Guest Opinion: Pope's directive represents progress

  • by Jim Mitulski
  • Wednesday December 20, 2023
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Pope Francis issued a directive this week that allows Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples. Photo: Bill Wilson
Pope Francis issued a directive this week that allows Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples. Photo: Bill Wilson

This week something unprecedented happened at the Vatican's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Francis quietly, yet unmistakably, shifted the rules regarding the honoring of LGBTQ relationships. In the Roman Catholic Church the pope is the one person who has the authority to preside over a change of this magnitude. He used his power as a spiritual and political leader to signal to LGBTQ people that where we once received rejection, we could begin to see blessing. It's more than an internal church policy update because this change will echo throughout the world.

Fiducia Supplicans, or "On The Pastoral Meaning of Blessings," is barely five pages long. It contains many scriptural references and theological arguments meant to bolster this new policy. It supersedes a previous directive and now permits priests to bless same-sex couples. It defines blessings as requests to be nearer to God, and though this is a simplification, it makes a case that no such request should ever be discouraged or denied. He cautions priests to avoid being "judges who only deny, reject, and exclude."

There is more in the statement about what it is not than what it is. There is no revision of traditional teaching about marriage as a union of one man and one woman intended as a lifetime commitment for the principal purpose of procreation. There is no new theology of human sexuality informed by reason and science. It simply says it's OK to bless same-sex couples. But critics and supporters recognize it as a paradigm shift. No more language of condemnation or abomination or the ugly language of a 1986 statement that calls us "intrinsically disordered." There is a call to blessing, which emphasizes God's unconditional love in, and for all, creation. It is an implicit call to stand with us, to accompany us on life's journey. All of us.

Francis performed a minor miracle by giving permission to priests to bless same-sex relationships. The church has always allowed for the blessing of people, places, and things. But never before has it acknowledged the potential blessings of honoring same-sex love. This wasn't entirely a surprise. Francis early on signaled his openness to LGBTQ people when he famously remarked, "Who am I to judge?" He has spoken up in defense of transgender rights and spent time with this community. Earlier this year Francis affirmed the place of transgender people in the life of the church, saying, for example, that trans people can be godparents. During the same period San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and Oakland Bishop Michael Barber issued a harshly anti-transgender statement, "The Body-Soul Unity of the Human Person." Fortunately, the pope has the final word, which may be hard for local church officials to hear.

There will be widespread outcries from conservative prelates who have a stake in preserving the status quo. What next? Women priests? We can only hope so, and not soon enough. There is no apology, no recognition of how many have suffered from the church's outmoded notions of human sexuality, divorce, abortion, or contraceptives. We can hope it will discourage the church's impulse to legislate its doctrines as social policy.

It can be discouraging how slowly the church changes. When I was in seminary 40 years ago, the United Methodist Church was in the vanguard of progressive policies regarding LGBTQ inclusion; this year it is dividing over issues of LGBTQ inclusion. During that same period, the Lutheran Church expelled the San Francisco congregation that supported the ordination of openly gay the Reverend Jeff Johnson and others who were seeking ordination. This month the same Lutheran denomination installed him to be its bishop here in Northern California. Some changes take more than a lifetime to realize.

I performed my first same-sex wedding in 1981. I was working as a student pastor at the gay Metropolitan Community Church in New York's Greenwich Village. Doris and Rocky (Rachel) were a young Puerto Rican couple, living in Queens, raising two children. They were devout Catholics and their lives focused on family. They worked hard to send their kids to Catholic school because it afforded a better education. They came to my gay church seeking a blessing for their relationship. They wanted their relatives and their children to witness them exchanging vows in a church, even a Protestant church if necessary. Their local priest was privately sympathetic to them and even sent them to us because he knew our queer congregation would provide what his church would not. On their wedding day, I pronounced "what God has joined together, let no one, let no church, let no state put their love asunder" to the couple attired in bridal gown and tux, with their children bearing rings and flowers. Afterward, Rocky assured me that she knew God approved of their relationship, even if it took Him awhile to understand, because "when he saw much love they had for each other and their children, He would come around."

In those years the possibility of legal marriage wasn't even imaginable, and nobody ever thought the Catholic Church or most religious traditions would ever allow the blessing of gay and lesbian couples. The Catholic Church was firmly entrenched in its homophobia, vocal in its opposition to gay and lesbian rights, and actively worked politically to oppose equal rights for queer people. This was even before AIDS, when the church would preach judgment and hate from its pulpits.

Change will come slowly — it might even take generations. But it is happening. And Rocky, the feisty lesbian who prophesied to me a change like this over 40 years ago, was right. People will come around eventually, to see that love in all its forms is a gift from the divine, and that blessings like same-sex relationships are meant to be celebrated.

The Reverend Jim Mitulski has been an openly gay pastor for over 40 years in the Metropolitan Community Churches, the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, and the United Church of Christ. He is currently the pastor of the Congregational Church of the Peninsula in Belmont, California.

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