Pope Francis has suggested there could be ways to bless same-sex unions, responding to five conservative cardinals who challenged him to affirm church teaching on homosexuality ahead of a big meeting where LGBTQ+ Catholics are on the agenda.
The Vatican on Monday published a letter Francis wrote to the cardinals on July 11 after receiving a list of five questions, or “dubia,” from them a day earlier. In it, Francis suggests that such blessings could be studied if they didn't confuse the blessing with sacramental marriage.
New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, said the letter “significantly advances" efforts to make LGBTQ+ Catholics welcomed in the church and “one big straw towards breaking the camel's back” in their marginalisation.
The Vatican holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman. As a result, it has long opposed gay marriage. But even Francis has voiced support for civil laws extending legal benefits to same-sex spouses, and Catholic priests in parts of Europe have been blessing same-sex unions without Vatican censure.
Francis' response to the cardinals, however, marks a reversal from the Vatican's current official position. In an explanatory note in 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn't bless gay unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
In his new letter, Francis reiterated that matrimony is a union between a man and a woman. But responding to the cardinals' question about homosexual unions and blessings, he said “pastoral charity” requires patience and understanding and that regardless, priests cannot become 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,” he 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 noted that there are situations that are objectively “not morally acceptable.” But he said the same “pastoral charity” requires that people be treated as sinners who might not be fully at fault for their situations.
Francis added that there is no need for dioceses or bishops’ conferences to turn such pastoral charity into fixed norms or protocols, saying the issue could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis “because the life of the church runs on channels beyond norms.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, welcomed the pope's openness.
"The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples imply that the church does indeed recognise that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God," he said in a statement.
“Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
The five cardinals, all of them conservative prelates from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, had challenged Francis to affirm church teaching on gays, women's ordination, the authority of the pope, and other issues in their letter.
They published the material two days before the start of a major three-week synod, or meeting, at the Vatican at which LGBTQ+ Catholics and their place in the church are on the agenda.
The signatories were some of Francis' most vocal critics, all of them retired and of the more doctrinaire generation of cardinals appointed by St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
They were Cardinals Walter Brandmueller of Germany, a former Vatican historian; Raymond Burke of the United States, whom Francis axed as head of the Vatican supreme court; Juan Sandoval of Mexico, the retired archbishop of Guadalajara; Robert Sarah of Guinea, the retired head of the Vatican's liturgy office; and Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong.
Brandmueller and Burke were among four signatories of a previous round of “dubia” to Francis in 2016 following his controversial opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried couples receive Communion.
Then, the cardinals were concerned that Francis' position violated church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Francis never responded to their questions, and two of their co-signatories subsequently died.
Francis did respond this time around. The cardinals didn't publish his reply, but they apparently found it so unsatisfactory that they reformulated their five questions, submitted them to him again, and asked him to simply respond with a yes or no.
When he didn't, the cardinals decided to make the texts public and issue a “notification” warning to the faithful.
The Vatican's doctrine office published his reply to them a few hours later, though it did so without his introduction in which he urged the cardinals to not be afraid of the synod.