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Pope approves blessings for same-sex couples that must not resemble marriage

FILE - Pope Francis is greeted by a young married couple at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at The Vatican, on May 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis formally approved letting Catholic priests bless same-sex couples, the Vatican announced Monday, a radical shift in policy that aimed at making the church more inclusive while maintaining its ban on gay marriage.

The document from the Vatican’s doctrine office elaborates on a letter Francis sent to two conservative cardinals that was published in October. In that preliminary response, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if the blessings weren’t confused with the ritual of marriage.

“No one should be surprised by this latest, lamentable move by Pope Francis,” said Ethic & Religious Liberty President Brent Leatherwood. “The Vatican in recent years has been on a trajectory that seems destined for the allowance of same sex marriage. I know a number of Catholic friends and colleagues are incredibly frustrated at all this, and rightfully so.”

The pope’s new document repeats that condition and elaborates on it, reaffirming that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And it stresses that blessings in question must not be tied to any specific Catholic celebration or religious service and should not be conferred at the same time as a civil union ceremony. Moreover, the blessings cannot use set rituals or even involve the clothing and gestures that belong in a wedding.

But it says requests for such blessings for same-sex couples should not be denied. It offers an extensive and broad definition of the term “blessing” in Scripture to insist that people seeking a transcendent relationship with God and looking for his love and mercy shouldn’t be held up to an impossible moral standard to receive it.

“For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection,” it said.

“There is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness,” it added.

The document marks the latest gesture of outreach from a pope who has made welcoming LGBTQ+ Catholics a hallmark of his papacy. From his 2013 quip, “Who am I to judge?” about a purportedly gay priest, to his 2023 comment to The Associated Press that “Being homosexual is not a crime,” Francis has distinguished himself from all his predecessors with his message of welcome.

The Vatican holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman. As a result, it has long opposed same-sex marriage and considers homosexual acts to be “intrinsically disordered.” Nothing in the new document changes that teaching.

And in 2021, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn’t bless the unions of two men or two women because “God cannot bless sin.”

That 2021 pronouncement created an outcry and appeared to have blindsided Francis, even though he had technically approved its publication. Soon after it was published, he removed the official responsible for it and set about laying the groundwork for a reversal.

In the new document, the Vatican said the church must avoid “doctrinal or disciplinary schemes especially when they lead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others.”

It said ultimately, a blessing is about helping people increase their trust in God. “It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered,” it said.

It stressed that people in “irregular” unions of extramarital sex — gay or straight — are in a state of sin. But it said that shouldn’t deprive them of God’s love or mercy. “Even when a person’s relationship with God is clouded by sin, he can always ask for a blessing, stretching out his hand to God,” the document said.

“Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it,” the document said.

University of Notre Dame theologian Ulrich Lehner said it would merely sow confusion and could lead to division in the church.

“The Vatican’s statement is, in my view, the most unfortunate public announcement in decades,” he said in a statement. “Moreover, some bishops will use it as a pretext to do what the document explicitly forbids, especially since the Vatican has not stopped them before. It is — and I hate to say it — an invitation to schism.”

The Vatican admonition to refrain from codifying any blessing or prayer appeared to be a response to Flemish-speaking bishops in Belgium, who last year proposed the text for a prayer for same-sex couples that included prayers, Scriptural readings and expressions of commitment.

In Germany, individual priests have been blessing same-sex couples for years, as part of a progressive trend in the German church. In September, several Catholic priests held a ceremony blessing same-sex couples outside Cologne Cathedral to protest the city’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki.

The head of the German Bishops Conference welcomed the document.

“This means that a blessing can be given to couples who do not have the opportunity to marry in church, for example due to divorce, and to same-sex couples,” Bishop Georg Baetzing said in a statement. “The practice of the church knows a variety of forms of blessing. It is good that this treasure for the diversity of lifestyles is now being raised.”

Leatherwood said the issue is one of God’s design.

“The reality is marriage has been defined by God,” he told Baptist Press in written comments. “Thus its definition is not subject to our edits or edicts. It is a union between one man and one woman for life, designed for our flourishing and for His glory. As a marriage is lived out, it forms a picture that points to the Gospel itself. Regardless of how others may change, Southern Baptists remain anchored in this truth.”

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. Crary reported from New York. Patricia Luna in Santiago, Chile; Peter B. Smith in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.

    About the Author

  • David Crary

    From the Associated Press. May not republish. Associated Press reporters Peter Orsi in Truckee, Calif., Anthony Izaguirre in Charleston, W.Va., and Sara Cline in Salem, Ore., contributed to this report. Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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  • Nicole Winfield