The Pope has signaled his willingness to bless homosexual couples and to investigate women’s ordination. In what could be a watershed moment for the global Catholic Church, Pope Francis has expressed tolerance to Catholic blessings for same-sex couples on the condition that they are not confused with marriage ceremonies for men and women.
Francis has also implied that the controversial issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood, which Pope John Paul II banned in 1994, may be open to further investigation.
Francis wrote in a letter dated September 25 and published by the Vatican on October 2: “Pastoral prudence must discern whether there are forms of blessing requested by one or more individuals that do not transmit a misunderstanding of marriage.”
The pope’s remarks are in response to five retired conservative Catholic cardinals who had written to the pontiff, expressing concerns about several hot-button issues that will be discussed at a significant Vatican meeting this month, known as the Synod of Bishops.
The pope’s eight-page response to some of his most outspoken critics was in response to their queries — formally known as Dubai — about gay blessings, women’s ordination to the priesthood, synodality, divine revelation, and the nature of forgiveness. The cardinals, evidently dissatisfied with the pope’s response, had made public their initial questions on October 2 earlier in the day.
Francis defended the church’s long-held teaching that marriage between one man and one woman must be open to children. Still, he also emphasized that the church must not “lose pastoral charity, which must be an integral part of all our decisions and attitudes.”
He stated that defending what the church teaches as objective truth does not mean that church leaders “become judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”
The pope then indicated that discernment is required when same-sex couples request blessings and stated that blessings must not misrepresent what the church teaches about the essence of marriage.
“When you ask for a blessing, you are expressing a request for assistance from God, a prayer to be able to live better, and a trust in a father who can help us live better,” he wrote.
With the pope’s sanction, a March 2021 decree issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office expressly forbade priests from blessing same-sex unions, with the justification that God “cannot bless sin.”
At the time, the two-page explanation was published in seven languages declaring that Catholic teaching considers marriage to be between a man and a woman — with an aim toward creating new life — and that since gay unions cannot achieve that goal without medical intervention, it is impossible to offer blessings for same-sex couples.
Francis acknowledged John Paul’s 1994 declaration in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that the church had “no authority” to ordain women as priests and John Paul’s statement that the teaching must be “absolutely held” by all Catholics in regards to the issue of women’s ordination.
Francis added, however, that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine… regarding the precise nature of a ‘definitive declaration.'”
The pope summarized, “It is not a dogmatic definition, but all must accept it.” In the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican communion, no one can publicly contradict it, but it can still be the subject of study.
Francis also cited the teaching of the Second Vatican Council regarding a “priesthood of all believers” and stated, “It is impossible to maintain a difference of degree that implies considering the common priesthood of the faithful as something of “second class” or lesser value.”
Francis likewise stated that John Paul was “in no way demeaning women and granting men supreme power” when he issued the decree in 1994.
Francis cited John Paul’s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem to assert that his predecessor “stated that if the priestly function is ‘hierarchical,’ it should not be understood as a form of dominance, but rather ‘is ordered to the holiness of the members of Christ.'”
Francis stated, “If this is not understood and the practical implications of these distinctions are not drawn, it will be difficult to accept that the priesthood is reserved only for men, and we will be unable to recognize women’s rights or the need for their participation in various ways in church leadership.”
Regarding blessing same-sex couples, Francis stated that decisions made out of pastoral discretion “do not necessarily become the norm.”
“Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, and episcopal conferences should not pretend to do so with their documents and varied protocols because the church’s life runs through many channels in addition to the regulations,” said the pope.
Despite the Catholic Church’s current ban on blessings for same-sex couples, in September the Catholic bishops of Belgium published guidelines that included a prayer and blessing for same-sex unions distinguishing them from sacramental marriage.
Catholic bishops in Germany approved plans for same-sex blessings in March. In defiance of their diocese’s conservative leader, several priests in Cologne blessed homosexual couples in public last month.
Francis substantially reorganized the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith this summer. Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, a fellow Argentine and longtime theological advisor, was designated as the office’s new head.
In an interview published shortly after his appointment, Fernández signified his willingness to revisit the issue of gay blessings, so long as they do not confuse the meaning of marriage.
“If a blessing is given in such a way that it does not confuse, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed,” Fernández stated.