Vatican Says Yes to Blessings of Same-sex Unions

Felix von der Osten for The Washington Post
Same-sex couples receiving blessings in front of Germany’s Cologne Cathedral in September. The Vatican formally approved such blessings on Monday.

ROME – The Vatican on Monday issued formal, definitive permission for Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples, as long as those benedictions are kept separate from marriage, a decree that amounts to an about-face after decades of discord between the LBGTQ+ community and the Catholic Church, which has long upheld that homosexuals are “disordered” and said any nod to their unions would be tantamount to blessing sin.

The guidance from the powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued after papal review and approval, largely reverses a 2021 ruling and expands on a far briefer statement of support for such blessings issued by Francis in September in response to questions raised by conservative clerics.

The document issued Monday says that blessings of same-sex couples should not suggest even the trappings of sacramental marriage – including traditional wedding vestments – or even ceremonies formally recognizing same-sex unions. But it offers guidelines for offering benedictions to people in same-sex relationships and explicitly gives permission to “ordained ministers” to conduct such blessings, while asking priests to use their own “prudent and fatherly discernment” to decide when doing so is appropriate.

Couples in “irregular situations” as well as “couples of the same sex” may receive priestly blessings, the Vatican said, so that these “human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel.”

“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,” the Vatican said.

The document departs from a 2021 Vatican statement that confirmed a ban on blessing same-sex unions, calling them not “even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” At the time, the ruling dashed the hopes of gay Catholics and seemed to indicate the limits of Francis’s reformist intentions.

But since then, Francis had only mildly reprimanded priests in Western Europe who ventured to defy the ban. And he removed the conservative officials said to be the architects of the 2021 decision and appointed a fellow Argentine and ally, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, to the head the ministry in charge of Vatican doctrine. Fernández signed Monday’s decree.

“The Vatican’s new declaration is a huge a step forward for the church’s ministry for LGBTQ people,” said the Rev. James Martin, an American priest who ministers to the LGBTQ+ community and was handpicked as a delegate by Francis. “It provides guidelines, and it leaves a lot of it up to the minister. But this is a gift to LGBTQ Catholics and the document itself is a blessing.”

The global Catholic Church, with 1.3 billion adherents, is deeply divided on the issue of homosexuality. Liberal German, Belgian and Swiss priests have conducted same-sex blessings for years, prompting denouncements from conservative Catholic voices in the United States, while some Catholic bishops in Africa have refused to oppose legislation imposing the death penalty for homosexual acts.

The ruling on Monday, a declaration titled “Fiducia Supplicans,” again demonstrated how Francis has become less cautious and more willing to move against his conservative critics in the latter stage of his papacy. This year, he has decried the “strong reactionary attitude” among American conservative Catholics; removed one critic, Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland; and stripped another, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, of his traditional privileges.

Francis began to open a door to the gay community shortly after becoming pope, declaring, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests. He has invited LGBTQ+ advocates to the Vatican, supported national laws for same-sex civil unions and called on church leaders to welcome gay Catholics.

The extent of that welcome became the most divisive issue during October’s month-long meeting in Vatican City on the direction of the faith. The wording of a concluding report failed to use inclusive language coined by the pope and declined to even repeat the term LGBTQ+. During that meeting, conservative bishops from Poland, Hungary, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Australia and elsewhere categorically rejected same-sex blessings, saying they would condone “sin” and amount to a “colonial” imposition from liberal Western Europeans.

Some conservatives noted Monday that while the document was being taken as broad acceptance of same-sex blessings, the new guidelines still don’t condone the most controversial practices in countries such as Germany, where some Catholic priests have overseen marriage-like ceremonies for same-sex couples. The document specifically notes that “this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”

But Martin and others interpreted the text as standing permission to hold such services inside Catholic churches, as long as they were framed in ways that avoided a reference to a Catholic sacrament or liturgical ritual.

Conservative Catholics expressed indignation. The right-wing Catholic outlet LifeSite News described the decision as “in contradiction to the unchangeable Catholic teaching that the Church cannot bless sinful relationships.” The Catholic church official teachings still describe homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.”

“This document is scandalous and wrong, because of one underlying reason: You’re not blessing an individual who wants to change his life, as much as the couple that objectively lives in sin and has no intention of getting out of that,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Catholic Lepanto Foundation. “I think this document will chiefly supply munitions to the most radical among Francis opposers … a minority convinced that Pope Francis’s words and gestures amount to heresy.”

In a significant way, however, the declaration simply expanded on the teachings of Francis already issued in September, when the Vatican made public the pope’s official response to conservative clerics, including Burke, who had demanded that he clarify the church’s position on same-sex blessings. In the response, dated Sept. 25, Francis wrote that there are “situations” that may not be “morally acceptable” but where a priest can assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether blessings may be given – as long as such blessings are kept separate from the sacrament of marriage.

“We cannot be judges who only deny, push back and exclude,” Francis wrote. “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.”

Innocenzo Pontillo, a gay Catholic activist in Florence who is in a same-sex union, called Monday’s decision long overdue – while acknowledging the double message the Vatican seemed to be sending by going to such great lengths to separate those blessings from the sacrament of marriage.

“There were no doctrine-based justifications for not doing it, because, in the Catholic Church, they also bless tanks, cars, tractors, even salt,” he said. “A blessing only means a wishing for the best. It’s painful, though, that they should still feel compelled to reiterate: Remember, it’s not marriage! Look, we know it already.”