Experts: Vatican declaration on blessings walks a fine line on marriage, pastoral care

(OSV News) — A new declaration from the Vatican on pastoral blessings does not change the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, Catholic experts told OSV News, but seeks to extend the church’s accompaniment to those in irregular situations.

On Dec. 18, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released the formal declaration “Fiducia Supplicans” (“Supplicating Trust”), subtitled “On the pastoral meaning of blessings.”

The text was approved by Pope Francis that same day during an audience with dicastery prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández.

In his introductory note to the document, Cardinal Fernández said his office had, over the past few years, repeatedly received questions about priestly blessings for same-sex or other unmarried couples in irregular situations. He wrote that the need for a fuller explanation of blessings became apparent after Pope Francis responded to the “dubia” or questions posed by several cardinals in a letter released in early October.

Following the declaration’s release, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Dec. 18 statement through its spokesperson, Chieko Noguchi, noting “the declaration affirms” that “the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed.”

The document “articulated a distinction between liturgical (sacramental) blessings, and pastoral blessings, which may be given to persons who desire God’s loving grace in their lives,” said the statement.

At the same time, the USCCB statement said, the text makes “an effort to accompany people through the imparting of pastoral blessings because each of us needs God’s healing love and mercy in our lives.”

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, told OSV News he agreed with the USCCB’s assessment, saying the Vatican declaration “is clear.”

“There can be no blessing of same-sex relationships in a way that mimics marriage. There can be no ritual. No vestments. No liturgy. Nothing in conjunction with some recent civil ceremony for a couple,” Father Petri told OSV News. “On the contrary, what’s suggested only as a pastoral guidance is the possibility that in some profound religious experience, such as on a pilgrimage or at a spiritual retreat, that a couple striving to live the will of God might spontaneously seek a priest’s blessing (and) that they increasingly be able to do so.”

John Grabowski, professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told OSV News that “it’s really important to note what the document says and doesn’t say.”

While “the church can bless anyone,” it “cannot give formal liturgical blessing to couples in irregular relationships, whether (it is) two people of the same sex or the opposite sex,” he said. “I think what the document is trying to say here (is) that it is possible to give an informal blessing (on) the things that are good in the relationship, even in a relationship that’s clouded in some ways by sin.”

Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America Media and its LGBTQ+ Catholic resource Outreach, told OSV News that the declaration was “a major step forward in the church’s ministry to LGBTQ people.”

“(It) recognizes the deep desire in many Catholic same-sex couples for God’s presence and help in their committed and loving relationships,” said Father Martin.

He added the text represents “a marked shift from the statement ‘God does not and cannot bless sin,’ from just two years ago.

“The new declaration opens the door to non-liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, something that had been previously off limits for all bishops, priests and deacons,” said Father Martin.

Still, while “the document is quite beautiful … it’s also much more ‘conservative’ than media reports have suggested, whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing or a mixed blessing,” Eve Tushnet, author of “Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith,” told OSV News.

Tushnet — whose work focuses on same-sex attracted Catholics living in accordance with the church’s understanding of human sexuality — said the declaration is “quite strict” in not conferring liturgical blessings on same-sex unions.

The document “walks a fine line,” said Grabowski. “This is an attempt to try to say, ‘Can we give some kind of blessing to couples who are not living what the church calls them to live in terms of the fullness of a relationship in marriage?’” he said. “Rather than just turning couples away, can we bless Frank and Steve, or Matt and Jillian, even though their relationship is disordered in some way?”

How that unfolds pastorally remains to be seen, experts said.

The document “is not saying there’s a requirement to bless; it’s saying this is a matter of pastoral discernment,” said Grabowski. “I would put it more strongly (in) the language of Catholic moral teaching, and say that it’s a prudential judgment. So, if there’s anything that could give scandal … (such as) an adulterous relationship coming out of the dissolution of a marriage … how do you do that without giving scandal? I don’t see a situation where that’s not imprudent or potentially scandalous.”

“I suspect American advocates for the recognition of same-sex relationships with the church will not find this new guidance satisfactory, just as I expect situations in which such spontaneous requests are made will be few and far between,” said Father Petri.

However, in a separate interview with The New York Times, Father Martin said, “Along with many priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex unions.”

Grabowski said that while the document was seeking to allow non-liturgical blessings for “whatever human good is present in the relationship … to help (the individuals) move more completely into embracing (God’s) will for their lives,” the potential for abuse of the document exists.

Those who favor changing church teaching on same-sex relationships and marriage may “see this as a green light for what they’re already doing,” he admitted, adding that some clergy may “wink and nod and say, ‘Well, I’m not down at the courthouse with (the couple), but just come back to the rectory and we’ll have the party.’”

Still, said Grabowski, the document “isn’t challenging in any way the church’s moral teaching, even though some people are going to try to spin it as such.”

Blessing same-sex unions is “not even on the table” in the document, but accompaniment is, said Father Colin Blatchford, associate director of Courage International, a Catholic apostolate that supports same-sex attracted men and women living chastely according to church teaching.

“What’s on the table is the pastoral situation when people come to you and recognize that they need God’s help, and they ask you to intercede for them and … to ask God to bless them, which I don’t think is anything new,” he said.

Tushnet said the text provides affirmation for a pastoral need she has seen in her own work.

“Priests across America and the world know that gay couples come to them — on an airplane, on the street, in a moment of spiritual crisis, at a family event like a funeral … They open their hearts to the priest and also try to gauge whether he will reject them, or whether he will see the good they’re seeking in the love and care they offer their partner,” she said.

She said offering a blessing, “in this context, can be reparative for years of pain and confusion” and also “honors humility and opens the doorway to deeper faith.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter), at @GinaJesseReina.

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