The big news — measured in newspaper headlines — of a very newsy Vatican week was that the Holy Father was in favor of blessings for same-sex couples. Indeed, that would be news, especially because in 2021 Pope Francis personally approved an official reply by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, now “Dicastery” or DDF) that said such blessings were impossible.
A “dubium,” or question, had been put to the CDF about blessing same-sex unions, and the reply was clear: “God does not and cannot bless sin: he blesses sinful man, so that he may recognize that he is part of his plan of love and allow himself to be changed by him.”
The CDF reply — again, approved by the Holy Father and so carrying his authority — was detailed.
“It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex,” the CDF wrote. “The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”
A heterosexual couple in a conjugal union outside of marriage — living “in sin” as it were — also could not have their relationship blessed.
If a person were to ask for a blessing, but not a blessing upon an illicit conjugal union, that would be different:
“The answer to the proposed dubium does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
Another set of “dubia” was submitted this past summer, including a question on blessings for same-sex unions. This time the Holy Father replied in his own name, and at length:
“For this reason the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could … give the impression that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage. In dealing with people, however, we must not lose the pastoral charity that must permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot become judges who only deny, reject, exclude. For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage.”
“Discerning” whether there are “forms of blessing” that could be offered to same-sex couples set off a global media storm to the effect that Pope Francis was open to blessing same-sex unions. Is he?
Yes and no. And the ambiguity might be, from the Holy Father’s point of view, a feature and not a bug. It has been seen before.
What Pope Francis wrote was not very different than what the CDF replied in 2021. If a same-sex couple asks for a blessing upon their illicit conjugal union, it cannot be granted — it would be blessing sin, as would also be the case with a heterosexual (unmarried) couple.
If the couple asked for a blessing to strengthen them to live together in chastity, and they assented to Church teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts, that would be a different matter. Perhaps it might be possible, but care would have to be taken to clarify what was being sought. Offering encouragement is an essential part of pastoral care, and the line between encouragement and enabling needs to be maintained. The CDF said exactly that, as did Pope Francis now.
If an individual requests a blessing, then almost certainly it would be given. Priests are asked for blessings frequently, and generally, no inquiry is made about the person asking. Goodwill is assumed and, in any case, no union is being blessed.
Why then the clamoring and confusion?
Because of Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father’s 2016 apostolic exhortation that permitted, in some circumstances, divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive Holy Communion. The possibility was restricted; such a couple would have to recognize that they were not validly married and that their conjugal acts were contrary to the moral law. Further, a couple would have to assent to the truth of the moral law and sincerely desire to live in accord with it, but somehow judge that it was impossible for them to do so. Read plainly, the criteria laid out by Pope Francis made it likely that few couples would meet it. That it should be permitted in principle at all remained a highly disputed point, but in practice, the couples who would meet the Holy Father’s criteria would be few.
Nevertheless, various bishops took the Holy Father’s teaching beyond what he wrote. The bishops of Malta, for example, spoke of an “enlightened conscience” as the “belief that he or she [is] a peace with God,” which is simply not a Catholic understanding of conscience. The two Maltese bishops who provided that guidance were Archbishop Charles Scicluna, now an adjunct secretary at the DDF, and Bishop Mario Grech, now a cardinal and head of the Vatican synod secretariat. As such he is the chief architect of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church.
The reality after Amoris Laetitia was a deliberate ambiguity, if not outright pretending. Officially, the process laid out was rigorously followed, but practically, in some places invalidly married couples were treated as equivalent to validly married couples. It became in such places a recognition of divorce and remarriage plain and simple, though it was not spoken of plainly or simply.
Could the same thing happen with same-sex blessings? It is possible to imagine a priest blessing a same-sex couple and, as part of the blessing prayers, asking for the grace to live chastely. One does not expect to see that; indeed, in Germany and Belgium, where such blessings have taken place, that is not what is happening. Officially, the blessings are not to be a facsimile of marriage, but unofficially they give ecclesial approval to the illicit conjugal unions of same-sex couples.
The world’s media reported the Holy Father allowing something he did not explicitly permit. That reflects the expectation that ambiguity and artifice will advance what appears to be a contrived blessing of a sexual union which is not a marriage.
Will the synod of 2023 follow that line? Those who think so remember that the synods of 2014 and 2015 led to the ambiguity and artifice of Amoris Laetitia.