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The Vatican’s declaration on same-sex blessings is a huge step forward for LGBTQ Catholics

Breaking NewsViews James Martin, S.J. / December 18, 2023 Print this:
Photo courtesy of iStock/MarijaRadovic

Today, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, issued a declaration that will long be remembered by LGBTQ people. Entitled “Fiducia Supplicans” (from the first two words in Latin, meaning, “Supplicating trust”), the declaration opens the door, for the first time, for the official blessings of same-sex couples by ministers of the church—something that has long been desired by LGBTQ Catholics and their families and friends. 

The declaration also includes a larger meditation on blessings in the Catholic tradition and cautions that the blessings for same-sex couples and others in “irregular” unions should be done in a way that does not confuse these blessings with sacramental marriage or suggest a liturgical rite. But even with those provisions, this is a major step forward for LGBTQ Catholics. 

The declaration opens the door, for the first time, for the official blessings of same-sex couples by ministers of the church.

“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,” wrote Cardinal Fernández in the document, approved by Pope Francis. 

Why is this a major step?

First, it is the first time that a Vatican document treats same-sex couples with such pastoral care. It marks a dramatic shift from the dicastery’s (then congregation’s) responsum two years ago, which said that priests and deacons could under no circumstances bless same-sex couples because “God cannot and does not bless sin.” As an aside, a “declaration” is more substantial and, therefore, authoritative than a responsum, which is usually responding to a more specific question (called a dubium) and is narrower in scope. (For some context, “Dominus Iesus,” a landmark document on other Christian denominations and other religions, published in 2000, was also a declaration.)

There was widespread reaction to that responsum, as the new declaration notes in its opening. In particular, LGBTQ people and their friends and families felt that the focus on such relationships as sinful ignored or rejected their experience of loving, committed and self-sacrificing same-sex relationships. News reports also suggested Pope Francis was himself unhappy with that statement, and eventually the person responsible for its publication was removed from the C.D.F. So the Vatican’s pastoral approach to same-sex couples (as well as other couples not sacramentally married) has clearly shifted in the last two years.

It is the first time that a Vatican document treats same-sex couples with such pastoral care.

The declaration is also in line with the letter that Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Fernández when he was installed as the new prefect of the D.D.F., in which the pope encouraged him to support the “harmonious growth” in theology and, quoting from “Evangelii Gaudium,” noted that the church itself “grow[s] in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.” Many observers saw that as a new way of understanding the role of the D.D.F., which in recent years had been more concerned with responding to errors. 

Second, you may hear from some quarters that “nothing has changed.” It reminds me of my church history professor, John W. O’Malley, S.J., who said that when church teaching changes, the most common introduction is “As the church has always taught… “

Here, Father O’Malley’s insight is made manifest in a slightly different way. Some Catholics oppose any steps toward greater inclusion for LGBTQ people in the life of the church. We saw some of this during the Synod on Synodality, where I was a voting member, with significant pushback from certain quarters on even using the term “LGBTQ.” So, for some, this declaration (even though it specifies that the blessings must not in any way seem like a marriage rite) will be threatening, and the temptation will therefore be to say, “Nothing has changed.” 

The change here is that these blessings are now officially sanctioned by the Vatican.

But a great deal has in fact changed. Before this document was issued, there was no permission for bishops, priests and deacons to bless couples in same-sex unions in any setting. This document establishes, with some limitations, that they can.

Of course, some may say that there are many restrictions (as noted above), while others will note that in some places (most notable in the German church) these blessings were already widespread. (One German bishop told me during the Synod that he himself blessed such unions outside his cathedral.) The change here is that these blessings are now officially sanctioned by the Vatican. Today, with some limitations, I can perform a public blessing of a same-sex couple. Yesterday, I could not.

Third, it is a major step because it continues Pope Francis’ continual outreach to LGBTQ people.

