German Catholic bishops made headlines recently, in calling for the establishment of Catholic blessings for “same-sex unions.” Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck recently said in an interview,
“I’m concerned with fundamental questions of how we deal with each other; although ‘marriage for all’ differs clearly from the Church’s concept of marriage, it’s now a political reality. We have to ask ourselves how we’re encountering those who form such relationships and are also involved in the church, how we’re accompanying them pastorally and liturgically… Same-sex relationships are generally classified as a grave sin in the Church, but we need to think how we can differentiate a relationship between two people of the same sex. Is there not so much that is positive, good, and right that we have to be fairer? For example, one can think about a blessing – which should not be confused with a wedding ceremony.” 
Bishop Bode kept his remarks on this topic brief, but several American news outlets have picked up the story. Some have praised his comments, and others have condemned them (you can easily guess which publications took which stance…). One area of concern from some critics is his ambiguity as to whether such couples would be expected to live by–or at least attempt in good faith to live by–Church teaching. Bishop Bode did not attempt an answer this question. He may answer this question at a later time, and an interview is not the place to give a theological discourse. Nonetheless, this question is important for Catholics looking to consider these questions, not only at a pastoral level (the level at which he made his comments), but also at a theological level.
As an initial matter, one might wonder whether a same-sex couple seeking such a blessing might be interested at all in living by Church teaching. If such blessings were available, and came with the expectation that the couple would promote and honestly seek to live by Church teaching, would any same-sex couples even be interested in them? And why should we care?
One instance where the “regularization” of same-sex relationships might be helpful would the case where a same-sex couple has lived together, raised and educated children which are legally their own, and then converted to Catholicism. I’ve begun meeting same-sex couples who have converted, as a couple. And because they have been convinced of the beauty of the Church, they want to live by Catholic teaching. Such persons very much exist, but are often quiet about their relationships because of a fear of rejection or discrimination.
Nonetheless, I suspect that, as non-Catholic Christian churches continue to fall into the cultural divide (of either anti-gay repressive prejudiced approaches to human sexuality or approaches moving away from any sexual norms except for consent), gay couples interested in a Scriptural, historical, and sacramental account of Christianity will want to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. I suspect that over time, gay converts will be more attracted to Catholicism, because the Catholic Church has a deeply nuanced, attractive, and Scriptural approach to human sexuality.
We will need to consider where such couples might fall in our communities, especially when they rely on each other practically, when they cannot afford rent apart from a shared income, or when they rely on their civil unions for health insurance that might cover expensive cancer treatments or hospital visits. Would we prefer for such persons to be homeless, or without medical treatment or human intimacy, in order for them to be a part of our Church?
The question becomes even more difficult when a same-sex couple converts and has children that they have raised for many years in a stable household. Do Catholics really propose that, in order to convert, the couple split up and send their children into the foster care system? Or would there be a way to integrate this household into the parish community, where the couple will be respected as they navigate new commitments to Church teaching and their children will be accepted in a Catholic school (where, of course, they will learn the teachings of the Church in their entirety)?
One benefit of establishing (or, really, re-establishing) blessings for same-sex couples would be creating a space where same-sex couples can publicly affirm their commitment to Church teaching, and be publicly encouraged to do so. It can create a space where young people with attractions to the same sex might imagine their lives as full within a parish community, where the pursuit of celibacy is not simply a quiet and isolated experience, but is celebrated in the context of loving another person as a valued member of the Catholic community.
Such couples might be required to take a course, prior to the blessing, which covers the Catholic understanding of friendship, community, love, sexuality, service, and vocation. And far from weakening Church teaching or creating scandal through ambiguity, by having the blessing include promises to love and serve one another and the Church in handing themselves over to the Church and striving to abide by Her teachings, such blessings might actually serve to publicly promote Catholic teaching.
Yes, many gay Catholic couples are not interested in living in accord with Church teaching. The same is true of many opposite-sex couples that have been married in the Catholic Church, teach in the Catholic schools, and take part in the life of the parish. But simply because many (or even most) do not want to live by Church teaching, does not mean that no one wants to.
In tomorrow’s post I will take up the objection, “But same-sex civil unions (or blessings) shouldn’t be allowed, because they look too much like marriages!” More on Catholicism and homosexuality here.
 Some have tied Bishop Bode’s remarks to remarks made by Father Johannes Zu Eltz in Frankfurt which allegedly call for “‘theologically founded blessing ceremonies’ for couples who do not meet the requirements for marriage in the Church.” I believe that these two questions, while in some ways related, should be treated separately. And I will not remark on Father Eltz’s comments, because I have yet to find a text of his remarks in full. (Comment below if you can find them.)
If you’re interested, Eve Tushnet discusses these questions in relation to historic understandings of friendship here.
For an interesting critique of Bishop Bode’s comments from a “conservative” perspective, see this piece at Crisis Magazine. Though I don’t agree with every aspect of it, I think it’s worth consideration. If you take a look at it, consider also the following comments by a friend of mine:
“One concern that struck me is the way that this author dismissively discusses common law marriage, when he says that ‘… marriage has been eroded by all sorts of marriage wannabes, from common law marriage (you’ve been living together so long that the law will say you’re married even if you did)…’ The fact that he used this example makes me question the depth of his familiarity with the Catholic view of marriage, since ‘common law’ marriages are (all other necessary assumptions being made) emphatically something that the Church would traditionally recognize as a valid marriage between two non-Catholics.
“But my main concern about this author’s critique is its bedrock-assumption that marriage in our modern culture is all about sex. He gives lip service to the modern idea of marriage being rooted in a public-commitment emphasis divorced from sex, but at the same time he reiterates again and again that the two are intrinsically linked even in today’s culture. It strikes me that this assumption is obviously untrue, and deeply out of touch with modern culture.
“I do agree with him that virtually anyone who seeks civil marriage today is also going to be having sex with his/her civil spouse. But that correlation doesn’t at all prove his argument: because the vast majority of anyone in our culture today is assumed to be having sex with his/her partner. Our culture radically abandoned the ‘sex happens uniquely within marriage’ assumption decades ago. Nobody steeped in our modern culture is getting married in order to have sex. If sex with another person were all that they wanted, they wouldn’t need to get married to have it. (Even this author implicitly concedes the point in his note that ‘The crise de jour is how to have ethical hook-ups.’) Perhaps if we had laws still on the books making extramarital sex a punishable offense, or any sort of cultural consensus that sex should be reserved for marriage, then the argument that people marry in order to have sex would hold water. But we don’t, so it doesn’t.
“Also, as far as the Church is concerned, yes: ‘marriage’ is a word that must be reserved for a very specific type of sexual-procreative union. I agree with this. But that’s not at all the sort of relationship that our culture is talking about. And this is exactly why there’s room for a theoretical distinction: if procreation is not on any level an essential dimension of ‘marriage,’ then there’s no remaining grounds for logically holding that sexual activity on any level is an essential dimension of ‘marriage.’
“Our culture has clearly reduced ‘marriage’ to nothing more than a partnership based on love and commitment. Sex is only assumed by default, because it is always assumed by default (i.e., as a consequence of ‘love’, which is deemed sufficient to justify sex with or without ‘marriage’). And if our modern cultural notion of ‘marriage’ is built purely upon love, with no unique or essential connection to procreation or sex, then: we can reasonably argue that, as far as the Church is concerned, civil ‘marriage’ has logically reduced itself to little more than ‘civil union’ by another name.”