ROME — A Belgian bishop who has called on the Church to welcome same-sex couples will get to bring his case straight to Pope Francis.
The Vatican announced Tuesday that Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp will serve as a delegate to October’s Synod on the Family. His appointment adds intellectual heft and star power to the liberal flank of bishops pushing for the Church to change how it approaches Catholics living in “irregular situations.”
Bonny’s views, however, may be vigorously resisted by other synod members announced by the Vatican Tuesday, including prelates from Africa and Poland.
Bonny, 59, made waves in December when he said the Church must accept “a diversity of forms” when it comes to relationships, according to an interview he gave to a Belgian newspaper, translated by the National Catholic Reporter. “Personally, I find that in the Church, more space must be given to acknowledge the actual quality of gay and lesbian couples; and such a form of shared life should meet the same criteria as found in an ecclesiastical marriage,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that such criteria can be found in a diversity of relationships, and one needs to search for various models to give form to those relationships.”
Bonny is one of 65 bishops named in a Vatican bulletin today who will participate in the synod, which is a continuation of a synod on families held last October that featured sometimes-rancorous discussions of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, same-sex relationships, and various societal and economic pressures facing families. Bishops’ conferences in each country or region select delegates and submit them to the Vatican for approval, which is done on a rolling basis. Announcements of other participants were made earlier this year.
Last September, Bonny released a 22-page letter laying out his hopes for last October’s synod and offering clues about what he may bring to this year’s session.
Concerning marriage, for example, Bonny wrote that it has changed through the centuries, undercutting activists who say marriage hasn’t changed for millennia. He suggested the Church has something to learn from same-sex couples: “The present day legalisation of civil partnership and marriage between people of the same gender has led to new situations and insights concerning marriage and family life.”
Bonny also suggested that the Church should admit Catholics who divorced, but remarried without an annulment, to Communion.
Speaking about his visits to parishes, Bonny wrote, “I cannot imagine what it would mean for the children and for their future bond with the Church community if I were to refuse Communion at that moment to all parents, grandparents, and other family members who find themselves in ‘irregular’ marital situations.”
He said withholding Communion could harm the future of the Church.
“It would be fatal for the liturgical celebration, for the relationship between the families in question and the Church community, and primarily for the continued faith development of the children involved,” he said.
The first part of the synod on the family provided a platform for an unprecedented discussion of sensitive topics related to family life. A report issued halfway through the two-week event said that bishops had discussed the pastoral needs of gay Catholics, opening up Communion to the divorced and remarried, contraception and family planning, as well as the theological notion of “graduality,” or highlighting the good in relationships that might not live up to the Church’s ideal.
Conservatives at the synod slammed the mid-term report, saying it was incomplete and did not reflect the wide range of views expressed during the meeting to that point. The final report approved by bishops watered down some of the more liberal language, so it’s unlikely that Bonny’s views will go unchallenged this fall.
For example, members of Poland’s delegation, also named officially Tuesday, have promised to fight any attempts at change, noting specifically their opposition to proposals from German bishops to loosen Church rules.
“We certainly won’t be going in the theological direction presented by certain German-speaking circles,” Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki told the Catholic Herald Monday. “We believe the output of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and recent statements by Pope Francis, are enough to view Church teaching as a continuum, not as a revolution.”
Some African prelates, too, have said they will toe the party line come October.
“Be conscious of the mission of the Church; protect the sacredness of marriage which is now being attacked by all forms of ideologies that intend to destroy the family in Africa,” Cardinal Robert Sarah told bishops gathered in Ghana last week. “Do not be afraid to stress the teaching of the Church on marriage.”
Archbishop Gabriel Mbilingi of Lubango, Angola, who chairs the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, echoed that view: “Africa will speak with one voice at the next Synod — with one voice we will present the challenges and successes of family life in Africa.”
(Whether this promised unity plays out is debatable, especially in light of a statement by Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, to Crux in February that he’d vote in favor of allowing Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.)
Further, the US delegation, named in February, includes bishops known for their strong promotion of Catholic orthodoxy on family issues. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president and vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, will represent the United States, along with Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.
Although all four are considered right-of-center, reflecting the conservative leanings of the American hierarchy, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, who last week challenged bishops for failing to include poverty in their strategic plan, was elected as an alternate delegate.
The second part of the synod on the family meets Oct. 4-25 at the Vatican.