The Vatican’s newly released document addressing the blessing of same-sex couples doesn’t pave the way for gay weddings at churches or with Catholic priests as officiants. But it does now allow for non-specific blessings of gay couples, which some anticipate could be the first of future doctrinal changes.
It’s ignited a firestorm of commentary, public statements, and attempts to interpret its overall meaning for church doctrine.
What is the document, and what does it say?
The nearly 50-page declaration is called “Fiducia Supplicans,” and it was issued by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is a powerful and authoritative arm of the Catholic Church’s theological and disciplinary structure, “responsible for promoting and protecting the doctrine of the Catholic Church, preserving the doctrine especially in harmonious growth of his understanding.” The dicastery was widely known for more than 300 years as “The Inquisition,” and one of its more formidable recent prefects was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, better known later as Pope Benedict XVI.
The document itself was issued under the name of Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the dicastery’s prefect. Under the Catholic Church’s presumed teaching authority, it is not a document that can be easily dismissed or ignored. And yet the document itself, though surprising, does not change church doctrine on marriage, homosexuality, or blessings themselves. Notably, the document does not require priests to bestow blessings on gay couples, it merely now allows them to do so. Cardinal Fernandez clarified Thursday that bishops may refuse to implement the blessings in their diocese. The document also goes to great lengths to emphasize that it is the individuals receiving the blessing, not the union of the two people before the priest.
Nevertheless, any sort of blessing for gay couples is unprecedented in the history of Catholic pastoral practice. In 2021, the same Vatican dicastery issued a seemingly definitive statement saying it would not bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Both the Old and New Testaments explicitly deem homosexual behavior sinful, and only in recent decades have some Protestant churches begun affirming homosexual relationships.
“Fiducia Supplicans” relies on a general theology of blessings to do the heavy lifting. The document explains that blessings are integrated throughout Christian life. They are bestowed on places, objects, and people. And one may presume the sinfulness of people who are receiving a blessing. The document explains, “Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.” The argument of traditionalists, and the Vatican itself up to just two years ago, is the incongruity of appearing to bless the homosexual union, not just the individuals in the union. From the declaration:
… 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 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.
In any case, 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.
No one should write special prayers for such blessings, and priests are not to wear any liturgical vestments when imparting such a blessing. Blessings might be requested on pilgrimage, at shrines, or when meeting a priest. But they are not to take place in liturgical settings.
What has been the response?
LGBTQ advocates might feel this is a case of being served out of the back door of the kitchen. Yet more traditional Catholics can hardly believe this has actually come to pass and worry about what is to come.
Mainstream media outlets noted the serious departure from previous Catholic practice regarding homosexual unions, but headlines touted any kind of blessing of homosexual unions, rather than the many limitations placed on such blessings. The New York Times, for example, featured an interview with Father James Martin, a well-known progressive priest, alongside a photo of him blessing a gay couple who are friends of his (in his black clerical “streetwear,” in an office, using only general words of blessing from the Bible).
Of less interest, but perhaps of more importance, is the reaction of Catholic bishops. A Catholic bishop’s authority and notoriety in the public mind pales beside that of the pope—but each bishop has immense authority over the theological, pastoral, administrative, and financial life of his diocese. If the pope is Peter, then the bishops are the other apostles.
The bishops of Germany have been at the forefront of regularizing same-sex unions within the church. They, along with Austrian Archbishop Franz Lackner, chairman of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, expressed “joy” at the document. Along with Martin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago Blase Cupich celebrated it as “a step forward.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was more businesslike in explaining the essentials of how and where the blessings could be bestowed, and that Catholic teaching on marriage and homosexuality remained unchanged. The conference of Polish bishops rejected it on its face—a not unimportant development coming from the land of St. (Pope) John Paul II.
Although it’s hard to definitively quantify, from the statements coming out of its bishops’ conferences, it appears that a majority of the African bishops have rejected implementation of the document, and many of their dioceses will not be bestowing blessings on gay couples. Their arguments cover the gamut of reasons: doctrinal, moral, cultural, and legal—they argue it is utterly foreign to their lived faith and the culture from which they come and the laws under which they live. What the collegial and disciplinary consequences of this will be remains uncertain, to say the least. Catholic Africa is increasing vastly in numbers, it has more priestly vocations than it needs for itself, and is sending its priests around the world—including to the U.S.—to fill in for the precipitous decline of priests in the Western world. Many argue that Africa is the near future of global Catholicism. If the Vatican wishes in some way to “enforce” this document, Catholic Africa is where the showdown may take place.
What happens next?
The big question now seems to be whether this will be the last development regarding the church’s stance on same-sex relationships. How much further could a compromise go before the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality had actually been changed from its biblical and doctrinal foundation?
What we are likely to see in such a large and varied global church is some bishops and priests pushing acceptance of the document up to and beyond the limits the Vatican laid out: Blessings given in some conjunction with celebration of gay marriages, taking place in some liturgical contexts, prayers formulated to bless not just the individual but the unions themselves. What would the Vatican do in such cases? Likewise, some bishops and priests will absolutely refuse to countenance such blessings. What then will the Vatican do? And finally, how many homosexual Catholic couples will actually present themselves for such blessings? Is there any kind of serious demand for such blessings? Is this a pastoral policy in search of an audience?
It’s a big, unwieldy global church. Things may play out differently in different dioceses and different nations. Holding it all together faithfully has been among the most important roles popes have served, and time will tell if Pope Francis succeeds or fails.