Getting creative: CDF statements, lukewarm bishops, and a great white shark
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
It’s been a week of a thousand meetings and conference calls for JD and me. It’s by no means our favorite thing, but it is important for the longer form stuff we are working on, and that is, after all, most of why we started The Pillar.
It’s otherwise been a week of high drama following on from the CDF’s formal statement on Monday regarding liturgical blessings for same-sex unions in Church.
Some Church watchers were surprised to see the Vatican take the bull by the horns in such a public way in its Monday statement.
Among those who took issue with the Vatican statement was Elton John, who made the not-unreasonable observation that the Vatican had invested in, and presumably intended to profit from, his 2019 biopic “Rocketman” which, he noted, rather celebrated his own union with a man.
Bankrolling an Elton John film might be the least weird thing about it.
While CDF said “nein, danke” to the German bishops’ offer to upend the Church’s teaching on marriage, human sexuality, and hierarchical communion, the Church in Germany was rocked yesterday by the release of an 800-page independent report into the historical handling of sex abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Cologne.
The drama of an archepiscopal resignation to one side, the progress of the German’s synodal project is likely to loom larger in some Roman eyes than the situation in Cologne, for better or for worse.
Earlier this week, the CDF issued its response to the question of blessings for same-sex unions, a central aim of a German synodal process meant, in theory anyway, to be a response to the sexual abuse crisis.
The CDF statement on the impossibility of the Church blessing any sexual partnership outside of marriage is the latest back-and-forth between Rome and the Germans in their game of doctrinal ping-pong over the synodal plans; it follows similar Vatican interventions on subjects ranging from intercommunion with Protestants to the theological and canonical nature of a synod.
The Germans, for their part, said they will carry on discussing the same-sex marriage issue, while allowing that “the viewpoints put forward by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith today will of course find their way into these discussions.”
Of course, there are “no easy answers,” the head of the German bishops’ conference said. At least none when the Vatican’s answer is “no.”
Rome has spoken, but the case is far from closed. Since Pope Francis wrote an urgent pastoral letter to the Church in Germany in 2019, criticizing the country’s synod plans, the Synodal Way has politely ignored all Roman objections to its agenda.
On the subject of intercommunion (administering the Eucharist to Protestants, which is not permitted by Church law), the CDF issued another direct “no” to German plans in 2020. In response, bishops have announced that a forthcoming eucharistic congress will, rather than have a stated policy on intercommunion, essentially encourage all attendees, Protestant or Catholic, to decide for themselves whether to receive the Eucharist.
The German strategy — not officially disputing the Vatican line while more-or-less encouraging practical dissent from it — looks set to continue, at least for the near term; many in Germany already report that same-sex blessings are a reality in many parishes and, Roman replies notwithstanding, they are not going anywhere.
Bishops in some other countries are now warning that the Germans are heading for a de facto schism, something German Cardinal Ranier Woelki has been saying for some time.
German confidence that their bishops can carry on with forcing a decentralized approach to Church teaching and discipline is rooted in two assumptions.
The first assumption is that, while curial departments like the CDF and the Congregation for Bishops can issue all the clarifications they like, absent direct and unambiguous intervention by Pope Francis, there is little that can be done to stop the bishops from doing exactly as they like in practice, if not in theory.
Since his 2019 pastoral letter to all the Catholics in the country, the pope has shied away from public confrontation with the Germans, while green-lighting the publication of official responses like the CDF’s answer on Monday.
Unfortunately for the pope, the authority of the Vatican apparatus is not what it once was and, unless he says it himself and in public, many will simply refuse to acknowledge what is done by his curia in his name.
The German’s second bet is that there are now enough bishops in different parts of the world who want to see them succeed in their stated aims — to fracture Rome’s universal teaching and disciplinary authority into something like a confederacy of national churches. The Germans expect that if they get the ball rolling, other bishops might also unwilling to accept that “no means no” when Rome speaks. In this, they may also be right.
In the United States, more than one bishop issued a decidedly tepid response to the CDF statement. Paradoxically, some of the most lukewarm were those bishops often most eager to police their colleagues’ enthusiasm to follow Rome’s lead.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, to take one example, noted that there was “nothing new” in what Rome had said, itself perhaps a kind of criticism, and concluded that “the understandable reaction among many to this response will be disappointment.”
The cardinal called for a “creative and resilient” response to the Vatican’s clear negative, something he might well have called out as a subversion of papal authority if it had come from another U.S. bishop on a different subject.
It may be that not only Germany has developed selective hearing when Rome speaks. If that is so, Pope Francis will find himself having to impose his authority in increasingly direct ways. If he does, he may discover which bishops he can actually rely on, and which will only offer “creative” support for him.
Of course, between the CDF’s desire for clarity and the German push for a distinctly relative approach to Church teaching are those Catholics who want - badly - for the Church to make a serious effort at mature and coherent inclusion for gay people in parish life.
Many of them neither expect nor want the Church to break with its own teaching, and few may feel well served by being put in the middle of a push to subvert Roman authority.
But many pastors and bishops will feel caught, eager to reach out to those who want to be more closely included in the family of the Church, but reluctant to engage in a conversation that, for the moment, remains firmly tilted more towards doctrinal revision than pastoral care.
Sooner or later, those bishops and priests who insist that “no” just means “later” and winkingly promise “revolution tomorrow” will have to accept their share of the blame for continually setting up the disappointment with which they claim to sympathize.
It’s the feast of St. Joseph today, the silent man of the Gospel. Few people are asked to take more of a leap of faith in the scriptures than he was, and few can claim to have had a more important mission.
As the archetype of strong silent dads, he’s a hardworking guy, serving as the patron saint of unborn children, fathers, immigrants, workers, employment, explorers, pilgrims, travellers, carpenters, engineers, realtors, against doubt and hesitation, and of a happy death.
He’s also the informal patron saint of people who like to eat meat on Fridays.
In honor of that, here’s a video JD shared with me of a great white shark housing down a whale like it’s powered by a 1,000cc Ducati engine. It’s an image that stays with you.
See you next week, and don’t spare the spare ribs.