The Vatican released a response this week to address concerns raised by some bishops over a 2021 document that opened the door to blessings for same-sex couples under certain conditions.
The issue traces back to May 2021 when the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was asked whether the Catholic Church can bless same-sex unions. The response at that time was an emphatic “No,” stressing that such blessings are “not licit” since God “cannot bless sin.”
However, in December 2022, a private two-page explanatory note from the congregation surfaced, which stated that while the Catholic Church does not have the power to impart sacramental marriage blessings on same-sex couples, it does have the authority to impart blessing “to individual persons with homosexual inclinations who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
This explanatory note, titled “Fiducia Supplicans,” attempted to make a distinction between approving same-sex marriage and extending blessings to same-sex couples under pastoral guidance. It advocated adopting a “welcoming, cautious, and discrete pastoral style” when dealing with people in same-sex relationships.
Vatican Defends Document Amid Backlash
The release of the explanatory note was met with significant backlash from several bishops’ conferences and individual prelates who saw it as contravening church doctrine.
In response to the widespread criticism this week, the Vatican asserted that the document did not call into question any aspect of church teaching and doctrine regarding marriage and family.
A new five-page text from the Vatican orthodoxy office strongly defended the original explanatory note, stating that interpreting the document as a violation of church teaching reflects a “partial and unbalanced understanding” of it. It maintained that the explanatory note aligned with Pope Francis’ pastoral approach to people in complex family situations.
“The note does not and cannot call into question the clarity of the response and, therefore, it should not be considered a retraction or a modification, even implicitly, of the ‘Responsum’ of March 2021,” the new text states.
It goes on to say that the note “has a purely pastoral character” with the aim of clarifying to bishops how to apply the principles of church teaching when dealing with same-sex couples.
Key Points in Defense of Document
The new explanatory text makes several key arguments in defense of the original note:
It asserts that the note does not imply any recognition of the union of same-sex couples as being in any way similar or analogous to the marital union between a man and woman.
It states that the proposed blessings do not constitute a “legitimation” of same-sex unions since there is an “essential and decisive distinction” between welcoming people with same-sex attraction and approving their unions.
It argues that the church retains the authority to impart prayerful blessings to same-sex couples who manifest the will to live according to church teaching, just as it can for anyone in any state of life. However, this does not mean approving or legitimizing sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
|Defense of Document
|Does not approve or legitimize same-sex unions, only blesses the individuals if they intend to follow church teaching
|Critics say this is a de facto approval since church teaching clearly prohibits homosexual activity
|Distinguishes between welcoming same-sex attracted people and approving their unions
|Critics argue offering blessings sends mixed messages on approval of same-sex relationships
|Consistent with Pope Francis’ pastoral approach to complex family situations
|Approach seen by critics as overly permissive and disregarding church doctrine
The new Vatican text clearly aims to reinforce the consistency between the explanatory note and traditional Catholic teaching. However, critics argue that offering blessings to same-sex couples normalizes unions that the church considers intrinsically disordered. They see tensions between the pastoral flexibility advocated in the note and upholding doctrinal boundaries.
Reactions and Analysis
The Vatican’s defense of the controversial explanatory note is being met with renewed criticism as well as messages of support:
- African bishops’ conferences strongly rejected the blessings, saying they are not acceptable or possible.
- Individual bishops called the note scandalous and damaging, insisting it contradicts church teaching.
- Conservative Catholic media and laity say it causes confusion and relativizes truth on marriage and sexuality.
- Liberal Catholic outlets welcomed the conciliatory tone and flexibility toward same-sex couples.
- Advocacy groups praised the outreach to LGBTQ Catholics and saw openings for future reforms.
- Some theologians argued it aligns pastoral practice with current social realities.
The gulf between supporters and opponents reflects deep divisions in the church on issues of sexual morality. While the Vatican aimed for compromise, both liberal and conservative flanks seem unhappy with the delicate balancing act. The tensions will likely fuel debates on the synodality process advocated by Pope Francis.
What Comes Next?
It remains to be seen whether the Vatican’s elucidations will temper criticisms from bishops over the blessings issue. Some key questions going forward:
Will dissenting bishops acquiesce to the authority of the Vatican document or continue protesting?
How will German bishops who started this debate respond? They wanted room to bless same-sex unions but face mounting opposition in Africa and elsewhere.
Could Pope Francis intervene more forcefully? Up to now he has upheld church teaching while signaling openness to new pastoral approaches.
For a church already divided between calls for doctrinal integrity and demands for inclusive pastoral care, this issue will be an ongoing flashpoint. The Vatican’s affirmation of limited blessings marks only one step on the complex road ahead.
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