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James Martin, S.J.December 18, 2023
Newlywed couples meet with Pope Francis during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

Today the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Víctor Fernández, issued a declaration that will long be remembered by L.G.B.T.Q. people. EntitledFiducia Supplicans” (from the first two words in Latin, meaning, “Supplicating trust”), the declaration opens the door, for the first time, for the official blessings of same-sex couples by ministers of the church, something that has long been desired by L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and their families and friends.

The declaration also includes a larger meditation on blessings in the Catholic tradition and cautions that the blessings for same-sex couples and others in “irregular” unions should be done in a way that does not confuse these blessings with sacramental marriage or suggest a liturgical rite. But even with those provisions, this is a major step forward for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

“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,” wrote Cardinal Fernández in the document, which had the approval of Pope Francis.

Why is this a major step? First, it is the first time that a Vatican document treats same-sex couples with such pastoral care. It marks a dramatic shift from the dicastery’s (then congregation’s) “responsum” two years ago, which said that priests and deacons could under no circumstances bless same-sex couples because “God cannot and does not bless sin.” As an aside, a “declaration” is more substantial and, therefore, authoritative than a “responsum,” which is usually responding to a more specific question (called a “dubium”) and is narrower in scope. (For some context,Dominus Iesus,” a landmark document on other Christian denominations and other religions, published in 2000, was also a declaration.)

Today the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration that will long be remembered by L.G.B.T.Q. people. 

There was widespread reaction to that “responsum,” as the new declaration notes in its opening. Especially, L.G.B.T.Q. people and their friends and families felt that the focus on such relationships as sinful ignored or rejected their experience of loving, committed and self-sacrificing same-sex relationships. News reports at the time also suggested Pope Francis was himself unhappy with that statement, and eventually theperson responsible for its publication was removed from the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So the Vatican’s pastoral approach to same-sex couples (as well as other couples not sacramentally married) has clearly shifted in the last two years.

The declaration is also in line with the letter that Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Fernández when he was installed as the new prefect of the D.D.F., in which the pope encouraged him to support the “harmonious growth” in theology and, quoting from “Evangelii Gaudium,” noted that the church itself “grow[s] in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.” Many observers saw that as a new way of understanding the role of the D.D.F., which in recent decades had been more concerned with responding to errors.

Second, you may hear from some quarters that “nothing has changed.” It reminds me of my church history professor, John W. O’Malley, S.J., who said that when church teaching changes, the most common introduction is “As the church has always taught...”

Here, Father O’Malley’s insight is made manifest in a slightly different way. Some Catholics oppose any steps toward greater inclusion for L.G.B.T.Q. people in the life of the church. We saw some of this during the Synod on Synodality, where I was a voting member, with significant pushback from certain quarters on even using the term L.G.B.T.Q. So, for some, this declaration (even though it specifies that the blessings must not in any way seem like a marriage rite) will be threatening, and the temptation will therefore be to say, “Nothing has changed.” 

But a great deal has in fact changed. Before this document was issued, there was no permission for bishops, priests and deacons to bless couples in same-sex unions in any setting. This document establishes, with some limitations, that they can.

Of course, some may say that there are many restrictions (as noted above), while others will note that in some places (most notable in the German church) these blessings were already widespread. (One German bishop told me during the synod that he himself blessed unions outside his cathedral.) The change here is that these blessings are now officially sanctioned by the Vatican. Today, with some limitations, I can perform a public blessing of a same-sex couple. Yesterday, I could not.

Third, it is a major step because it continues Pope Francis’ continual outreach to L.G.B.T.Q. people.

To take but one example, during the month of October Pope Francis met with L.G.B.T.Q. representatives three times. A few days before the Synod began, he met with me in a private audience at the Casa Santa Marta; halfway through the synod he met with Jeannine Gramick, S.L., along with her New Ways Ministry team; finally, toward the end of the month, during a general audience, he met with Marianne Duddy-Burke and other representatives from the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, an umbrella group for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholic groups worldwide. (Speaking of umbrellas, on the day of that final meeting with G.N.R.C., an immense rainbow was seen over St. Peter’s Basilica.)

Some L.G.B.T.Q. people may be disappointed that this declaration doesn’t go as far as they might hope—that is, allow same-sex couples to be married sacramentally. Others, especially in countries (and dioceses) where the entire topic is off-limits, will think it goes too far. Both groups, however, can agree that this is a significant change. As for me, I welcome this new declaration and see it as a much-needed pastoral response to Catholic same-sex couples in loving, committed and self-sacrificing relationships who desire God’s presence and help in their lives. And as a priest, I look forward to blessing same-sex couples, sharing with them the graces that God desires for everyone, something I’ve waited years to do.

This article was co-published with Outreach.

 

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