To take but one example, during the month of October, Pope Francis met with LGBTQ representatives three times. A few days before the Synod began, he met with me in a private audience at the Casa Santa Marta; halfway through the Synod, he met with Jeannine Gramick, S.L., along with her New Ways Ministry team; and finally, during a general audience toward the end of the month, he met with Marianne Duddy-Burke and other representatives from the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (G.N.R.C.), an umbrella group for LGBTQ Catholic groups worldwide. (Speaking of umbrellas, on the day of that final meeting with G.N.R.C., an immense rainbow appeared over St. Peter’s Basilica.)

I welcome this new declaration and see it as a much-needed pastoral response to Catholic same-sex couples in loving, committed and self-sacrificing relationships.

Some LGBTQ people may be disappointed that this declaration doesn’t go as far as they might hope—that is, allowing same-sex couples to be married sacramentally. Others, especially in countries (and dioceses) where the entire topic is off-limits, will think it goes too far. Both groups, however, can agree that this is a significant change.

As for me, I welcome this new declaration and see it as a much-needed pastoral response to Catholic same-sex couples in loving, committed and self-sacrificing relationships who desire God’s presence and help. And as a priest I look forward to blessing same-sex couples, and sharing with them the graces that God desires for everyone, something I’ve waited years to do.

This article is also available in Polish.

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, S.J., is the founder of Outreach and the editor at large of America Media.

All articles by James Martin, S.J.

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.

  1. I think this could lead to a development in the understanding of what is a sacrament. I can almost hear your church history professor saying “As the church has always taught” a same sex couple can be sacramentally married.

    In the days of Vatican II many persons and things were called sacraments, that is someone or something instituted by God to give grace. Farther back in time in the days when we had to memorize the answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism like what is a sacrament a follow up question was on the ministers of the sacraments and there were always exceptions. A lay person could baptize if someone was in danger of death. The ministers of the sacrament of marriage were the two people getting married. The priest was only there as a witness.

    In this article I think Fr. Martin describes a sacrament when he talks about same sex couples wanting a blessing because they are and can be an outward sign of grace for others and because these two individuals are a Catholic same-sex couple in a loving, committed and self-sacrificing relationship who desire God’s presence and help in their lives.

  2. Sorry but that’s not how I read this document… All it’s saying is that if one, two, ten people show up to a priest during a pilgrimage or Catholic festival asking spontaneously for a blessing, he shouldn’t ask them what their living arrangements are or who is sleeping with whom, but just give them that blessing, without making a whole analysis of their lives. On the other hand, if a priest knows a gay couple living together, who are planning a civil union/mariage, and are unrepentant with regard to Catholic doctrine on the subject (if not opposed to it), then the answer shall be a resounding no, because it would be confused with a wedding and validate something that the Church condemns. So I don’t understand the fuss. If anything it’s actually pretty bad. This is a Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Such documents are rare (the last one was in 2000). The last paragraph makes it clear that this is the end of the discussion on any blessings or higher ceremonies, most likely for another 20+ years.

  3. While I certainly respect Father Martin’s efforts to change the LGBTQ narrative in the Catholic Church I’m definitely in the nothing has changed camp. Until church teaching stop saying that “Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and under no circumstances can be approved” than nothing has changed. Is the church now saying that my relationship is still sinful but they’ll bless it anyway? These underlying teachings are emotionally and psychologically abusive. Perhaps that will all change one day, but as a 62 year old gay man it’s hard to continue to hold out hope that it will. To protect myself I had to walk away from the church many years ago and can’t envision myself ever returning.

    • Hi RF,
      I hear you and I feel your message. I’m approaching 50yo so similar boat. I don’t know the details of your experience, but may I recommend two books that I found really helpful in finding a higher perspective: “Faith beyond resentment” by James Alison, and “Signs of Change” by Anthony Bartlett. In line with the latter of the two, may you find solace understanding that we are the “Hapiru” of these times. God blesses you, as you already know. It’s painful not to see it “in real” in this world yet, but it will be there in the next.

