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ROME – A top aide to Pope Francis said there’s a need for dialogue with the German bishops after a recent vote in favor of blessing same-sex unions, insisting that the move does not align with official Catholic doctrine.
“A local, particular church cannot make a decision like that which involves the discipline of the Universal Church,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, on Monday.
“There must certainly be a discussion with Rome and the rest of the Churches in the world … to clarify what are the decisions to make,” Parolin said.
Over the weekend, the influential and wealthy German Church concluded its controversial “Synodal Path” reform process, a multi-year consultation launched in 2019 and aimed at giving lay people a stronger voice after the country’s devastating clerical sexual abuse crisis further emptied church pews.
The final meeting in the process brought together more than 200 representatives of Catholic life in Germany, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex blessings, but delayed the start date until March 2026.
While these blessings are already routinely given by many congregations and pastors in Germany, they are formally banned by the Catholic Church, a position the Vatican reiterated in 2021 when its Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement against such blessings on grounds that God “cannot bless sin” and that it would be “illicit” for a priest to lend any legitimacy to same-sex unions.
Yet despite the Vatican’s position, 176 participants in Germany’s concluding Synodal Path meeting voted in favor of the blessings. Fourteen participants voted against them while 12 abstained, but the necessary two-thirds majority was still reached.
Participants also voted in favor of offering communion to divorced and remarried couples with no annulment, and they urged Pope Francis to reconsider the requirement of priestly celibacy.
Speaking to journalists Monday, Parolin reiterated Rome’s position on the blessing of same-sex couples by referring to the 2021 Vatican statement, saying “the position of Rome is that,” and that the vote of the German bishops must be inserted into Pope Francis’s broader Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which is touching on similar themes and will conclude in 2024.
“This decision should fit inside the synodal path of the universal church. There it will be decided what developments there will be,” Parolin said, calling it a good sign that the German Church opted to hold off on offering blessings to same-sex couples until 2026.
Vatican officials and German bishops have been going back and forth about the Synodal Way for years, with the pope penning a letter to the German Church last summer cautioning against stoking division over issues such as priestly celibacy, women’s priestly ordination, and same-sex blessings, and a slew of other issues.
In November, the Vatican attempted to shut down the process altogether during a meeting with several department heads as part of the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome, but the process went forward regardless.
In January, several top Vatican officials, including Parolin, sent a letter with Pope Francis’s explicit approval saying they would not accept a proposed new governing Church body in Germany composed of bishops and laypeople, yet plans are moving forward to establish that body, the Synodal Council, regardless.
Pope Francis himself has suggested he did not approve of the Synodal Path process, at one point calling it “very, very ideological” and something “made by the elites.”
Parolin resisted the notion that the German vote was an act of rebellion, saying, “Let’s not talk of rebellion. In the Church there have always been tensions and differing positions.”
Yet he was clear that Germany’s Synodal Path “is making decisions that don’t exactly align with the current doctrine of the Church. Even if they say that all this is happening inside of Canon Law, we must meet and revisit this.”
Parolin spoke alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the March 13 presentation of a new book written by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close friend and aide of Pope Francis who has interviewed him several times and travels with the pope on every international trip.
The new book, titled, The Atlas of Francis: Vatican and International Politics, was published for the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election and explores Francis’s foreign policy in a global context that is increasingly interconnected, yet polarized and divided by war and violent conflict.
To this end, Parolin in his remarks highlighted Pope Francis’s emphasis on fraternity, saying Pope Francis has proposed to the world “a diplomacy of man for man, of people for people,” which focuses less on profit and more on the growth and development of people.
Lauding what Spadaro describes as the pope’s “diplomacy of mercy,” Parolin noted that in his most recent speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See in January, he repeated the word mercy multiple times, offering it as a clear guideline for international diplomatic endeavors.
“The heart of diplomacy of mercy doesn’t consider anyone ever definitively lost,” he said.
On the war in Ukraine, Parolin lamented that “the word peace is largely absent,” whereas the “too loud and thunderous voice of arms” is present. The solution to the conflict, he said, “does not come by polarizing the world between the good and the bad.”
If the starting point is “no one is the incarnation of the devil, then it is possible to leave a door open,” he said, saying the Holy See strives to promote dialogue “even when those who are uncomfortable are present in the dialogue.
“The only realistic solution to the threat of war is negotiation,” Parolin said, saying this is the reason “the Holy See dialogues with everyone and firmly believes in multilateralism” at a time when “we are unfortunately witnessing its erosion.”
With Meloni sitting by, Parolin said the Holy See has Italy’s full backing on its offer to lead peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.
“The pope wants to visit both capitals; he’s said it from the beginning. He maintains that a service to peace can only be made if he is able to meet both presidents, President Zelenskyy and President Putin,” he said.
Noting that the Holy See holds “a different view than singular states,” Parolin said it has “a universalistic view and an approach of working concretely for peace.”
“I would say that we are trying to unleash all of our creativity to find the ways that would allow us to have a first step for a ceasefire,” he said, insisting that as a universal entity, the Holy See seeks to intervene “without putting into play any type of particular interest.”
The problem, he said, “is finding the way to begin.”
Parolin also touched on the Holy See’s controversial engagement with China through its agreement on the appointment of bishops, calling that deal an important step intended “to open a forum for negotiations, but also an attitude of hope.”
“This openness and this dialogue is something both parties want to continue. On the Chinese side this desire has always been expressed, to continue to dialogue together,” he said, saying the agreement can lead “to a normalization of the life of the Church.”
Noting that Hong Kong’s Bishop Stephen Chow, a Jesuit, will visit his counterpart in Beijing in late April, marking the first such visit in nearly 40 years, Parolin said he was happy with the visit and said it is the task of the Church in Hong Kong to be “a bridge-Church.”
“They are a bridge between the Chinese Church and the Universal Church, so it’s a positive gesture that the bishop of Hong Kong can go and meet with his brother. We support anything that can help to give and increasingly meet with the Chinese Church, its bishops, and its faithful,” he said.
Parolin also touched on future papal travel, saying a potential papal trip to Marseilles and Mongolia in September is “probable,” and on the pope’s tenth anniversary celebrations.
Reflecting on the past decade under Francis, Parolin said “They have been 10 very intense years,” and have been marked by various reform efforts. The reform of the curia in particular, he said, “took a lot of time and energy.”
“They have been years of great work, great work experiencing this desire of wanting to touch many aspects of the life of the Church and to make them, as he has said from the beginning, more transparent in the Gospel…to give the Church and offer the Church the ability to be listened to and welcomed in today’s world,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen