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ROME – Over the last couple of weeks, the Roman stage has featured what one might term a “tale of two countries,” as both the German and the Belgian bishops carried out their traditional ad limina visits to the Vatican, though with strikingly different atmospherics.
While the Germans were in town Nov. 14-18, it was styled as an ecclesiastical version of the gunfight at the OK Corral – loaded terminology such as “showdown,” “standoff” and “tug-of-war” featured prominently in most coverage.
At issue, of course, was the German “synodal way,” a national dialogue involving bishops and laity on a variety of hot-button issues, including sexuality, women, the priesthood and power in the church. From its beginnings in 2019, the exercise has made the Vatican nervous since it could produce outcomes at odds with church teaching, and this was another chance for Vatican officials to encourage the Germans to slow their roll.
In the end, the Germans basically said “thanks but not thanks” to a Vatican proposal for a “moratorium” on the synodal way, insisting, among other points, that because it’s a joint exercise between bishops and laity, the bishops by themselves can’t just decide to shut it down. By all accounts, the process will continue to build towards a final session currently set for March 2023.
Meanwhile, the Belgian bishops came and went on their own ad limina visit a week later, Nov. 21-26, with none of the sturm und drang that surrounded the German presence, despite the fact that the Belgians are in lockstep with their German colleagues on at least one highly contested point: The blessing of same-sex unions.
In late September, the Flemish-speaking bishops of Belgium issued a document on the pastoral care of same-sex couples, which included a ritual featuring a prayer and a “benediction” in front of the couple’s families and friends.
That document appeared to contradict directly a March 2021 decree from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which expressly banned the blessing of same-sex unions.
“Any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge their unions as such” are forbidden, the congregation held, because “the blessing would manifest not the intention to entrust such individual persons to the protection and help of God, but to approve and encourage a choice and a way of life that cannot be recognized as objectively ordered to the revealed plans of God.”
Many observers believed at the time that the decree was in response to a growing trend towards the practice of offering such blessings, especially in Germany, where the issue became especially acute after the civil legalization of gay marriage in 2018.
Despite the fact that the Flemish-speaking bishops in Belgium more or less stole a page out of the German playbook, there was no sense of conflict or great drama that hung over their recent Roman swing. Among other things, there was no tense summit with Vatican officials at the end, followed by a 600-word joint statement that almost seemed a Rorschach test for seeing what one wanted to see.
Indeed, during a press conference afterwards, the Belgians sounded almost giddy with enthusiasm about the experience, especially their session with Pope Francis: “Unforgettable,” “Impressive,” “What an experience!” and “What a pope we have!” were among the highlights of their reactions.
Cardinal Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels did not deny that there had been different perspectives voiced along the way, but insisted that main thing was an atmosphere of respect and listening. Bishop Lode Van Hecke of Ghent put it this way: “I was struck by the openness and the sincere effort to meet us in our differences, because Belgium is a small country but complicated as everyone knows,” he said.
So, why the contrast between Germany and Belgium in terms of the Vatican reception they got?
For one thing, sources say that the Belgians involved in preparing the document on pastoral care of same-sex couples bent over backwards to keep the Vatican informed at every stage, during the drafting, ahead of the publication, and in the implementation phase. That’s not to say anyone in the Vatican gave the project a green light, but at least no one in Rome was blindsided by what was going on.
It may also help that De Kesel has been careful with his vocabulary, not referring in public to a “blessing” for same-sex couples but rather a “moment of prayer in which we ask God to help us and protect us.” Bishop Jean-Luc Hudsyn of Brabant made a similar point, saying the approach with Vatican officials had been “re-reading our official texts with them, and not what some wanted them to say.”
Second, Belgium has an estimated Catholic population of around 7 million people, divided between Flemish and French speakers, with a Mass attendance rate generally pegged at around seven percent. Germany has a Catholic population of roughly 23 million people, and, because of the Kirchensteuer (“church tax”) system in the country, it’s among the wealthiest national churches anywhere in the world, including being one of the largest private employers in Germany. Because of its resources, German Catholicism is a major donor – and thus also a major influence – for local churches across the developing world.
In other words, Germany simply has a tone-setting global significance that Belgium doesn’t, which probably helps explain why Vatican officials get more worked up over German developments than Belgian ones.
Two other observations seem in order.
The plain fact of the matter is that despite the difference in treatment – the Germans got a somewhat cold shoulder, the Belgians a warm loving embrace – in neither case did Pope Francis actually order either group to stand down. Instead, the impression is that despite whatever reservations some of his Vatican aides may have, the pontiff is content to let these developments play out.
Whether that’s a case of papal fecklessness, or the astute judgment of a CEO who knows when to intervene and when to back off, may be in the eye of the beholder, but for now the practical results are pretty much the same.
Over the next several months, Francis will have a chance to deliver a de facto verdict on the state of Belgian Catholicism, since De Kesel is already over 75, the usual retirement age, and three other prelates will join him by the summer of 2023. What Francis chooses to do about those vacancies should tell us a great deal about where he wants the Belgian church to go.
Second, it also seems fair to say that the days in which a decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was taken to be definitive, meaning the last word on a subject in the church, would appear to be over.
If two bishops’ conferences can openly break with the terms of such a decree without apparent consequence, then it would seem that a CDF ruling these days is tantamount to one of those travel advisories issued by the US State Department. It doesn’t mean you can’t go to a certain place, it just means the American government is saying we don’t think you should – after that, how you organize your vacation is up to you.
For those old enough to remember when the CDF was known around the Vatican as la suprema, or the “supreme” congregation because of its unrivaled authority, it’s quite a change indeed.