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Q and A with Fr John Flader: Blessing same-sex couples

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Pope Francis poses for a photo with Msgr. Armando Matteo, left, secretary of the doctrinal section of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, during a meeting in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican 18 December, 2023. Photo: CNS/Vatican Media

Dear Fr John Flader, I understand that the Vatican has recently approved blessings for same-sex couples. I thought it had forbidden them. How can the Church change its mind on something as important as this? 

The new criterion comes in the declaration Fiducia Supplicans: on the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated 18 December 2023. Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the dicastery, explains at the beginning of the document that the dicastery consulted experts, discussed the carefully-drafted text in a meeting of the doctrinal section of the dicastery, and submitted it to the Holy Father, who approved it. So, you can rest assured, the declaration is not the opinion of a handful of people with a particular agenda.

And the church has not changed its mind on this question. The declaration quotes the 2021 responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on blessing same-sex couples, which recalls that “when a blessing is invoked on certain human relationships by a special liturgical rite, it is necessary that what is blessed corresponds with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. For this reason, since the Church has always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit, the Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice” (FS 11).

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What the declaration does is offer a new understanding of the pastoral meaning of blessings. It makes the important distinction between a liturgical blessing, which has a formula or rite officially proposed by the church, and a simple blessing, without an official formula, such as the blessing the priest may give when non-Catholics or people not in the state of grace come up with their arms crossed during Communion in Mass, a blessing requested for someone going on a trip, going for an interview or giving birth to a baby. Here the priest is not blessing the lifestyle of the person but their person and activity. As the declaration says, putting too many conditions on giving these blessings “could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing” (FS 12).

The declaration explains: “People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing show by this request their sincere openness to transcendence, the confidence of their hearts that they do not trust in their own strength alone, their need for God, and their desire to break out of the narrow confines of this world, enclosed in its limitations” (FS 21). With these positive dispositions, “those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection” (FS 25).

A simple blessing may therefore be given to people in irregular marriage situations and couples of the same sex, who “do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit” (FS 31). “Indeed, the grace of God works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else” (FS 32). In reality, it is God who gives the blessing and “God never turns away anyone who approaches him!” (FS 33)

The declaration clarifies the spirit of such a blessing: “In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance – but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely” (FS 38).

What is more, when the blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation or by a same-sex couple, “precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal…this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding” (FS 39).

So, the church’s position remains unchanged, but it has been beautifully explained.

So, it is very clear that the church’s position remains unchanged. A liturgical blessing cannot be given to a same-sex couple in the ceremony of their union, but they, like everyone else, can always be given a simple blessing if they request it.

By way of summary, “It is precisely in this context that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage” (FS Presentation).

To be sure, the declaration remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the church about marriage. “Therefore, rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage – which is the ‘exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children’ – and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning” (FS 4).

With the declaration Fiducia Supplicans issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by Pope Francis, it will be possible to bless same-sex couples but without any type of ritualisation or offering the impression of a marriage. The doctrine regarding marriage does not change, and the blessing does not signify approval of the union.

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