Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, recently suggested he might be open to having the Church bless same-sex couples.
It’s a move that, while it would not change Church doctrine regarding marriage, could be considered a significant olive branch to some members of the LGBTQ community.
On Monday, October 2, the Vatican published a letter from the pontiff, responding to a group of cardinals from the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe, who had submitted a list of five questions seeking clarity on certain issues ahead of a three-week-long synod, a large-scale gathering of bishops.
The upcoming synod is expected to look at a host of doctrinal issues, including the church’s positions concerning the LGBTQ community.
The conservative cardinals had sought for Francis to affirm the church’s stance on same-sex marriage. But in his response, the pope suggested that the idea of bestowing such blessings on same-sex couples could be studied — as long as any blessing wasn’t confused with an endorsement of same-sex unions.
According to USA Today, the five cardinals who sent the questions are: Cardinal Walter Brandmueller of Germany, a former Vatican historian; Raymond Burke, of the United States, who was reassigned from his post on the Vatican’s court on canon law; Juan Sandoval, the retired archbishop of Guadalajara, Mexico; Robert Sarah, of Guinea, the retired head of the Vatican’s liturgy office; and Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong.
The five had initially sent the pope a letter asking for clarity, to which he responded in July. They then revised their questions, demanding a yes-or-no answer from the pope.
Despite lacking an official response from the pope, the cardinals published the revised questions on Burke’s website, in an attempt to fear-monger to conservative Catholics about a possible shift in Church doctrine.
Francis’s reply, issued hours after the publication on Burke’s website, urged the five men not to be afraid of the upcoming synod — which conservatives have lamented might lead to widespread liberal reforms within the Catholic Church.
Progressives, meanwhile, have expressed skepticism about such claims, arguing that the conservative-leaning Church hierarchy is unlikely to be swayed from already-established stances on various issues, despite Francis’s relative liberalism in contrast to his two predecessors, Pope Saint John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
According to the BBC, Francis reportedly said that any request for a blessing should be treated with “pastoral charity,” adding: “We cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”
“For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of benediction, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” Francis wrote. “Because when a benediction is requested, it is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us to live better.”
He added, however, that the Church still considers same-sex relationships “objectively sinful” and would not recognize same-sex relationships as valid. This aligns with the pope’s previous statements asserting that, while homosexuality should not be criminalized, it remains a sin in the eyes of the Church.
While appearing to suggest that requests for blessings should be considered on a case-by-case basis, he warned that “decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm.”
Despite not budging on any doctrinal issues, Francis’s reply continues a pattern of seeking to be more charitable to LGBTQ Catholics and other groups of “sinners” who have fallen short of Church ideals, whom conservatives within the clergy would typically seek to excommunicate from the church entirely or distance themselves from spiritually.
Some LGBTQ rights groups applauded the pope’s openness to discussing the issue as a significant move.
“The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group, said in a statement. “Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
“While we continue to believe that legal and sacramental marriage equality is the goal, Pope Francis’s statement that there may be ways for the church to bless same-sex couples is an unexpected and welcome sign of openness,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, said in a statement. “The sacredness and grace in the relationships between people of the same sex, or where one or more partner is transgender, deserve affirmation and support. Hearing the Pope acknowledge this will give hope to many Queer people, as well as to their families and friends who are Catholic.”
Duddy-Burke noted that Pope Francis has not penalized priests and bishops in Germany or Belgium who have offered blessings to same-sex couples and has not prevented national bishops’ conferences from discussing the issue, which she said are “signs that our church’s leaders are beginning to engage with these fundamental questions around sexual orientation, gender, and relationships in new ways.”
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