It’s no secret that Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is a voice of the more ‘progressive’ side of the Church, if such categories can be applied to the Catholic Church (which I think they can’t to any satisfactory extent). He is a bishop able to relate easily to the faithful, addressing them effectively about the practicalities of the faith (as we have seen in, for example, his recent letter for Advent). At the same time, he is less concerned or interested in adhering to the legalities, the rules, the doctrine of the Church, although these are one of the two legs the Church stands on: mercy and the law, which support and feed each other. The one must not exist without the other.
The fact that Bishop Bonny emphasises mercy is not a problem in itself. Pope Francis does so as well. But the Holy Father does not distort or deny the teachings of the Church. Bishop Bonny, sadly, does.
In an interview with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, published on Saturday, Bishop Bonny made several statements regarding the recognition of same-sex relationships by the Church. He said that there should be a “range of forms of recognition”.
“In the Church we should look for a formal recognition of the ‘relationality’ which is also present in same-sex couples. Just like a diversity of legal frameworks for couples which exist in society, a range of forms of recognition should also be introduced in the Church.”
It is hard to understand what Bishop Bonny means here. Recognising the existence of a relation between two persons is something factual. We can all see a relation, in whichever form, between two people, whoever they are. The Church will also acknowledge this, as she is not in the business of denying reality. But we may well assume that recognition goes a bit further in this case.
“The substantive values are more important to me than the institutional question. Christian ethics assume durable relationships in which exclusivity, loyalty and care for the other are at the centre.”
Bishop Bonny makes a sharp distinction here between the substance and the institution, which is, in essence, a division between the two legs of pastoral care I mentioned above, mercy and law. Of course the content or substance of a relationship is extremely important, be the relationship a heterosexual or homosexual one, or even a friendship of family bond. But the fact, the institutional question does not go away and can not be ignored. These continue to exist, and must be recognised and understood, in addition to the substance of the relationship.
“Additionally, there is the openness to new life, or at least the responsibility assumed by partners to be generous in what is being passed on to children.”
This is pure watering-down of what the Church teaches about the nature of marriage. The sacrament of marriage is open to life, which means that the spouses are open to welcoming new life flowing forth from their sacramental bond, both mentally, spiritually and physically. Simple sharing a responsibility is quite simply not the same thing, even though it is, in itself, laudable.
In the last quote featured in the article linked to above, Bishop Bonny finally hits the mark.
“In their lives, everyone is confronted with relationships, friendships, family and the education of children. We must not deny that there are wounds and traumas in the Church about this. Too many people have felt excluded for too long.”
This is true, and not only for homosexual people, and this is a serious problem that must be addressed. The care offered by the Church must be effective, ever-present and open. There is much to win in this field, since many people are indeed excluded because the Church gives the impression that they are. But the big question is how to remedy that.
There are two options, as I see it:
- We open our doors and listen to everyone who comes to us, share the truth with them and help them in their need, or
- We tell these people lies and promise them impossibilities to make the pain stop.
What is the right option? It should not be hard to see.
I am not saying that the right option is the easy one. It isn’t in the least, because here too we find the two legs of pastoral care in the form of emotion on the one hand, and facts on the other.
As I have hinted at above, care and concern for homosexual people, including those in relationships, is a good thing, and it must be expressed. The pain and lack of understanding they feel is real. As Catholics we are people of mercy and this means we can not be deaf to these feelings. But that is not the complete picture of our duty as Catholics. We also represent a truth beyond ourselves, after all, the truth of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, He offers the best guidance in such situations through this passage from the Gospel of John: after He has been confronted by the scribes and Pharisees with the adulterous woman, and tells them that he is who is without sin cast the first stone, and after they have silently left, He addresses the woman: “Has no one condemned you?” She replies that no one has. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)
There are several lessons to draw from this: first, Jesus does not condemn the woman who has objectively sinned, but He does tell her to stop sinning. That is our example. Not to condemn or exclude anyone and to be honest to the truth, the truth of Christ.
So, in the end, while Bishop Bonny is most certainly right in emphasising the need for proper pastoral care for people in homosexual relationships (as well as anyone else, really), his chosen solution ultimately does more harm than good as it dilutes the truth and present impossibilities as attainable and desirable.