Same-sex couples could soon have their marriages blessed in the Roman Catholic Church, as Pope Francis considers same-sex unions ahead of a major meeting.
A letter from the pope, released by the Vatican on Monday, suggests the church will review whether same-sex marriages could be blessed in the church, breaking long-standing opposition to such unions. In July, Francis wrote an initial response to questions posed to him by five cardinals from the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe asking him to affirm the church’s teachings on LGBTQ, the role of women, the authority of the pope and other issues.
The cardinals’ questions came ahead of a major three-week meeting at the Vatican, called a synod, where LGBTQ+ Catholics and their place in the church are on the agenda.
LGBTQ+ rights groups are already applauding the Pope’s unprecedented move.
“The assignment for pastoral ministers to bless same-sex couples means that the church effectively recognizes that holy love can exist between same-sex couples, and the love of these couples reflects the love of God,” said Francis DeBernardo, director executive of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic advocacy group for the LGBTQ+ community, said in a statement. “Those recognitions, while not exactly what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are a huge step forward toward fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
What is the current position of the Catholic Church on same-sex marriage?
Francis, who became head of the Catholic Church in 2013, has supported same-sex couples receiving the legal benefits of marriage. Since his papal inauguration, more than a dozen countries, including the United States, have legalized gay marriage.
Some Catholic priests in Europe have also blessed same-sex couples without Vatican censure. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body responsible for promoting and defending Catholic beliefs, has said that “God cannot bless sin” in response to same-sex marriages.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said the letter from the five cardinals spoke of their hope to return to a stricter church that many Catholics saw under Pope St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed the five cardinals.
“He seemed to express a lot of fear that the synod would lead to profound changes in the church,” Duddy-Burke said.
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The five cardinals are Cardinal Walter Brandmueller of Germany, a former Vatican historian; Raymond Burke of the United States, who was reassigned from his position on the Vatican’s canon law tribunal; Juan Sandoval of Mexico, retired archbishop of Guadalajara; Robert Sarah of Guinea, retired head of the Vatican liturgy office; and Joseph Zen, retired archbishop of Hong Kong.
The possible movement within the Church came to a head after the five priests initially sent a letter to the Pope in the summer, to which he responded in July. They then reviewed their questions and asked Francisco for a yes or no answer. Without a definitive position from Francis, the cardinals posted their questions with a warning to other Catholics about the possible change of religion on Cardinal Burke’s website.
Francis’ response, hours later, urged the cardinals not to be afraid of the synod. In it, he said that pastoral charity requires patience and understanding, but priests cannot become judges “who only dent, reject and exclude.”
“For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey an erroneous conception of marriage,” Francis wrote. “Because when you ask for a blessing you are expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us live better.”
LGBTQ+ Catholics eager to know Pope Francis’ position
Duddy-Burke is one of many Catholics around the world who were married in church and the ceremony was blessed by a priest. She and his wife will celebrate their 20th anniversary this month and being able to celebrate their wedding in a church meant a lot to them and their families.
Not all LGBTQ+ Catholics can celebrate that.
Duddy-Burke said Catholics consider marriage blessings to be important and fundamental to their lives.
“I have attended many ceremonies where one member is Catholic and the joy their family members have is so palpable, but there is often lament that it cannot be held in a Catholic church and the priest cannot sign the marriage licenses. Duddy-Burke said.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement that the pope’s response urges Catholics to accept LGBTQ+ people.
Meanwhile, Francis has pressed leaders not to deny or punish LGBTQ+ people as anti-gay laws are passed around the world.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association found that 64 of the United Nations’ 193 countries criminalize same-sex acts through imprisonment, caning and even death.
“Pope Francis’ leadership recognizes the lived reality that LGBTQ people exist, that we form partnerships and families, and that we need the support of our communities, including our churches,” he said. “This is not a full recognition of marriage, but it will make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQ families and create a Catholic Church open to all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Duddy-Burke said the Catholic Church today is more progressive than before because of the grassroots efforts of local churches.
Church leaders in the United States, Germany and Belgium are among many who have blessed same-sex marriages without punishment from the Vatican.
The decision to bless same-sex unions could help the church become more engaged with the world, advocates say.
“It’s meant to open a door that’s been closed for a long time to same-sex couples,” Duddy-Burke said.