Pope’s Directive on Same-Sex Blessings Emphasizes Persons, Not Unions, Theologians Say

Theologians who have studied the Pope’s response told the Register that immediate media reactions miss the mark and don’t accurately capture what the Pope did — and didn’t — say.

Married and same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.
Married and same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (photo: Martin Meissner / AP)

VATICAN CITY — In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 2 publication of a text from Pope Francis responding to questions about same-sex blessings, media sought to portray the Pope’s message as a radical break from Church teaching and practice.

“Pope Francis opens possibility for blessing same-sex unions,” declared ABC News, running with a headline that was typical of how mainstream media described the Pope’s responses to dubia submitted by five cardinals earlier in the summer.

However, theologians who have studied the Pope’s response told the Register that these immediate media reactions miss the mark and don’t accurately capture what the Pope did — and didn’t — say.

One central critique: that the Pope’s focus was not on same-sex unions, but instead on same-sex-attracted persons who may be in some kind of same-sex relationship. In fact, although the question the Pope was responding to explicitly referred to “blessing same-sex unions,” the Pope’s response never spoke of “unions.” Instead, the Pope wrote of possible blessings for “one or more persons,” a subtle but significant distinction, theologians told the Register.

“It seems to me that the Holy Father has in mind the possibility of praying with an individual or with a couple who experience same-sex attraction,” said Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York. “He envisions, on a case-by-case basis, a priest using ‘pastoral prudence’ to determine what — if anything — it would be prudent for him to do in response to a request for ‘a blessing.’”

David Cloutier, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America, likewise emphasized the Pope’s focus on persons.

“It’s certainly not what some have suggested, a blessing of the union’s ‘holy love’ as a ‘mirror of God’s’ love,” said Cloutier, referring to a description of the Pope’s statement by New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ organization not recognized or approved by the Catholic Church. “Unless Francis comes out and says you should bless the union explicitly, he’s talking about persons,” Cloutier said.

Cloutier also said that the Pope’s message was consistent with his “all pastoral, all the time” approach and said that Francis seemed to have in mind the kind of blessing a priest might give when invited over to a gay couple’s house for dinner. 

“Clearly the object of the blessing is the persons,” he said, “and you can obviously bless two persons together.”

In explaining why the distinction between persons and unions matters, John Froula, a professor of dogmatic theology at St. Paul Seminary and School of Divinity in Minnesota, pointed to the Vatican’s March 2021 guidance on whether the Church could bless same-sex unions. In the response, which was approved by the Pope, the Vatican underscored that blessings of “particular human relationships” can only bless realities that are “objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.”

“For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage, as is the case of unions between persons of the same-sex,” the guidance reads.

While blessing a union “also implies approving it,” Froula said that “blessing people does not imply approval of everything they are doing.”

“It is asking for God’s grace through the Church’s special mediation,” he said. “In fact, someone might seek a blessing precisely to overcome some sin or temptation.”


Reaffirmation of Marriage

Theologians say the Pope underscored his focus on persons rather than same-sex unions by explicitly reaffirming marriage as “an exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation” — and prohibiting any kind of blessing that could cause confusion over what is and isn’t marriage.

“My assessment is that the Pope does not want to have established, either universally or locally, any sort of rite or blessing that would imply ecclesial approval of homosexual acts, or allow anything that implies that homosexual unions are equivalent to marriage,” said Froula. “At the same time, he does not want to give the impression that anyone should be outside of the Church’s prudent pastoral care. If such pastoral care should include blessings that do not compromise Church teaching, then they are not forbidden.”

While agreeing that the Pope drew a “pretty strong line” against any kind of public ritual, Cloutier portrayed the Pope’s support for private blessings of same-sex persons as more affirmative.

“What a good pastoral priest should be thinking about is ‘I don’t want to give the impression that I’m blessing a marriage. But I do want to bless these people who are in front of me. How do I do that?’”

Cloutier said that the Pope’s emphasis on individual pastors discerning when it is appropriate to provide a blessing was consistent with his preference for “private accompaniment” rather than establishing norms or change to teaching.

“At [this] point in his papacy, this shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said, even if it leaves both those desiring changes in teaching and those wary of any pastoral shifts “disappointed.”


Clarifying Intent?

While the theologians who spoke with the Register agreed that the Pope was not opening the door for public blessings of same-sex unions, there were divergent views on several practical questions — like whether a priest asked for a blessing by two persons in some kind of same-sex sexual relationship should clarify what, exactly, he was being asked to bless.

Father Berg said that in similar situations, such as when a couple who may or may not be married ask a priest for a blessing, “prudence requires [him] to inquire just what they want or why they want it.”

“In other words, what’s the motive? Are they genuinely just asking for an intercessory prayer for help to live uprightly in their relationship?”

The moral theologian said the Pope seems to envision a scenario in which two same-sex individuals could be asking for something similar, perhaps “to help them persevere in a life of chastity” — which he said “would be extremely rare.”

Likewise, Froula said that confusion about appearing to endorse immoral sexual acts “could be avoided if those being blessed show that they understand the Church’s teaching on sexual acts outside of marriage.” 

“One such blessing that might not cause confusion is if one or two people approached a priest and asked for a blessing so that they might have the strength to avoid sexual sins in the future,” he said.

Cloutier, however, took the opposite approach.

“I don’t think the goal here is for the priest to go to dinner at a gay couple’s house and say, ‘I can bless your cooking but not your sex,’” which he said would be a pastorally insensitive approach, especially in cases where the couple in question was not adequately familiar with the Church’s teaching on sexuality. 

“If the encounter is all about conveying the truth about marriage in a situation where it’s very difficult to grasp, it’s not the right time,” he said, adding that “none of this is meant to be an excuse, or a call for the Church to stop saying what it says about marriage.”



Practical Effects

The theologians who talked with the Register expressed different views on the practical effects the Pope’s words on same-sex blessings will have in the Church and beyond.

Father Berg said that the Pope’s words “will be misconstrued by many priests and bishops” who already have a mind to bless same-sex couples “and the media as ‘an opening to bless gay marriages.’”

“In this sense, his words here are simply unhelpful as stated and only compound confusion with regard to gender and the nature of marriage,” said the moral theologian.

That’s precisely how one of the signers of the July 11 dubia, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, views the dubium response. He said in a statement this month that the Pope’s response about blessings was “pastorally untenable,” adding, “How can the Church, in such an important matter, leave the people without a clear rule and trust individual discernment? Isn’t this how a chaos of casuistry very dangerous for souls will break out?”

Still, Cloutier acknowledged that there are “bad actors” who will use the Pope’s words to justify attempts to bless same-sex unions, but they could only do so by contradicting his clear instructions.

He also said that while he understands that some Catholics might be concerned that the Pope’s pastoral emphasis amounts to “giving a few more inches” to those intent on trying to push for public blessings of same-sex unions, “that fear can’t be the primary animation.”

Froula said that while some might take the fact that the Pope did not explicitly condemn ritual blessings of same-sex unions as “a sort of wink toward allowing it in the future,” this approach would fail to interpret the Pope’s words in continuity with previous Church teaching, the Vatican’s 2021 guidance.

“We should not read unfounded implications into” the Pope’s recent statement, said the dogmatic theologian.

Asked how he would instruct the seminarians he teaches on how to incorporate the Pope’s message in their future priestly ministry, Froula said he would advise them “to work compassionately, charitably, prudently and prayerfully for the spiritual good and salvation of all in their care, without exception, and to be faithful to the saving truth that is revealed to us.”

He added, “And I expect they will.”