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Pope Francis greets visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus Oct. 1, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church, in pursuit of “pastoral prudence,” should discern if there are ways of giving blessings to homosexual persons that do not alter the church’s teaching on marriage, Pope Francis said.

Writing in response to a “dubia” letter delivered to him by five cardinals seeking clarification on doctrinal questions, the pope addressed issues surrounding the authority of the synod, women’s ordination and blessing homosexual unions in a letter made public Oct. 2.

Marriage is an “exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to conceiving children,” wrote the pope. “For this reason, the Church avoids all kinds of rites or sacramentals that could contradict this conviction and imply that it is recognizing as a marriage something that is not.”

But pastoral charity also is necessary, and “defense of the objective truth is not the only expression of that charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, encouragement,” he added. “For that reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern if there are forms of blessing, solicited by one or various persons, that don’t transmit a mistaken concept of marriage.”

Pope Francis added that decisions made in specific circumstances should not necessarily become a norm regulated by a diocese or bishops’ conference, noting that “the life of the Church runs through many channels in addition to regulatory frameworks.”

The pope’s comments came in response to a “dubia” letter dated July 10 seeking clarification on doctrinal questions written by five retired cardinals: U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah and Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen.

The pope’s response is dated July 11, but it was made public on the website of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith only Oct. 2 after the cardinals released a follow-up letter. They had given the pope the second letter Aug. 21 with rephrased questions to solicit “yes” or “no” answers but did not receive a response from the pope.

“Given the gravity of the matter of the dubia, especially in view of the imminent session of the Synod of Bishops, we judge it our duty to inform you, the faithful, so that you may not be subject to confusion, error and discouragement,” the cardinals wrote in an open letter explaining their decision to make the document public Oct. 2.

“The pope already responded to them,” Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the Spanish newspaper ABC the day the letter was released. “And now they publish new questions as if the pope were their slave for running errands.”

The cardinals had asked the pope about St. John Paul II’s declaration that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

“Nobody can publicly contradict” the church’s current rules prohibiting women’s ordination, the pope wrote, “however it can be a subject of study, as is the case with the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”

The letter asked if synodality could form part of the church’s governing structures as an exercise of the church’s supreme authority, to which Pope Francis replied that synodality “as a style and energy, is an essential dimension in the life of the Church.” He noted that the church’s mission “implies real participation: not just the hierarchy but all of the People of God to make their voice heard and feel part of the church’s journey in different ways and at different levels.”

Besides, he told the cardinals, “with these very questions you manifest your need to participate, to freely express your opinion and to collaborate, thus calling for a form of synodality in the exercise of my ministry.”

The pope also answered a question on whether divine revelation should be reinterpreted “according to the cultural changes of our time and according to the new anthropological vision that these changes promote.”

“Divine Revelation is immutable and always binding,” the pope responded, though “the Church must be humble and recognize that it never exhausts its unfathomable wealth and needs to grow in its understanding.”

“Cultural changes and new challenges of history do not modify Revelation, but they do encourage us to better explain some aspects of its boundless richness which always offer more,” he wrote.

Responding to a question on the need for repentance to receive absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation, Pope Francis said that “we should not demand overly precise or certain proposals of reform from the faithful that end up being abstract or even egocentric.”

The pope underscored that priests "are not owners, but humble administrators of the sacraments that nourish the faithful."

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