Pope Francis has taken one of the most concrete steps in his efforts to make the Roman Catholic Church more welcoming to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics by allowing priests to bless couples in same-sex relationships, the Vatican announced on Monday.
Priests have long blessed a wide variety of people, offering a prayer asking for God’s help and presence. But the Vatican has previously argued against blessing same-sex couples.
The new rule was issued in a declaration by the church’s office on doctrine and introduced by its prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who said that the declaration did not amend “the traditional doctrine of the church about marriage,” because it allowed no liturgical rite that could be confused with the sacrament of marriage.
“It is precisely in this context,” Cardinal Fernández wrote, “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.”
In his introduction to the declaration, which was signed and approved by Pope Francis, Cardinal Fernández nevertheless acknowledged that the broadening of the scope of who could receive blessings amounted to “a real development” and a “specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” He said the decision was “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.”
“This new declaration opens the door to nonliturgical blessings for same-sex couples, something that had been previously off-limits for bishops, priests and deacons,” said the Rev. James Martin, a prominent advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics. “Along with many priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex unions.”
There has been a burst of activity on the L.G.B.T.Q. issue in recent months from the office of the Doctrine of the Faith, run by Cardinal Fernández, especially after many advocates for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics were deeply frustrated by a lack of progress, or even recognition, during a major October meeting of bishops and lay people in October that could potentially lead to major changes in the church.
In October, the Vatican released Francis’ private response over the summer to doubts from conservative cardinals about the possibility of blessing same-sex couples, a practice they absolutely opposed. Francis instead suggested the blessings were a possibility, seemingly reversing a 2021 Vatican ruling that came down hard against the blessing of gay unions, arguing that God “cannot bless sin.”
While the pope then also clearly upheld the church position that marriage could exist only between a man and a woman, he said that priests should exercise “pastoral charity” when it came to requests for blessings. But Francis also made clear that he did not want the blessings to be reduced to protocols, as had been the case in parts of the liberal German church that support same-sex blessings — and urged priests to be open to “channels beyond norms.”
On Oct. 31, Francis approved another document by Cardinal Fernández’s department, making clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings, furthering his vision of a more inclusive church.
The issue of blessing same-sex couples has exploded in recent years, especially in Germany, where priests have regularly offered blessings despite resistance from the Vatican.
Father Martin called the declaration a “major step forward in the church’s ministry to L.G.B.T.Q. people and recognizes the deep desire in many Catholic same-sex couples for God’s presence in their loving relationships.”