Pope Francis has formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples in a new document explaining a radical change in Vatican policy.
Pope Francis has formally permitted priests to perform blessings for same-sex couples, a move that stops short of sanctioning same-sex marriages, but is still being heralded by some LGBTQ+ advocates as historic.
The document from the Vatican’s doctrine office released Monday reaffirmed its previous statements saying marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman. But the document says requests for blessings from same-sex couples should not be denied, so long as the blessing is not conferred at the same time as a civil union, using set rituals or with the clothing and gestures that are part of a wedding.
GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis called Monday’s announcement “the latest in a historic pattern of actions and announcements from Pope Francis which show that LGBTQ people should not be used as a dividing issue, and we are worthy of love, respect and compassion.”
"By removing barriers to priests blessing LGBTQ couples, the Pope accurately recognizes that LGBTQ people and our relationships are worthy of the same affirmation and support in the Church, and this strengthens couples in their faith and to the community,” Ellis said in a statement.
What is a blessing?
The document offers an extensive definition of the term “blessing” in Scripture to insist people seeking a transcendent relationship with God and looking for his love and mercy should not be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” as a precondition for receiving it.
“Ultimately, a blessing offers people a means to increase their trust in God,” the document said. “The request for a blessing, thus, expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live.”
It adds: “It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered.”
The document from the Vatican’s doctrine office released Monday elaborates on a letter Francis sent to two conservative cardinals that was published in October. In that preliminary response, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if they didn’t confuse the ritual with the sacrament of marriage.
Jim Bretzke, a priest and professor of theology at John Carroll University in Ohio, said that while the Pope will likely face criticism from both those within the church who oppose same-sex marriage and supporters who don't feel the church has gone far enough, the document is a "very positive contribution to the church's pastoral and theological understanding some of these complex situations."
"This is a real watershed moment in the development of the church's pastoral response to people in irregular unions and same-sex unions," Bretzke said.
What else have the Vatican and Pope Francis said about LGBTQ+ rights?
But the Vatican has maintained its opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2021, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the church couldn’t bless same-sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.” Amid backlash to that document, Francis removed the official responsible for it and began laying the groundwork to reverse it.
Last month, the Vatican made public a document saying under certain circumstances, transgender people can be baptized as Catholics and serve as godparents.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Catholic LGBTQ+ advocacy group New Ways Ministry, called the document a "monumental moment in the relationship between the Catholic Church and LGBTQ people."
"I can't think of anything that has come close to this in terms of significance," DeBernardo said. "It's a great recognition and affirmation that the relationship between two people of the same sex can be holy, can be good and can be viewed as a gift from God."
Does this mean the Catholic Church will embrace same-sex marriage?
Bretzke, from John Carroll University, said although the document is a positive step forward, he doesn't believe it's an indicator that the church will accept same-sex marriage.
"I think the church is always going to be very, very reluctant at celebrating the sacrament, the sacrament of marriage for people in a same-sex union, but I cannot look two centuries into the future," he said.
DeBernardo, however, said he believes the document will result in more same-sex couples receiving these blessings and open a greater discussion that could someday lead to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. He acknowledged this could take time, saying "the change of the Catholic Church happens by evolution, not by revolution."
"I think there's going to be a greater questioning of why marriage is still not approved, so I think that's how it's going to happen," DeBernardo said. "It's going to happen from the grassroots up, not from the top down."