Germany’s Catholic bishops voted on Friday to create formal ceremonies for the blessing of same-sex relationships, defying the Vatican and testing church unity on what has become one of the most contentious issues in contemporary Christianity: moral teaching on homosexuality.
The bishops voted 38 to nine, with 11 abstentions, in favor of liturgies for the blessing of couples who don’t qualify for the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, including same-sex couples and those who have remarried outside the church after a divorce. The resolution calls on individual German bishops, each of whom has authority over the question in his own diocese, to adopt the practice.
The resolution is a bold rejection of the Vatican’s position, expressed in a 2021 decree approved by Pope Francis, which prohibited the blessing of gay couples on the grounds that God “cannot bless sin.”
The bishops voted as part of Germany’s Synodal Path, an assembly of national Catholic clergy and lay leaders that started in early 2020 in response to an investigation of historical sex abuse in the German church. The body as a whole voted for same-sex blessings 176 to 14, with 12 abstentions.
The German synod, which concludes on Saturday, has called for rethinking teaching and practice on a number of topics including priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, homosexuality and the role of lay people in church governance.
Pope Francis and other church leaders have warned the German synod not to stray too far from the rest of the church.
In November, during a meeting with Vatican officials, the head of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, rejected a request that he put the synod on hold. Last month, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, echoed other conservative prelates, including in the U.S., who have warned the Germans of the danger of schism, or a permanent split in the church.
The Vatican didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on Friday.
During the debate before the vote, Bishop Gregor Maria Franz Hanke of Eichstätt warned against the proposed move, saying that he hoped “this step is not going to tear us apart the way the Anglican Church finds itself torn apart.”
Conservative Anglican churches, including some in Africa that include nearly half of the world’s estimated 100 million Anglicans, have broken off relations with churches that espouse liberal teaching and practice on homosexuality, including the Episcopal Church in the U.S.
Last month, after the Church of England decided to allow the blessing of same-sex relationships, a dozen leading archbishops, most in the global South, called for a break with that church, the historical progenitor of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
But at Friday’s debate in Frankfurt, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen said, to applause from the assembly, “I pay attention to what is happening in Africa, but I expect others to respect what we are doing here as well.”
Maria 1.0, an organization that seeks to support traditional Catholic doctrine, tweeted after the vote: “Only nine German bishops vote against a blessing form for homosexual couples. Eleven bishops appear to have no opinion and abstain. Incomprehensible.”
Advertisement – Scroll to Continue
Blessings of same-sex relationships by Catholic priests have been common in Germany for years, with the tolerance of many bishops there, but Friday’s vote gives unprecedented official approval to the practice.
The resolution calls for bishops and others to develop the liturgy over the next three years. Maria Mesrian of Maria 2.0, a group that supports the ordination of women and other liberalizing changes in the church, called that measure a “delaying tactic” intended to avoid a confrontation with Rome, and said it would lead people to leave the church in frustration.
The resolution specifies that no clergy who object in conscience to blessing same-sex relationships will be obliged to perform them.
A conservative minority within the German church have opposed what they consider the synod’s overreach. Last September, a resolution calling for a wide-ranging revision of teaching on sexuality narrowly failed to muster the required two-thirds supermajority of bishops’ votes.
Last month, six members of the synod, none of them bishops, resigned from the process, warning that its innovations threatened to undermine the unity of the church.
Some of the most progressive voices in the synod, on the other hand, say that its German proposals don’t go far enough. Gregor Podschun, head of a Catholic youth organization and a member of the synod, tweeted on Friday that mere blessings for same-sex couples were an inadequate concession: “We want marriage for everyone!”
Later on Friday, the synod was scheduled to vote on a document calling for greater acceptance of transgender people in the church, by allowing them to change their name and gender on their baptismal certificates, to receive blessings of their relationships, and to be admitted to the priesthood and religious orders.
Pope Francis himself has called a global synod that will culminate in two meetings at the Vatican this fall and next year, and where topics will include the roles of women and LGBT Catholics, according to a preparatory document released last year.