bishops of Flanders, which has crystallized the current dissension in the Church over the ways in which the same-sex attracted should be welcomed, was somehow foreseeable. Indeed, the outcry that the Vatican congregation’s document caused last year among a very large part of the Belgian episcopate suggested that the debate was far from being closed in that country.
“I feel a vicarious shame for my Church,” Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp wrote in an opinion piece following the publication of the Vatican’s responsum. “I want to apologize to all those for whom this response is painful and incomprehensible. […] Their pain for the Church is my pain today.”
As early as 2014, during the preparation of the Synod on the Family, Bishop Bonny — who represented Belgium at the synod — had announced that he would advocate for the blessing of same-sex couples.
Many other Belgian Catholic leaders also have publicly declared themselves in favor of the blessing of same-sex couples in more recent years, starting with the primate of Belgium himself, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel. The archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference had indeed already reflected, in 2018, on the possibility of “prayer celebrations” to seal a lifelong union of homosexual couples.
‘Wave of Panic’
Moreover, the recent text of the Flemish bishops actually echoes a project launched by the Francophone Diocese of Liège in December 2021, which proposed a special prayer for same-sex couples that must be conducted by “a priest, a deacon, a religious or any other layperson mandated for this purpose by the dean or the parish priest of the pastoral unit.”
For Father Christophe Cossement, a moral theologian and parish priest in the Diocese of Tournai in Belgium, the bishops’ move was probably “precipitated” by the 2021 declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. “This document caused a wave of panic in the Belgian Church,” he commented in an interview with the Register.
Their haste to respond may have been reinforced by the recent conclusion of the first diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality, whose Belgian national synthesis called for the Church’s “ritual and social” recognition of “cohabiting couples, same-sex couples and the divorced and remarried.”
“The synodal consultation certainly prompted the bishops’ decision to issue their document now, but they do not realize that they have a knowledge bias,” Arnaud Dumouch, a Belgian theologian and founder of the Institut Docteur Angélique, told the Register. “Those who took part in the consultations in Belgium are mostly over 70 years old and belong to the May 68 generation; that is the same generation as these bishops.”
Expression of an Era?
In Dumouch’s view, the current conflicts in the Church surrounding the welcoming of homosexual couples and other doctrinal issues is also generational in nature, as many Church leaders today remain very influenced by the liberal philosophy that dominated the student protests that occurred in Western European countries in 1968 (the famous slogan of the student protests of May 1968 in Paris, and adopted in neighboring countries, was “Forbidden to forbid”) and which they are determined to enforce before passing the leadership baton to the next generations.
However, as the host of a YouTube channel for the dissemination of Catholic teachings aimed at young people and which has 83,000 subscribers, Dumouch believes that the approach of the bishops does not respond to the real concerns of the majority of the new generations of faithful, whose “main concern is to find the Lord, prayer, the meaning of life.”
This was also attested, according to him, by the very low participation in the Vatican questionnaire for the first synodal phase (mainly focused on sociological issues such as the question of welcoming “LGBTQI+ community members”), an issue that he shared with his subscribers.
“These bishops, who on average are all over 70 years old, have an almost exclusively mercy-based approach and tend to care very little about doctrine, when truth and love must go hand in hand,” Dumouch continued, noting that many in Belgium perceive this new liturgy of the Flemish episcopate as the celebration of a true homosexual marriage.
Overinterpreting Amoris Laetitia
Yet the bishops’ document doesn’t actually go that far and is limited to a prayer formula that aims to “bless and consolidate the commitment of love and fidelity” of homosexual couples. It is not specified whether a priest or another consecrated person would be involved in the liturgy of blessing.
But as stated by Father Cossement, the document makes the mistake of proposing a definitive framework for persons with a homosexual orientation through the use of terms such as “forever,” and consequently deviates from the approach set forward in Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which the Flemish bishops claim to follow. Their document refers in particular to Paragraphs 250, 297 and 303 of the papal text, which call for respect and the welcoming of every person, regardless of their situation and sexual orientation.
“The Pope’s document evoked a dynamic of progressive adaptation to the full will of God for those who do not ‘yet,’ ‘for the moment,’ live the ‘general demands of the Gospel,’” Father Cossement noted, regretting that “the ideal of a relational life that renounces homosexual sexual practice is totally erased from the proposal, as if it were a thing of the past.”
“It is as if the best that the Church can offer to homosexual persons is the blessing of a couple that wants to be stable,” he continued. “It is hard to see how this new path still corresponds to what Amoris Laetitia recalled in its Paragraph 251, namely 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.’”
Father Cossement has devoted several commentaries, notably via his blog, to the question of homosexuality and the reception of homosexual persons within the Church. He says the text of the Belgian bishops is not satisfactory, in that it proposes a “new normalization” of homosexual affection that “imitates as closely as possible the conjugal bond of man and woman.”
“I see in this an impoverishment of the spiritual quest of homosexual persons and a risk of great loss of interior dynamism on the path to holiness,” he said.
This sentiment is shared by Dumouch, who is also concerned about the consequences that the claim of a right to a sexuality without any link to procreation could have on the spiritual life of Catholics. However, his concern is tempered by his observation that, with respect to major cultural and society issues like the pastoral accompaniment of homosexual persons, the majority of younger priests appear to have found a way to a sound reconciliation between love and truth, between being welcoming and adhering to doctrine.
Said Dumouch, “The new bishops of the young ‘John Paul II Generation,’ well-prepared to face the challenges of our time, are about to take up the baton, which I believe will bring a certain balance and ease many tensions within our Church.”