Pope Francis approves blessings for Catholic same-sex couples

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday December 18, 2023
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Pope Francis has announced that Catholic priests can perform blessings for same-sex couples. Photo: Bill Wilson
Pope Francis has announced that Catholic priests can perform blessings for same-sex couples. Photo: Bill Wilson

Advocates for LGBTQ people in the Roman Catholic Church are pleased by Pope Francis' significant change of tact Monday, now allowing priests to bless couples in same-sex relationships.

"It cannot be overstated how significant the Vatican's new declaration is. Approving blessings for same-gender couples is certainly monumental," stated Francis DeBernardo, the director of New Ways Ministry, an affinity group for LGBTQ Catholics. "But Pope Francis goes further than that by stating that people should not be subjected to 'an exhaustive moral analysis' to receive a sign of God's love and mercy.

"Such a declaration is one more step Pope Francis has taken to overturn the harsh policing of pastoral care all too common under his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI," he added.

The announcement came December 18 in the release of a document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office in charge of defending the church's doctrines. Long-standing Catholic teaching is that while homosexuality isn't sinful per se, it is a sin to have sex with someone of the same sex.

The Catholic Church is the world's largest Christian denomination, claiming 1.4 billion members worldwide. Some countries with large Catholic populations have seen increasingly-restrictive environments for LGBTQ people in recent years, such as Poland and Hungary.

The document, written by the dicastary's prefect Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, states that such blessings have to be done in such a manner that they are not confused with marriage, which the church teaches can only be between one man and one woman. The blessings also cannot be in the context of the liturgy, as marriages are.

"It is precisely in this context that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church's perennial teaching on marriage," Fernández stated.

"The grace of God works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else," he added. "This grace can orient everything according to the mysterious and unpredictable designs of God. Therefore, with its untiring wisdom and motherly care, the Church welcomes all who approach God with humble hearts, accompanying them with those spiritual aids that enable everyone to understand and realize God's will fully in their existence."

While not giving same-sex couples equality, it is a sea change from just two years ago, when the same office stated its opinion that same-sex unions can't be blessed because God "cannot bless sin." The office now holds that document only referred to blessings in a liturgical context.

Couples seeking a blessing will not be expected to meet "the same moral conditions ... that are called for in the reception of the sacraments," the document states.

Reaction was positive.

"The new declaration opens the door to non-liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, something that had been previously off limits for all bishops, priests, and deacons," stated the Reverend James Martin, SJ, an American priest who is a consultant on the Roman Dicastery for Communication (which advises the pope). "Along with many Catholic priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex marriages."

DeBernardo stated that "this declaration is proof that church teaching can — and does — change."

"How does change happen?" DeBernardo continued. "Formal approval in teaching often recognizes what people are already doing pastorally and theologically. Practice precedes teaching. So, too, with LGBTQ+ blessings."

Richard Zaldivar, executive director and founder of The Wall Las Memorias, a Los Angeles-based LGBTQ+ Latino community organization, called the Vatican's announcement "a Christmas gift for our LGBTQ+ community."

"For too long, our Catholic LGBTQ+ community has sought a safe spiritual space in our church, especially for those who are in a committed relationship," he stated. "We have moved a giant step forward towards equality in our church and we know that it takes time. We thank our Pope Francis for his leadership on this issue and his promotion of inclusion of all Catholics to the church."

Stan JR Zerkowski, the executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic-affinity group Fortunate Families and director of Catholic LGBT ministry for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, told the B.A.R. that it was "a very broad permission given."

"I'm not sure everything has to be codified in a liturgical manual, to be honest with you," he said. "Many people I'd spoken with were hoping something like this would be articulated, particularly after the synod meetings in October, but I don't think anyone was anticipating this right now. It shows the difference a day makes."

Zerkowski said that prior blessings of same-sex couples were done against church rules.

"Yesterday, every ordained person knew they were not to bless same-sex unions. That was, sort of the rule, if you will," he said. "It was done covertly, not to cause trouble, but I think today signals a whole different pastoral care approach to same-sex relationships. ... For those who say nothing's changed, I'd say they're absolutely wrong and a lot has changed overnight."

SF archbishop demurs

When asked if he would be performing the blessings himself, and his position on his priests performing them, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone stated to the Bay Area Reporter, "I encourage those who have questions to read the Vatican declaration closely, and in continuity with the Church's unchanging teaching. Doing so will enable one to understand how it encourages pastoral solicitude while maintaining fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ."

Cordileone, appointed by Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI, has been an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ equality both in the church and society-at-large, helping lead the charge for Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in California until it was overturned in federal court several years later.

As the B.A.R. recently reported, a measure to repeal the "zombie" Prop 8 language will be on the November 2024 ballot.

The Reverend Donal Godfrey, SJ, a gay priest in the archdiocese who is executive director of university ministry at the University of San Francisco, stated to the B.A.R. Monday that the Vatican document "humanizes and destigmatizes us."

"I think it is very positive and will change the tone in the Catholic Church for LGBTQI folk," he stated. "It is a very significant step for upholding the dignity of LGBTQI folk. I did not foresee it, and I am very grateful to Pope Francis for his pastoral approach. The conversations about the deeper and theological issues will need to continue, and will take time."

San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who is gay and a practicing Catholic, told the B.A.R., "I think it's meaningful progress and I'm grateful to Pope Francis for working to shape a Catholic Church that better reflects God's inclusive love."

"I made my peace a long time ago that I may never be married a Catholic, but I'll be buried a Catholic," Dorsey stated. "Honestly, I do think the day will come when same-sex partners have full access to marriage sacraments of the Catholic Church, but I also know change comes slowly to a church that took 350 years to admit it was wrong about Galileo. Still, it's meaningful to me to see progress on LGBTQ+ equality that I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. And that's not just true in terms of religious acceptance, but in legal equality, too."

Dorsey was referring to how the church once condemned Galileo for asserting that the Earth revolves around the sun. The late Pope John Paul II issued the apology during a speech in 1991.

Dignity/San Francisco, a local affinity group for LGBTQ Catholics that has not been allowed to meet on church property in the archdiocese since 1988, also did not return a request for comment Monday.

The national organization, DignityUSA, which is the world's oldest LGBTQ Catholic affinity group, issued a statement. Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke said, "Today's statement also will provide comfort to the family members and loved ones of people in same-sex relationships. Too many Catholics have felt a tension between their support of LGBTQIA+ people and our church's teachings. This will alleviate some of that tension and make it easier for families to rejoice in their loved one's relationships."

Updated, 12/18/23: This article has been updated with comments from the Reverend Donal Godfrey at the University of San Francisco, other Catholic leaders, and San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

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