The cardinal's apparent endorsement of blessing same-sex couples has troubling historical echoes

Cardinal Reinhard Marx has caused controversy by raising the idea that pastors could bless same-sex couples. According to the Catholic News Agency, Cardinal Marx “told the Bavarian State Broadcasting’s radio service that ‘there can be no rules’ about this question. Rather, the decision of whether a homosexual union should receive the Church’s blessing should be up to ‘a priest or pastoral worker’ and made in each individual case, the German prelate stated.”

There has been some dispute about what his ambiguous words meant. But he is not the first German bishop to stray into this territory: Bishop Bode, vice president of the German episcopal conference, called for discussion of such blessings a month ago.

Cardinal Marx’s assertion that “there can be no rules” is startling. According to the constant tradition of the Catholic Church, the People of God can determine with certainty that some things are to be done and others not, and thus sure judgements can be made in matters moral, sacramental, canonical and theological. And the prohibition on blessing gay relationships is one of these certainties.

As Archbishop Charles Chaput observed yesterday, “any such ‘blessing rite’ would cooperate in a morally forbidden act, no matter how sincere the persons seeking the blessing. Such a rite would undermine the Catholic witness on the nature of marriage and the family. It would confuse and mislead the faithful. And it would wound the unity of our Church, because it could not be ignored or met with silence.”

So the burden of proof is surely on Cardinal Marx to explain why “There are no rules” in this instance. But he does not advance a single reason for this revolutionary stance.

A general disdain for “rules” is not a good sign. The real start of the Reformation, to my mind, was not Luther nailing his theses to the church door, but something else that happened in Wittenberg, Germany, three years later: the burning of the books of Canon Law on 10 December 1520. By casting the books of Canon Law into the flames, Luther was denying the Church’s right to legislate and the Church’s right to teach, in favour of the supremacy of the individual conscience.

Catholics believe in the supremacy of conscience, but let’s be clear about what this means. We recognise in the teaching of the Church something to be accepted in conscience, and it is this, among other things, that makes us Catholic. We look to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ as well, which is the foundation of the teaching power of the Church: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20a)

If we do “observe all” that the Church has consistently taught, we know that there most certainly are rules, which mean that we cannot make up doctrine as we go along. Does Cardinal Marx recognise this? Perhaps he sees grounds for change in what some hail as the “paradigm shift” of Amoris Laetitia. But the Church does not do paradigm shifts in doctrine. Luther did. And Luther ended up shifting out of the Church.