    • In fact, I think the teaching of the document *is* moving a way from an understanding of same-sex unions as “sinful.” Remember that the language of “objectively disorder” was/is used to reduce homosexual orientation to an “inclination” to acts. That is, instead of considering homosexual orientation as a capacity for relationality, love, and affectivity (as the magisterium elsewhere describes sexuality!), it was essentially reduced to defective heterosexuality, as a species of lust. I think this declaration in fact repudiates the understanding that would reduce homosexuality to sinful acts. Though the church has not changed its language and thought the declaration presumes homosexual acts as objectively wrong, the declaration would not make sense if it reduced same-sex unions to “sin” or reduced them to involving merely sexual activity. The document even indicates the goods of such unions, when it says that couples approach so as to “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” (no. 31). Did you catch that? — “all that is true, good, and humanly valid in…their relationships.” This is a HUGE development from just two years ago, which said “God could not bless sin” (and therefore basing itself on the older understanding of homosexuality reduced to sinful sexual acts). Another quote from the Declaration suggests the same development: the minister imparting the blessing can also include that “the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance” (no 38). Clearly, the blessing in more than just an invocation of mercy (to fix their “imperfect” situation, for example), as some conservative defenders of the pope would have it.

      Overall, then, it is not a Copernican revolution. But it is a hugely important development, for it allows the church to publicly embrace such unions as including good things, even if it maintains the sexual ethic.

  4. Sorry, but doubling down on a literal understanding of marriage as exclusively binary/complementary/procreative and the insinuation that queer relationships aren’t a holy part of God’s plan is not a step forward. The document is basically the equivalent of a Southern saying “bless your heart.” It is a long way from pastorally affirming our lives and loves. The only bright spot, apart from +Francis pushing limits, is that most people in the pews will see it as an affirmation of LGBTIQ+ people, which will widen the sensus fidelium that will eventually expand Rome’s narrow understanding of the sacrament of marriage.

  5. What is crystal clear to me – Pope Francis understands and Welcomes the Human condition! Each of us is created in God’s image and likeness!
    All are Welcone – that says it all!!
    Thank you, Pope Francis💕

  6. I am the parent of a gay son who wants nothing to do with the Catholic Church in which he was raised. While attending Catholic schools in grades 1-12, it was made clear in his mind that if a person was gay or lesbian, they would go to hell. No discussion, no way to be included.
    I surely welcome Pope Francis’ declaration regarding the blessing of same sex couples who are in a loving, self-sacrificing and committed relationship. However, I’m sorry to say that my adult son likely will not be willing to change his view of the Church at this point.

  7. Having an older brother who was bisexual (two children before his divorce) and a step-brother who is married to his husband under the laws of NYS, I understand some of the joy this declaration brings as well as the resistance. A few years ago, our pastor gave me a survey that had been given to him, asking for my input. I commented that while the Church was so upset about people, including many Catholics, living together without being married, it seemed contrary to not bless another union that had its own commitment to each other. As RH stated, it is the couple that are performing the marriage ceremony, and the priest is there only as a witness. It was quite a shock to many in our FFM program when we were studying to be Commissioned Lay Ministers. So, being a witness and offering a blessing to same-sex couples to me is not that much different from the actions/role of the priest at a traditional marriage.
    My wife and I will be married 43 years next April. All the other traditional marriages in our generation and younger in both of our families never even came close. My step-brother’s marriage to his husband is fast becoming the second longest marriage in all of our families. And, yes, I am a male, so we are husband and wife.
    One last point. As a Cradle Catholic listening to readings at Mass, as a student in a local Scripture Study group, and in the the FFM program dealing with the New Testament, it seems to me that the only ones Jesus became really angry with were hypocrites. Sinners were approached, called, and reached out to instead of being condemned. Christians are called to be not judging but forgiving, and if anyone wonders about that, go ask the Samaritan woman at the well or check in with the younger son returning home.

