SF archbishop says priests can deny same-sex blessings

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 2, 2024
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San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Christmas Mass. Photo: Courtesy Archdiocese of San Francisco<br>
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Christmas Mass. Photo: Courtesy Archdiocese of San Francisco

A document obtained by the Bay Area Reporter reveals that San Francisco's archbishop issued supplemental instructions to the archdiocese's Catholic priests stating they can deny blessing same-sex couples under some circumstances.

The December 21 memorandum came just days after the Vatican issued the document Fiducia Suplicans, allowing same-sex blessings in a radical sea change for the church, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

In the memo, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote that the Vatican document had been misunderstood "by some reports and analyses," but did not indicate how, stating "please do not rely on secular media stories, which are easily fueled by ignorance, animosity, and judgmentalism."

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 Vatican document, written by Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández and approved by Pope Francis, states that same-sex couples can be blessed but the 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.

The pope's directive has exposed deep divisions in the world's largest Christian denomination. In an unprecedented move, some bishops in Kazakhstan, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, and Poland have outright rejected it, according to media reports.

Cordileone, appointed in 2012 by Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI, has been an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ equality, both in the church and society at large. While serving as an auxiliary bishop in San Diego in 2008, he supported the ballot measure Proposition 8 that 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.

Cordileone's memo was sent four days before Christmas.

"I regret that I have to do this as we are on the verge of the joyful, and busy, celebrations of our Lord's Nativity," Cordileone stated in the memo. "Given the large number of people who attend services at Christmas and the interest and misunderstanding that has been circulating, it is of paramount importance that there be some direction for our priests to follow when asked about this declaration."

Five instructions

Cordileone went on to list five instructions: the first is no "pre-planned" or "pre-scheduled" blessings.

The second is "in the case of two people who present themselves as a couple in a marital or marital-like relationship, but it is evident that they are not in the bond of a valid marriage, it is always licit to bless them as two separate individuals."

Cordileone stated that priests "are simply praying with and for these people and not enacting any kind of formalized ceremony or reciting any specialized prayer."

"Even in this context, such a blessing cannot be given if it would be a cause of scandal, that is, if it would mislead either the individuals themselves or others into believing that there may be contexts other than marriage in which 'sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning,'" the fourth instruction states.

Finally, Cordileone's memo states, "as a consequence, any priest has the right to deny such blessings if, in his judgment, doing so would be a source of scandal in any way."

Cordileone also stated to "please note that these instructions are of an interpretative nature and so supplementary to what is already clearly regulated in the declaration itself."

The document seems to put some daylight between Cordileone and the pope. Fernández stated in a recent interview in the Catholic publication The Pillar that "we do not deny a blessing" even to someone who is a "great sinner."

"Since it is not a question of the sacrament of confession, but of a simple blessing, it is still asked that this friendship be purified, matured, and lived in fidelity to the gospel," Fernández stated. "And even if there was some kind of sexual relationship, known or not, the blessing made in this way does not validate or justify anything. Actually the same thing happens whenever individuals are blessed, because that individual who asks for a blessing — not absolution — may be a great sinner, but we do not deny a blessing to him."

When reached for comment January 2, archdiocesan spokesperson Peter Marlow insisted Cordileone was fully in line with the Vatican's position.

"If you obtained a document from the Archbishop, you should know that all he does in that document is quote from the declaration," Marlow stated. "There is no inconsistency in what the declaration outlines and the guidance the Archbishop gave to priests in the Archdiocese."

The Reverend James Martin, S.J., an American priest who is a consultant on the Roman Dicastery for Communication, which advises the pope, pointed out that the blessings referred to in the pope's document were of couples specifically, and not of individuals.

"As Archbishop Cordileone has said, Fiducia Supplicans is clear that the blessings are not meant to replicate a sacramental marriage," Martin stated January 2. "At the same time, according to the declaration, the priest is blessing a couple, not simply two individuals. The word 'couple' (and the term 'same-sex couple') is used repeatedly in the Vatican's declaration. So it is indeed the blessing of a couple."

Paul Riofski, a 66-year-old gay man who since 1978 has been a member of Dignity/SF, a local LGBTQ Catholic affinity group, and has held leadership roles there, made similar remarks.

"It [Fiducia Supplicans] refers to blessings of couples. It doesn't say separate individuals," Riofski said. "We believe our relationships and our love is blessed by God and consonant with God's love. ... The best thing he [Cordileone] did say publicly was telling people to read the entire document. And if you read church documents, you read the entirety and look at what's being promoted and called on.

"It's very clear the purpose of this document is to open things up and be more inclusive and point a way to how people can be encouraged in their lives to grow in love and adherence to the gospel," Riofski said of the Vatican directive. "We have different understandings, at times, of what the gospel calls for."

Francis DeBernardo, the director of New Ways Ministry, another affinity group for LGBTQ Catholics, questioned why Cordileone's memo was necessary.

"The Vatican's instructions for blessing same-gender couples offered a clear set of parameters for how, when, and what priests are supposed to do when people request such blessings," DeBernardo stated. "The instructions were very clear and detailed, and so it seems that Archbishop Cordileone's additional comments, including a warning about scandal, were unnecessary. The archbishop's warning may cause priests to be reluctant to give such blessings when asked, and may also cause some couples to be wary of asking for them."

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 Cordileone was giving "an easy excuse" out of providing religious instruction for the faithful.

"The resistance to invoking a blessing on a same-sex couple and blaming it on 'scandal' seems to be an easy excuse for refusing to provide catechesis, which can be challenging in this regard for some, and appears to be lacking in mercy, welcome, as well as pastoral sensitivity," he stated.

The Holy See Press Office didn't return a request for comment.

Updated, 1/3/24: This article has been updated with additional comments.

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