On the Pope’s Approval of Same-Sex Blessings

On the Pope’s Approval of Same-Sex Blessings January 4, 2024

In an decision made in 2023 that will have ramifications far into 2024 and beyond, Pope Francis has approved a policy that will allow Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples.

To be sure, the ruling is more complicated than it sounds.  It affirms that marriage is for a man and a woman only.  Any blessing of same-sex couples must not create the impression that it is any kind of wedding.  The blessing must not be a liturgical context, it must not imitate the sacrament of matrimony, the priest must not wear his vestments, and no fixed ritual may be established.

It points out that the church has always offered blessings to sinners–e.g., in confession “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”–and that blessings exist to ask God’s help in living a Christian life.

So some Catholics are saying, “nothing new here!” and that the document does not, in fact, signal approval of same-sex relationships.  The Federalist‘s Evita Duffy-Alfonso goes so far as to say, in her article of this title,  that “The Media Are Lying, Pope Francis Did Not Approve Priests Blessing ‘Same-Sex Relationships.”

But that’s not quite accurate either.  Of course homosexual individuals can receive a blessing–the Benediction at the end of mass, the blessings in confession and absolution, if the Popemobile draws by as the pontiff blesses the crowds, or in any number of formal and informal contexts.  This document, though, is going well-beyond that.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the official formerly in charge of Vatican doctrinal statements–a predecessor of the official who issued this one–has issued a devastating analysis and critique of the new policy.

He says that it creates a completely new category of blessing–a “pastoral” blessing, in addition to “liturgical” blessings associated with the sacraments and “ritual” blessings, associated with popular piety.  These latter may indeed be given to a sinner, but not to “things, places, or circumstances that … contradict the law or the spirit of the Gospel.”  Thus, a priest may bless a woman who has had an abortion, but he may not bless an abortion clinic.  This new kind of “pastoral” blessing, though, would not be under that limitation.  Cardinal Müller goes on to show that there is no basis in church teaching for this kind of innovation.

Furthermore, the provision is not just for individuals to be blessed, but for the couple.

Notice that not only sinful persons are blessed here, but that by blessing the couple, it is the sinful relationship itself that is blessed. Now, God cannot send his grace upon a relationship that is directly opposed to him and cannot be ordered toward him. Sexual intercourse outside of marriage, qua sexual intercourse, cannot bring people closer to God and therefore cannot open itself to God’s blessing. Therefore, if this blessing were given, its only effect would be to confuse the people who receive it or who attend it. They would think that God has blessed what He cannot bless. This “pastoral” blessing would be neither pastoral nor a blessing. It is true that [the current head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office who issued the statement] Cardinal Fernandez, in later statements to Infovaticana, said that it is not the union that is blessed, but the couple. However, this is emptying a word of its meaning, since what defines a couple as couple is precisely their being a union.

To objections that asking for a blessing signals an openness to God and a step towards conversion, Cardinal Müller writes, “This may be true for those who ask for a blessing for themselves, but not for those who ask for a blessing as a couple. The latter, in asking for a blessing, implicitly or explicitly seek to justify their relationship itself before God, without realizing that it is precisely their relationship that distances them from God.”

Another issue is how this new policy is going to be received.  Does anyone really think that the couples who go to their priest for a blessing are doing so as part of an effort to be delivered from their sinful relationship?  Can anyone doubt that gay Catholics will ask for a blessing “to justify their relationship itself before God”?

Already, the practice in many countries that legally require civil marriages is to go to the courthouse, sign the papers, then go to the church for the wedding.  Protestants, who don’t consider matrimony to be a sacrament, consider the church wedding to be a “blessing” of their marriage.  Who can doubt that gay couples will get married at the courthouse, then go to church along with their family and friends for an informal, non-liturgical, quasi-Protestant-style “blessing”?

The church may have its carefully nuanced language, but those who hear that language will assume that it means something else.  In the notorious agreement cobbled together between the Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation on justification by faith, each side meant something different by the terms, but because they could agree on common language (though with different meanings), this was taken as doctrinal agreement.  This document strikes me as similar, a statement vague enough to be taken as orthodox, while being open to non-orthodox interpretations and applications.  The priest giving the blessing will think “this may help you change.”  The couple receiving the blessing will think “now we don’t have to change.”

But why should we Lutherans, evangelicals, and other Protestants care if Catholics bless same-sex relationships?  We have different theologies of marriage, blessings, salvation, and the Christian life.

Catholics tend to be way too Law-oriented, at the expense of the Gospel.  We might therefore appreciate some of statement’s emphasis on grace and forgiveness.  We might agree with the ruling when it says, “Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection” (¶ 25).

But if sinners are given the impression that they are not sinners, they are prevented from finding grace and forgiveness, which they assume they do not need.

Carl Trueman has addressed what all of this means for Protestants in his First Things article The Pope, Same-Sex Blessings, and Protestants, in which he says, among other things,

“Whether we like it or not, the officer class of our culture cares little for debates about transubstantiation and papal authority. It makes no real distinction between Catholics and Protestants. In its eyes we are all Christians and thus the shenanigans of the pope will put pressure on us all. The argument will be that, if Rome can change, why can we all not change?”


Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

"If you go to a store and buy the software, the store gets a cut ..."

"It'd be nice to live in a world where freedom of religion extends to all ..."

The New Critiques of Religious Freedom
"Honestly, that first point is a reasonable one. Is freedom of religion a self-contained right ..."

The New Critiques of Religious Freedom
"Capitalism will, with enough time, proceed inevitably towards feudalism. Set aside any whataboutisms of other ..."


Browse Our Archives