Pope Francis announced Monday that he would allow priests to bless same-sex couples, a change that angered some conservatives but was celebrated by those who said the decision was a substantial step in moving the church toward greater acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics.
“It really is a milestone and milestone in the church's relationship with LGBTQ people that cannot be overstated or exaggerated,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland group that has advocated on behalf of Catholics. homosexuals since the 1970s, said. “This statement is proof that church teaching can and does change.”
Conservative Catholics in the United States, many of whom are deeply skeptical of Francis' leadership, were disappointed. Some reacted with anger and others with a sense of resignation.
The pope's decision was issued “in contradiction to the immutable Catholic teaching that the Church cannot bless sinful relationships,” wrote the conservative LifeSiteNews.
The Pope's decision does not mean that the Church will now marry same-sex couples. Priests can now offer blessings to people in same-sex marriages, although the blessings must not take the form of a liturgical rite that could be confused with the sacrament of marriage, and cannot include “any dress, gesture, or word that is typical of a wedding.”
The new rule contradicts the Vatican's long-standing claim that blessing same-sex couples would undermine the church's teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, including a 2021 ruling that said God “cannot bless sin.”
The head of the church's doctrinal office, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, wrote in an introduction to the papal document that it was “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.”
In a brief, cautious statement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized the distinction between formal sacramental blessings and “pastoral blessings.”
“The teaching of the church on marriage has not changed, and this statement affirms that, while making an effort to accompany people by imparting pastoral blessings, because each of us needs the healing love and mercy of God in our lives,” said spokesperson Chieko Noguchi. for bishops, she said.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, an avowed conservative in a city long known as a vanguard of gay rights, emphasized that the document did not change Catholic doctrine.
“I encourage those who have questions to read the Vatican statement carefully and in continuity with the immutable teachings of the Church,” he said in a statement. “Doing so will allow us to understand how pastoral care is encouraged while maintaining fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Francis signaled in October that he was open to the possibility of blessing same-sex couples, the latest in a series of measures on LGBTQ issues since Cardinal Fernández assumed his role as head of the Vatican's ecclesiastical doctrine. In November, the pope made clear that transgender people could be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings under certain circumstances.
The document does not suggest that every priest will be expected to offer blessings in all circumstances, but some Catholic leaders worry that the guidance could create discomfort for priests who reject a request from a gay couple as a matter of conscience.
Young priests in the United States are overwhelmingly conservative, even more so than the group of older bishops who lead them, raising the potential for conflict in individual parishes and dioceses.
“I will never confer a blessing on two men or two women who are involved in a sexual relationship that by its nature is gravely sinful,” said the Rev. Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Church in New York and an outspoken conservative. “The Pope has placed priests who defend Catholic doctrine on the immorality of sodomy and adultery in a terrible position.”
For many conservatives, the document was the logical culmination of a papacy that began with Francis asking: “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay priests in 2013. Although he has made few concrete changes, Francis has signaled for years that he intended to take a softer line in Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, emphasizing openness over restriction.
“It's another one of those ways of approving homosexual relationships without actually saying we approve of them,” said Peter Kwasniewski, a traditionalist Catholic author.
The decision is unlikely to agitate the majority of Catholics in American pews. More than six in 10 Catholics in the United States said they supported same-sex marriage in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization that supports LGBTQ Catholics, said the change from the Vatican's 2021 statement was “meteoric.”
But Duddy-Burke, who is married to a woman, said she would not seek a blessing for her marriage. “We don't believe a priest's blessing is necessary to validate our commitment or relationship,” she said.
And, in Duddy-Burke's opinion, there was still much to be done. “It looks like another window has opened in the church,” she said, “while we're still waiting for the doors to open.”
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