Pope Francis formally permitted Roman Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples on Monday, in a significant shift in the church’s approach to LGBTQ+ people.
The blessings may be carried out providing they are not part of regular Church rituals or liturgies, nor at the same time as a civil union, according to a Vatican document approved by the pope.
The latest ruling fleshes out the opening the pope made to blessing same-sex couples last October and marks a shift away from a 2021 ruling from the Vatican doctrine office which barred any blessings, saying God “cannot bless sin.”
But since July 2023, the doctrine department has been led by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, an Argentinian prelate and ally of Francis, who has struck a different tone to his predecessors.
“When people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it,” the declaration, authored by Cardinal Fernandez and another official, states. “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.”
The new ruling says it is opening “the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex” although says it is leaving decisions to “the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers.”
James Martin, a Jesuit priest who ministers to gay Catholics and who has been supported by Francis, described the ruling as a “huge step forward in the church’s ministry to same-sex couples” and a dramatic shift from the Vatican’s 2021 stance.
The pope’s attempts to shift the church’s approach to LGBTQ Catholics began in 2013, when, in reply to a reporter’s question about gay clergy, he said: “Who am I to judge?”
Francis has indicated his support for the civil recognition of same-sex couples, and sought to move the Vatican away from some of the harsh language it has used in the past about gay people. His support for legal recognition of gay couples – as distinct from marriage – moved the church in a different direction to a 2003 Vatican ruling, which said it was “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
The pope has also offered his support to a nun from the United States, Jeanine Gramick, who has ministered to gay Catholics for years. She had previously been censured by the Vatican but recently met with Francis, who described her as a “valiant woman.”
The Vatican’s latest ruling says that offering blessings to same-sex and unmarried couples can be done “without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.” The Catholic Church’s teaching is that sex should only take place within marriage, and the ruling says that the church cannot offer a “liturgical blessing” to same-sex or unmarried couples because it could “offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice.”
But the ruling states that the meaning of a blessing cannot be reduced “to this point of view alone” and would mean that “a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love.”
The pope, the ruling stated, has insisted that the church cannot simply become “judges who only deny, reject, and exclude,” and needs to have a broader understanding of blessings.
Francis’ openness to LGBTQ+ Catholics has been an element in the opposition he has faced from a small, yet vocal, minority inside the church. His latest move on blessings is likely to face resistance in these quarters.
This story has been updated with additional developments.