Pope Francis’ Dec. 18, 2023, announcement that Catholic priests may bless LGBTQ+ couples and others in “irregular” situations marks a definitive shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s posture toward many types of loving relationships. It may also mark a definitive turning point within the Roman Catholic Church.
Across the last few years, Francis has made gesture after gesture indicating his desire to find a way for the Catholic Church to accompany and welcome people whose loving relationships do not fit into the church’s sacramental understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, ordered toward procreation and ended only by death.
He has telegraphed for a long time his desire to come to some new arrangement that would welcome loving relationships in the church without transforming the church’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality all at once – the Dec. 18 declaration seems to do exactly that.
First, let’s be clear about what this new declaration is not. The declaration does not permit the marriage of LGBTQ+ couples, or couples where parties are divorced without annulment of the marriage. Neither does the declaration permit any recognition of a civil marriage.
The declaration is specific that the blessing of relationships outside marriage must not be done in any way that might be confused with a marriage ceremony. In fact, the declaration encourages priests to be responsive to “spontaneous” requests for a blessing, and it forbids the creation of “procedures or rituals” that would provide anything like a script for a blessing ceremony.
Still, the declaration is remarkable for what it does do. Sidestepping difficult doctrinal questions that divide Catholics, the document’s emphasis is pastoral – it is oriented toward caring for and ministering to people rather than teaching doctrine.
The word “pastoral” appears 20 times in the declaration. Francis’ emphasis is unmistakable: The subject of the declaration is not marriage or sexual morality; the declaration is about something else.
What ‘blessings’ mean in the church
In fact, the declaration is about blessings and what they mean in the Catholic Church.
A long stretch of the document is devoted to defining and clarifying what the Roman Catholic Church means by the word “blessing.” Francis has said that “when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and a confidence in a Father who can help us live better.” A blessing is an “unconditional gift” that “descends,” while our human thanksgiving “ascends” to God.
Blessings, in this pastoral sense, are events when our human dependence on God’s mercy is expressed as a desire for closeness with God. God, in Catholic belief, responds through the church. “It is God who blesses” in these situations, Francis has written. God’s blessing manifests through priests and ministers.
A Book of Blessings provides formulas for everything from blessing a new home or a safe voyage to blessings for elderly people and seeds at planting time. Yet often enough in Catholic life, blessing is requested for an object like a rosary or Bible.
When these desires for blessing arise spontaneously, the church’s ministers always accommodate them. The church’s doctrine says blessing is abundant and inexhaustible. “Such blessings are meant for everyone; no one is to be excluded from them,” the Dec. 18 declaration says.
Sidestepping difficult issues
These meanings of “blessing” are distinct from the blessing in the Rite of the Sacrament of Marriage, which is specific to the “union of a man and a woman, who establish an exclusive and indissoluble covenant.”
Yet, within the scope of that much more broad, pastoral understanding of blessing, Francis has said with this declaration that blessing should not be withheld from LGBTQ+ couples or anyone else.
In this way, the pope has sidestepped the more difficult doctrinal questions while still inviting all couples to present themselves for the blessings they desire.
But the pope has not sidestepped the controversy. In recent decades, the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church have been roiled by controversy over LGBTQ+ acceptance. More recently, the Methodist Church in the United States has split over the issue.
Catholics are divided in a similar way, and this declaration is not likely to cool down divisions. In fact, I believe, those divisions will likely deepen – especially in the United States, where Catholic bishops have been tepid in their response to the declaration and Francis has not been embraced enthusiastically.
Yet for now, the Roman Catholic Church has made a historic gesture of welcome that invites all people to experience the love of God in a community of believers devoted toward building up a more just and equitable world. “The Church is … the sacrament of God’s infinite love,” the declaration says.
Pope Francis has been constant in that loving, pastoral emphasis. For as much as the Dec. 18 declaration has changed, it has not changed that.