Is Pope Francis Distancing Himself from CDF Same-Sex Blessing Clarification? Unlikely, Say Commentators

The document has prompted an outcry from those in the Church who wish to see a change in teaching, mostly in the German-speaking world.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, President of the International Theological Commission, in the Vatican's Consistory Hall on Nov. 29, 2019, before addressing members of the ITC on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding.
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, President of the International Theological Commission, in the Vatican's Consistory Hall on Nov. 29, 2019, before addressing members of the ITC on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY —  Did Pope Francis actually give his assent to the responsum saying “No” to the blessing of same-sex unions? Or, in the wake of criticism of the Holy Father reaffirming Church teaching, are personalities close to him, as well as curial cardinals, bishops and others trying to cast doubt on his approval to further their agenda? 

This question is being asked in Rome following a number of reports that inferred that the Vatican’s responsum (official Church response), published on March 15 in answer to a dubium (submitted questions related to doctrine) asking if the Church has the authority to bless same-sex unions, lacks papal backing. 

The clarification, signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the Congregation’s Secretary, explained in detail in an accompanying explanatory note why “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.”

It then added: 

“The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Secretary of this Congregation, was informed and gave his assent to the publication of the above-mentioned Responsum ad dubium, with the annexed Explanatory Note.”

The document has prompted an outcry from those in the Church who wish to see a change in teaching, mostly in the German-speaking world, and include the head of the German bishops’ conference, a group of 2,000 German priests and pastoral workers, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna who, although he defended the document’s defense of sacramental marriage, was “not happy” with the text and would not deny a blessing (though possibly not a "liturgical celebration") on a same-sex couple if it wasn’t “for show” or “a kind of crowning of an external ritual.”

A few articles, written principally by two journalists close to the Pope and citing anonymous Vatican sources, have also sought to distance Francis from the official Church response. The articles appeared in the Jesuit magazine America and the Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion, respectively written by husband and wife Gerry O’Connell and Elisabetta Piqué, who are old friends of the Holy Father. 

Both their articles, quoting at least one unnamed “high-ranking” Vatican source, interpreted the Pope’s Angelus remarks on March 21 as obliquely critical of the CDF document. Piqué followed up a few days later with another article which similarly interpreted a message from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s proclamation of St. Alphonsus Liguori as a Doctor of the Church as evidence of Francis further distancing himself from the responsum. 

In both papal messages, Francis rejected clerical legalism, moralism and condemnation in favor of accompaniment and meeting those who are wounded and frail. While no mention was made of blessings or same-sex unions, the tenor of the papal remarks, and the way they were interpreted by parties thought to be close to the Holy Father, gives rise to the impression that the responsum was a “mere opinion,” wrote Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister, arising from the CDF. 

But other commentators have questioned the veracity of reports suggesting the Pope is backing away from the responsum

Writing in the Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio, editor-in-chief Matteo Matzuzzi noted that if these claims are true, either the Pope, at his audience with Archbishop Morandi, “approved something he did not understand, and therefore the issue was not presented to him properly, which would be serious, or we are faced with a reversal by the Pontiff due to enormous pressure being exerted on the Vatican, also from within the Church.”

But another possibility, he continued, is that the anonymous sources cited in the reports are “simply interested in creating a gulf between the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (it wouldn’t be the first time), fueling rifts and differences of opinion in an attempt to ‘absolve’ Francis and the narrative being built around him and dressing Cardinal Ladaria and the Roman Curia in the clothes of the bad cops.” 

Not all the sources are anonymous, wrote Riccardo Cascioli, editor of the Italian newspaper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. One, he noted, is Jesuit Father Pino Piva, reportedly close to Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who is an aide to Pope Francis. 

Writing on the Citta Nuova website, Father Piva claimed the Pope “does not approve” of the responsum but was “only informed of it.” Nor did he “order publication but only gave his consent.” 

Still, Matzuzzi insisted that such plots and assertions “hold little water,” arguing that in light of everything Jorge Mario Bergoglio has said on the subject the content of the March 15 responsum “shouldn’t shock anyone.” As an example, he highlighted the words from Paragraph 251 of Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia

“As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Writing in Katholisch.de, a website overseen by the German bishops’ conference, which is pursuing a path that would include blessing same-sex unions and intercommunion for non-Catholics, Gudrun Sailer noted that similar efforts have been made in the past to exonerate or distance the Pope from statements that Catholic progressives regarded as objectionable. But although she believes these attempts are “well intentioned,” Sailer said they “miss the point” and assume that Francis “is a weak pope who has no influence on the work of his departments.” 

“No,” she wrote, “Francis does not stand as a secret hero, with hands tied, in the midst of a crowd of recalcitrant officials. He is responsible for the magisterial decisions that come from Rome in his pontificate. He is also responsible for their consequences.” 

All this is not to say that the document’s route to publication was an easy one. Quoting Vatican sources at the “highest level,” Luigi Casalini reported on the Italian blog Messainlatino that “very strong pressure” was placed on the CDF to have it signed without the named approval of Francis. Cascioli reported that this pressure on the Pope came from Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

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