This March, at a national meeting of leaders of the German Catholic Church (referred to as a synod), a document titled Blessing Ceremonies for Couples who Love Each Other" received overwhelming support: 176 votes in favor, 14 against, with 12 abstentions. The German bishops approved the text: 38 votes in favor, 9 against, with 11 abstentions.
Pope Francis initiated a synodal process in the Catholic Church in 2021 to construct a collegial conversation among church leaderslay as well as clericalon issues of pressing importance to the Church. Many synods focused on the following issues, among many important matters: the re-introduction of married priests into the Roman Rite; methods of family planning and birth control; the role of women in the Church; the place of divorced and remarried Catholics and of LGBTQ persons in Church community. The results of this "synodal way"which closes in 2024are to be incorporated into the thinking of the universal Church.
Many commentators see the German synodal approval of liturgies for blessing same-sex unions as a direct challenge to the Vatican and to Pope Francis because it, seemingly, contradicts the 2021 Vatican decreeapproved by Pope Francisprohibiting the blessing of gay couples by officials of the Church. Some pundits even speculated that this "defiance" could lead the German Catholic Church into schism.
Sadly, media coverage of this significant event fails to show the genuine spirit of this important document, with its ancient roots in the practices of the early and medieval Christian churches. Those practices have lasted right into the modern world in the Eastern Christian churches.
In a 1994 Los Angeles Times review of John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (a book which documented the extensive use of same-sex liturgical blessings in various Christian traditions), University of Chicago Professor Wendy Doniger wrote: "The existence and genuineness of these documents are not in question; indeed, some of those who would belittle Boswell's achievement have pointed out that historians have known about documents of this nature for years. What is in question is what they mean, and, more particularly, what they mean for us."
Catholic University Professor Robin Darling cites her own contemporary experience of this type of blessing in a review in the journal First Things: "During the course of our travels we paid a visit to St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem, the residence of the Syrian Orthodox archbishop. There our host, Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh, remarked that since we had survived the rigors of Syria and Eastern Turkey in amicable good humor, we two women must be good friends indeed. Would we like to be joined as sisters the next morning after the bishop's Sunday liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?"
Historically, in the West, in both civil and ecclesiastical law, a marriage was effected by two competent adults capable of entering into a contract. Neither the civil authority nor the church authority were necessary for the validity of the marriage. Marriages were usually arranged between families. The marriage contract was designed to protect property, including women and children. Gradually, the principle of a civil witness and an ecclesiastical witness was introduced into the marriage contract: the civil witness recognizes the marriage contract for the state; the church witness recognizes the marriage for the religious community.
For those Christian churches that consider marriage a sacrament, the same principle holds: the marriage is made sacred by the action of the two competent Christians. [Please see my Sept. 4, 2013 Windy City Times op-ed, "Marriage (Gay or Other): What is it?]
Our contemporary system of marriage confuses the roles of the participants, causing people to think that they are married by the judge or by the priest. They are not married by either; they marry each other.
The confusion of roles in the performance of marriage rituals is compounded by the confusion of terms referring to marriage and the union of persons in civil and religious contexts. The chief criticism of Boswell's work is that he stretches the several terms for unions of same-sex couples used in these traditional liturgical blessings to mean marriage and/or to include the blessing of the sexual activity of the couple.
Christian societies, confraternities, congregations, and monastic orders often used rituals of friendship among their members to encourage spiritual development and promote spiritual kinship. The warrior monastic orders such as the Templars and the Knights of St John often bonded into pairs with vows bearing strong resemblance to marriage vows in order to promote loyalty and mutual protection in battle both physical and spiritual.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in particular was notable for his passionate friendships and testimonials to the union of friends. The Celtic Christian tradition is replete with such passionate friendships and the attended rituals of union. In my play, "Oh Holy Allen Ginsberg …" these rituals are used for the union of friendship between a gay Catholic priest and his Jewish lover.
The fear of "particular friendships," a legacy of a puritanical streak that seized Christian history in our modern period, banished rituals of friendship from our western Christian traditions.In her work on "brother-making," or adelphopoiesis, German researcher Claudia Rapp has provided us with additional historical resources for understanding the origins, uses, and meanings of liturgical blessings of friendship.
Perhaps this focus on friendship will lead to a new appreciation of the role of friendship in society as well as in Christian community. Friendship as a spiritual kinship is a good balance to family as blood kinship. As Wendy Doniger has wisely noted: It is up to us to determine what these rituals of friendship mean in our lives, in our religious commitments, and in the communities in which we live out the meanings of our lives.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network JP; member,Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.
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