  8. Personally, as a straight woman, I think it’s wonderful.

  9. I wish that instead of saying priests may now do it, it had said they must not refuse to do it …

  10. When you read the document carefully. Article 40 states that this ruling legitimizes nothing. So the bottom line is that all the declaration does is allow priests to bless the people in the relationship, not the relationship. My husband and I have been together 30 years, married eight. Yes, under the new rules a priest can bless me and my husband, but not our relationship. The church still sees our relationship as sinful. Until the Catholic Church recognizes and honors my relationship as good and holy, nothing has changed. I’m not looking for some empty blessing from the church. Frankly, it’s insulting.

  11. I encountered a commentary on this document that focused on the Catholic concept of blessings, noting that blessings can be of two types. One type is an acknowledgement of those people, places, and things that give praise and glory to God by their existence or actions, which is generally considered to be a reward or at least rewarding. The second type of blessing is the acknowledgement of someone, some place, or some thing that we see as needing intervention to move from an undesirable situation toward a positive resolution such as healing for the afflicted, peace among belligerents, or strength to the penitent. This second type of blessing infers that there is something intrinsically wrong (e.g., same sex attraction) that we ask God to set right (e.g., ordinary relationships). If the DDF is suggesting that the church may bestow blessing type #2 on same-sex couples, isn’t it really saying that the church desires for God to “fix” these people who are currently in loving, caring, same-sex relationships by moving the “afflicted” partners toward the kind of relationships that the church prefers (i.e., one male, one female bound by sacramental marriage)?

  12. Ok… I have to amend my initial comment where I did not understand the magnitude of the shift. It took me a few more reads and checking other comments here and there to start ‘getting it’. Without going into each paragraph and complicated details, it seems to me that an analogous development would be when the US DoD switched from downright rejection of gay soldiers to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In other words, it was the beginning of an admission of the value of gay people’s contributions, while signaling not to make too much noise about it. It wasn’t perfect, but in hindsight, it was huge indeed. Let’s hope this new DDF Declaration paves the way for similar changes in the Church.

  13. Hello. May God bless you all. I read the document multiple times and I am honestly very confused. Maybe someone can help here. Can someone explain to me what has changed with this document with regard to Church teachings?

    Firstly, the document explicitly re-enforces that The Church’s teachings on marriage have not changed per Paragraph 4. Note the document explicitly states, “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. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.”

    Second, per Paragraphs 4, 6 & 11, the document explicitly states that The Church cannot approve of or “bless” unions that are irregular. Paragraph 11 states, “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.”

    Section III Paragraph 31 of the document goes on to state that a couple that recognize themselves to be destitute and in need God’s help and do not claim any legitimation of their “own status” (this presumably is referring to their disordered union) may be granted a blessing.

    The document also states, in numerous places, that the blessings given are not to give legitimacy to any irregular union between persons. How is it that people are celebrating this as a momentous shift?

    How is any of this a “win” for the LGBT community? I believe others in the comments here have made similar comments. In fact, I don’t even see what has changed, really. Can someone help elucidate? Again, God bless and thank you.

    • JP answering JP… 😉
      The document is sprinkled with nuanced little nuggets. For instance, you mention part III paragraph 31 and focus on the first part of the sentence, which holds back to tradition. However, such statements are often held in incredible tension with others that balance them out. The Church is at a tipping point. In paragraph 31, look at what comes after ‘but’: it says that the blessings in question are for people 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.” It recognizes that there’s something true, good and humanly valid in our relationships. That is huge! And the blessings are meant to call for these aspects to be enriched, healed and elevated! When were such positive words ever used to talk about our relationships in nearly 2000 years of Church history?

  14. I still don’t get why homosexual orientation and practice in a committed relationship is sinful.

    I am in a local Church where there are many gay people who have longtime, committed relationships.

    Are we supposed to reject these orientations or are we to believe that God is supportive and helpful to each of us and how we developed as a sexual being. He is wanting each of us to to find true, committed love according to our orientation.

    Please let’s move forward with the vision that we are each made differently but beautifully with God’s support.