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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2023
Pope Francis begins his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Dec. 13, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

In a significant new development, Pope Francis has given permission to priests to offer blessings to couples in same-sex relationships and other irregular situations “without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith announced this in a declaration issued Dec. 18 by distinguishing clearly between “ritual and liturgical blessings” that are given in the reception of a sacrament and “blessings,” spontaneous ones, that are given outside this situation in a wider pastoral perspective that have long been part of popular piety.

In an introduction to the text, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explains that the declaration “offers a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings, which is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.” In other words, the new document, approved by the pope with his signature, distinguishes between different types of blessings and opens the way for blessings to be given to couples in irregular situations but insists that they are not formulated as rites and do not lead to confusion.

Today’s declaration goes beyond the document issued on Feb. 22, 2021, which prohibited blessings of same-sex couples because it looked at such blessings only as “ritual and liturgical blessings,” and not in the broader pastoral context of other types of blessing.

“One must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone,” the document states, “for it would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments. Such a risk requires that we broaden this perspective further.” Indeed, it said, “there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing.” Precisely in this regard, it said, “Pope Francis urged us not to ‘lose pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes’ and to avoid being ‘judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.’”

“Such theological reflection,” Cardinal Fernández said, “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church” previously. He said, “It is precisely in this context that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

While opening to such wider blessings, the declaration, which examines the different forms of blessings in Scripture, emphasizes, as Pope Francis made clear in his response to the dubia of some cardinals, that “when it comes to blessings, the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion” regarding the church’s understanding of marriage.

It recalled that Pope Francis emphasized that the church must avoid the implication that “something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage.” Therefore, rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage—which is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children”—and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage.

The Vatican document explains that to “help us understand the value of a more pastoral approach to blessings, Pope Francis urges us to contemplate, with an attitude of faith and fatherly mercy, the fact that ‘when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better.’”

The Vatican document added that “this request should, in every way, be valued, accompanied, and received with gratitude. People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing show by this request their sincere openness to transcendence, the confidence of their hearts that they do not trust in their own strength alone, their need for God, and their desire to break out of the narrow confines of this world, enclosed in its limitations.”

The declaration says that “it is essential to grasp the Holy Father’s concern that these non-ritualized blessings never cease being simple gestures that provide an effective means of increasing trust in God on the part of the people who ask for them, careful that they should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament.” Indeed, it said, “such a ritualization would constitute a serious impoverishment because it would subject a gesture of great value in popular piety to excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives.”

For this reason, the declaration states that “one should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. At the same time, one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing.”

“In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing,” the document suggests, “the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.”

It insists, however, that “precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, 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. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple.”

It suggests that such a blessing “may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage.”

The declaration emphasizes that with these blessings “there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.”

It concludes that what has been said in the declaration regarding the blessings of same-sex couples should be sufficient “to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard.”

 

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