Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Vatican’s irresolute response to the threat of German schism

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 14, 2023

In an interview posted today, Cardinal Pietro Parolin expressed opposition to the German bishops’ decision to offer blessings for same-sex unions. So far, so good. But the reasons that the Vatican Secretary of State gave for that opposition are troubling.

Cardinal Parolin said that the German episcopal conference “cannot make such a decision that involves the discipline of the universal Church.”

Well, first of all, the German bishops did make that decision. The German bishops voted 38-9 in favor the statement passed by the Synodal Path, “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other.” When he says that the German bishops “cannot” make that decision, presumably Cardinal Parolin means that they do not have the authority to do so. But with or without proper authority, the clear majority of German bishops have given their support for the measure, and thrown their support behind the Synodal Path.

So now what?

The German bishops (the majority, at least) have done what they have no right to do. How will the Vatican react? To date the statements from Rome—including this statement by Cardinal Parolin—have been cautious, measured, obviously designed to avoid a confrontation. But the German bishops have ignored the counsels of caution and pressed the issue. Cardinal Walter Kasper—no stodgy conservative—has characterized the Synodal Path as an “attempted coup,” and warned that the German hierarchy is on the brink of schism. The cautionary statements from Rome are now routinely ignored. Sooner or later the Vatican must draw the line.

But there is another disturbing note in Cardinal Parolin’s statement. He says that the German hierarchy “cannot make such a decision that involves the discipline of the universal Church.” The discipline of the Church—as opposed to the doctrine? Perhaps the cardinal misspoke, or perhaps the translation is faulty. But Cardinal Parolin is usually quite careful with his words, and this is the official translation from Vatican News.

The discipline of the Church can change; the doctrine cannot. Just this week Pope Francis drew some headlines when he observed that the discipline of priestly celibacy could change; there is nothing in Catholic doctrine (although there is a great deal in the Western spiritual tradition) that demands priests be celibate.

A proposal to bless same-sex unions falls into a different category. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its statement issued last year, taught that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” [Emphasis added] To say that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions indicates that there is a permanent barrier: a doctrinal principle that cannot be abrogated.

The CDF statement said that:

…it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.

A homosexual union cannot serve God’s designs, the CDF explained, because even if it is a loving and stable relationship, insofar as it is based on illicit sexual activity, it is “a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” As Pope Francis himself wrote in Amoris Laetitia (251), quoting the Synod of Bishops, “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.”

The German proposal does treat same-sex partnerships as analogous to marriage—as unions that should be blessed. The CDF said that such unions cannot be blessed. The two statements cannot be reconciled; something has to give.

From Rome come unconfirmed reports that Pope Francis was not entirely happy with the CDF statement—that he thought it too strong. Could that explain why Cardinal Parolin speaks of Church “discipline” rather than immutable doctrine?

Again, the Vatican has repeatedly cautioned the German bishops. But those cautions could be interpreted as complaints that the Germans are moving too fast, that they are not acting prudently, that they must consult other bishops of the universal Church. Such complaints would leave open the possibility that at some point, the universal Church will accept what the German bishops now proclaim.

But if the CDF statement is correct, that acceptance will not ever come, and the German hierarchy has already rushed headlong into territory where the universal Church can never go.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Mar. 17, 2023 3:25 AM ET USA

    Perhaps PF is pleased with the outcome of the German revolt. After all, he has set it in motion, and he has not opposed it. It allows him to get what he wants without having responsibility for it.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 16, 2023 8:27 AM ET USA

    It's a classic instance of "pussyfooting" the issue by the Vatican. Benedict XVI in his recent, posthumously published, book wrote about the plague of cliques of active homosexuals in German seminaries. Well, bishops come from priests, and priests come from seminaries. It becomes more and more clear that the Church must address head-on the devastating problem of ongoing admissions of homosexuals to the priesthood.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Mar. 15, 2023 5:39 AM ET USA

    We're witnessing the Church's auto-destruction under this awful pontificate. How long, O Lord? When will You intervene to save Your Church?

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Mar. 15, 2023 12:07 AM ET USA

    Mr. Lawther brings these things together to a point that cannot be escaped: either the Vatican CDF has the final say or the Synodalists in Germany have it. Both can’t be right! But it’s not just that the Synodalists went where they can never go, perhaps by mistake, like a hiker unfamiliar with a path may take a wrong turn. No rather they pushed into areas forbidden them, that they knew were forbidden. They deliberately crafted heretical positions and obstinately taught them. The word for this is

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Mar. 14, 2023 6:57 PM ET USA

    Perhaps a more resolute response is not to be expected considering how the Vatican has dealt with a similar challenge to church teaching from the Belgian bishops. The Belgian bishops have published a text for blessing same-sex couples Since the publication of that document there has been no rebuke or stern caution from the Vatican, on the contrary the Belgian bishops have visited Rome and according to the bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny Pope Francis said neither yes nor no to their plans, rather the pope only asked if the bishops were united in their pastoral domain on the pastoral care of same-sex couples. Aren’t the Belgian bishops already defying the Vatican and further along the road to schism than the German bishops?