Pope Francis Did Not Just Authorize Priests to Bless Same-Sex Unions

COMMENTARY: Anyone who claims that the Fiducia Supplicans authorizes blessings of same-sex unions has not read the declaration or is intentionally misinterpreting it.

Pope Francis blesses a married couple at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, November 15, 2023.
Pope Francis blesses a married couple at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, November 15, 2023. (photo: Riccardo Luca / Shutterstock)

For the second time in a month, the media has taken a document from the Vatican and mangled it beyond all recognition. 

In November, the subject was so-called transgender baptisms. Now, it is the supposed authorization of blessings for same-sex unions. But that’s not what the document says at all. If anything, the document could be understood to encourage blessings so that same-sex-attracted individuals (or any individual in what the document calls an “irregular” relationship) will be encouraged to live out God’s plan for human sexuality rather than their own.

On Dec. 18 the Vatican issued Fiducia Supplicans, a “Declaration on the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings.” It’s a meaningful action to be sure; the Vatican has not issued a declaration on any topic in more than 20 years. According to the liturgy office for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, “A declaration is a papal document that can take one of three forms: 1) a simple statement of the law interpreted according to existing Church law; 2) an authoritative declaration that requires no additional promulgation; or 3) an extensive declaration, which modifies the law and requires additional promulgation.” And the purpose of this declaration is to expand “the pastoral meaning of blessings.” In part, it is a clarification of the Vatican’s 2021 responsum, which taught that “the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit.”

The most important point is that Fiducia Supplicans does not overrule or set aside the responsum. At every turn, it confirms the teaching of the Catholic Church about same-sex and other relationships that do not qualify for the sacrament of marriage. 

Paragraph 4 of the declaration deems “inadmissible” any “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.” The same paragraph reiterates, “The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.” 

Paragraph 5 reminds us that this “is also the understanding of marriage that is offered by the Gospel.” Accordingly, “the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion.” Indeed, Fiducia Supplicans clarifies that this “is also the meaning of the responsum,” “which states that the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.” In other words, continues Paragraph 11, “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.”

If there is any doubt on this point, Paragraph 38 reiterates that “one should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessing of couples in an irregular situation.” Additionally, Paragraph 39 emphasizes that “when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation,” “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. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple.” And Paragraph 40 makes clear that “there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.”

So if Church teaching remains firm, the 2021 responsum’s restrictions are still in place, and same-sex unions and other irregular unions cannot be blessed, what’s the point of Fiducia Supplicans? It’s simple, as the document states: to help Catholics “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.” In other words, the Church contemplates the possibility of blessing individual persons in irregular relationships to call them to holiness.

The declaration unpacks that point, explaining there is a “broader understanding of blessings” than merely the liturgical blessing, which requires “that what is blessed corresponds with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.” Regarding the latter, Paragraph 11 explains that “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.”

But Paragraph 21 notes Pope Francis’s observation that “when one asks for a [non-liturgical] blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better.” This kind of request, the declaration makes clear, “should, in every way, be valued accompanied, and received with gratitude.” In other words, says Paragraph 25, “when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.”

This broad understanding of nonliturgical blessings means that priests do not need to complete a comprehensive moral examination “when people spontaneously ask for a blessing, whether on pilgrimages, at shrines, or even on the street,” as Paragraph 28 explains: “Such blessings are meant for everyone; no one is to be excluded from them.” 

And that makes sense. When a large group of motorcyclists gathers for a group blessing of their bikes, a priest should not have to inquire of each person whether they are in a state of mortal sin or how they intend to use the motorcycle. The priest can simply pray for God’s grace and let him do the rest.

And that, explains Paragraph 27, is the purpose of a nonliturgical blessing. It “disposes man’s heart to be changed by God.” [Emphasis added.] Such a blessing, Paragraph 31 continues, “descends from God upon those who — recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help — do not claim a legitimation of their own status” but rather believe “that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel.” 

In giving the blessing, Paragraph 40 makes clear that the blessing’s purpose is “to invoke the Holy Spirt so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.” 

In sum, Fiducia Supplicans makes two things absolutely clear. First, the Church has not changed — nor can it change — the Bible’s beautiful teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. This relationship results in the creation and care of new life, promotes human flourishing, and is the foundation of society. Second, a nonliturgical blessing’s purpose is not to encourage irregular relationships but to call the individuals in those relationships to live out the Gospel more faithfully and abandon sinful choices.

And yet, it is inevitable that individuals, couples, and even clergy will misuse this declaration to bless unblessable unions. And that is where the declaration falls short: It fails to articulate that love, truth, and a call to repentance should be at the core of every individual’s interaction with the Church, as we see in Jesus’ interaction with the  woman who committed adultery in John 8:1-11.

Love is not a dreamy, romantic feeling that makes you feel good about yourself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that love “is to will the good of another.” Love is not a feeling but an intentional act. And it always requires acting in truth; after all, there is nothing loving or charitable about blessing someone to continue acting in a way that contradicts God’s will, i.e., to sin.

Fiducia Supplicans misses an opportunity when it does not expressly call individuals in same-sex relationships to live chaste lives in conformance with God’s plan for marriage but instead merely insists that blessings bring grace that allow such change to be possible. The declaration also blunders when it does not instruct priests asked to bless the individuals in a same-sex relationship to not only bless but to teach God’s marriage plan and why it is best for human flourishing.

The result is predictable. Some are publicly interpreting the declaration as a repudiation of the responsum, which directly contradicts what the document says. Others are publicly suggesting that the declaration means blessing same-sex unions is fine, provided the blessing does not confuse the union with a marriage. Again, that’s the opposite of Fiducia Supplicans’ instruction. Anyone who claims that the Vatican’s document authorizes blessings of same-sex unions has not read it or is intentionally misinterpreting it.

Worse, those misinterpreting the document are unlikely to communicate the truth about marriage. In so doing, they are not just allowing a couple to continue sinning, they are complicit in that sin. In addition, they are communicating that God’s grace is insufficient to overcome our human weaknesses and live a life of holiness. If that result is the legacy of Fiducia Supplicans, it will be a sorry one indeed.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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