The Vatican said on March 15 that priests could not bless same-sex unions, calling any such blessing “not licit.”
The ruling, supported by Pope Francis, who has been increasingly supportive of gay priests and gay Catholics, said that the church should “welcome gay people with respect and sensitivity,” but that it could not and must not endorse same-sex unions.
The Catholic Church does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions.
In the U.S., more than 6 out of 10 Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew survey. With so many Catholics supporting same-sex marriage, priests, bishops and increasingly inclusive Catholic parishes had pressed the Vatican on how to be more welcoming to LGBTQ people.
Pope Francis has in fact been more warm and inclusive toward gay people than any of his predecessors. In June 2013, the Pope said while talking with reporters, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
In an October 2020 interview, Pope Francis stated that he supports “legally recognizing same-sex unions.”
The Pope was quoted as saying “What we have to create is a civil-union law. That way they are legally covered. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it.”
The Pope had asked bishops to develop projects and proposals “so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
The Vatican clarified that Pope Francis believed that gay couples deserved civil protections, including legal rights and health care benefits, but that there was no change in church doctrine.
Yet after the October statement, which was viewed as blessing gay families, blessings for same-sex unions had been requested.
The March 15 statement came as as a shock to many — particularly gay and lesbian Catholics, many of whom are raising families in legal marriages.
DignityUSA, the organization of Catholics “working for justice, equality, and full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the church and society,” issued a lengthy statement.
DignityUSA wrote that the Vatican’s statement that “God does not and cannot bless sin” and is “pastorally harmful and will widen the wedge between Catholics and church leadership.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said, “The Vatican’s denial of blessings to same-sex couples will exacerbate the pain and anger of LGBTQI Catholics and our families. This statement is hurtful to same-sex couples, and dismissive of the grace demonstrated by same-sex couples who live deeply loving and committed relationships.”
She added, “It harms families of LGBTQ+ people, and young LGBTQ+ people who hoped the church would be more affirming, and even hoped to be married in the church someday.”
In an explanatory note on the Vatican’s ruling, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, the prefect of the congregation, said the decision “did not imply a judgment on people involved nor a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of the sacrament of matrimony. Cardinal Ladaria wrote that Pope Francis had given “his assent to the publication.”
Catholic Church doctrine views homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.” In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the church’s “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the prefect of the congregation and who later became Pope Benedict XVI, authored that statement. Pope Benedict, Pope Francis’s predecessor, was virulently opposed to same-sex marriage and to embracing gay Catholics. The 2003 statement was meant as a warning in advance of the global push for same-sex marriage.
In the March 15 ruling, the Vatican reiterated that Catholic teaching held that marriage between a man and woman was part of God’s plan, and that since gay unions were not intended to be part of that plan, they could not be blessed by the church.
The Vatican said that relationships involving “sexual activity outside of marriage,” which the Vatican described as an “indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life” did not follow the “Creator’s plans,” “even if those relationships had “positive elements.”
The Vatican also wrote that same-sex marriages could be “construed as a certain imitation of the nuptial blessing” that is invoked in matrimony. Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church. The Vatican wrote that “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.”
The tone of the March 15 statement, which was not written by Pope Francis, conveyed a tone of vindictive harshness that echoed the previous papacy, not Pope Francis’s more loving and inclusive framing. The assertion that “God does not and cannot bless sin” reduced same-sex marriages to immoral acts, not the loving partnerships and families they are.
“That line in particular is going to cause tremendous pain and anger,” said Dignity USA’s Duddy-Burke. “The fact that our church still denies people a sense of sacredness about their relationships is deeply painful to those of who hold fast to our faith.”
Duddy-Burke said, “DignityUSA has been blessing and marrying same-sex couples for 50 years and is committed to gaining equal access to the sacraments for LGBTQ+ people. We have been privileged to witness the amazing tenacity and profound love of same-sex couples who have been together for 45, 50 years or more. They remained committed despite lack of social supports, their relationships being considered illegal and immoral, and family rejection. If these people are not models of grace deserving of every blessing, I don’t know who are.”
On March 15, entertainer Elton John tweeted: “How can the Vatican refuse to bless gay marriages because they ‘are sin,’ yet happily make a profit from investing millions in ‘Rocketman’ — a film which celebrates my finding happiness from my marriage to David??”
John attached two images — one of the headline on the Vatican’s statement and another from the Vatican’s financial support of the 2019 bio pic of John’s life. John has been partnered with David Furnish since 1993. The couple were among the first to get a civil union in the U.K. when those became legal in 2005, and they were married when same-sex marriage became legal in 2014. The couple has two children via surrogate.
On March 17, Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny wrote in an opinion piece published in Belgian newspaper De Standaard, that he feels “shame for my Church” and “intellectual and moral incomprehension” over the “negative” statement.
Belgium has historically been a staunch Roman Catholic country with strong ties to the Vatican.
Bonny, who was part of a Vatican 2015 synod on marriage and family, said: “I want to apologize to all for whom this is painful and incomprehensible.”
The conference of Belgian bishops backed Bonny’s concerns, saying LGBT faithful and their families saw the Vatican decree as “exceptionally painful.” The conference urged everyone to work on “a climate of respect, recognition and integration.”