(OSV News) — Just two days prior to the start of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, the Vatican released a letter Oct. 2 from Pope Francis that was instantly greeted by some in the media as “a bombshell.”
It indicated — among other topics — what has been interpreted as the pontiff’s openness to considering the pastoral prudence of Catholic blessings for same-sex couples, with the condition that such blessings would not be confused with marriage ceremonies between men and women.
Pope Francis’ letter was in response to questions — officially known as “dubia,” Latin for “doubts” — posed to him by five cardinals. Their questions concerned same-sex unions, divine revelation, synodality, women’s ordination and sacramental absolution.
“The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation,” Pope Francis said in his response to the question on blessings for same-sex unions. He also observed, “the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”
That said, Pope Francis cautioned that “in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes.”
Pastoral prudence, Pope Francis noted in his response, “must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.”
Grant Hartley, a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction and whose “Life on Side B” podcast facilitates conversations on “exploring the joys, beauty, and challenges of living the traditional sexual ethic as LGBT+/same sex attracted Christians,” told OSV News, “It is clear that Pope Francis seeks to stay grounded in church teaching on marriage … while also seeking to provide a pastoral response to the needs of same-sex couples and their longing to be fully involved in the life of the church.”
“It is an extremely difficult needle to thread, but I admire Pope Francis’ willingness to apply the wisdom of the tradition to modern situations with ‘pastoral charity,’ which he emphasizes includes not only objective truth-telling, but also ‘kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness and encouragement,'” Hartley said, quoting the pontiff’s words that the defense of truth needed these attributes as well.
American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke — one of the “dubia” signatories, and the former prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest judicial authority apart from the pope himself — appeared in a solo interview segment on the Oct. 5 edition of EWTN’s “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo” television broadcast opposing same-sex blessings, expressing concern that it would send the message “that somehow we think that this is good.”
“You cannot bless sinful acts,” said Cardinal Burke, a Wisconsin native who served as bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, from 1995 to 2004, and archbishop of St. Louis from 2004-2008. “You cannot bless a relationship which, in itself, is involved with intrinsically evil acts. And therefore, it’s not possible to bless these unions in any way.”
Cardinal Burke said that according to divine revelation, “Human sexuality was made for marriage and for the procreation of children, and sexual acts outside of the marital union are sinful.”
The cardinal said, “We can’t reconcile these positions with the Catholic faith and practice — and that has to be made clear to everyone.”
Nonetheless, Pope Francis is not recommending any universal actions. In his response to the “dubia,” he said, “Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances need not be transformed into a norm.”
“I think there are some clear parameters here,” John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies in Washington, told OSV News.
Grabowski noted the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith previously responded to questions from German ecclesial officials of whether or not same-sex couples in sexually active relationships could be blessed.
“The dicastery said no, you cannot. Because it causes confusion and scandal about the nature of Catholic teaching on marriage, and on sexual relationships. And they did that with the pope’s approval. That’s clear; that has not been rescinded,” Grabowski said. “So we cannot bless same-sex couples qua (as) same-sex couples.”
“On the other hand,” Grabowski said, “we know that the church can bless any person — sinful or not; someone living in a regular relationship or not. We can bless individuals, because anyone can come to the church seeking blessing — seeking, as the pope said, to try to live a better life. So that’s clear.”
What that might look like remains the question.
Grabowski recalled that Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prior to becoming the new DDF prefect, said that “a question we could study is whether there’s a way to bless multiple people who come to the church seeking a blessing in a way that does not create scandal and confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage … that does not kind of flag this as a quasi-marital relationship.”
“He said that we could study that: ‘Is there a way to do this?’ And it seems like that’s the specific and very narrow question that the pope expressed some openness to in his response to the questions put to him by these cardinals,” Grabowski said.
“That is, this is what requires discernment on the part of the church — and it requires the exercise of pastoral charity and prudence,” he said.
“We don’t want to just say, ‘Get away, sinners — no, we can’t bless you.’ That’s not the right response,” Grabowski said. “But can we give a blessing to people as a group in some way that doesn’t say we’re going to recognize you as a couple in a quasi-marital relationship, and bless you accordingly?”
Reactions to Pope Francis’ statement on this, Grabowski suggested, have seemed “overdone and off-target,” both from those “who want to go all in” on the church blessing and approving sexually active sex-sex couples or from those who fear the pope is “somehow giving away the store on our teaching on marriage.”
“Neither of those is the case,” he said. “I think some people are reacting without actually listening carefully to what the pope has said.”
At the same time, Grabowski noted that the pope has got people talking, including the seminarians the CUA professor teaches.
“People are asking questions,” he said.
How the synod could explore the topic remains a matter of speculation.
Eve Tushnet, author of “Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith,” who writes about same-sex attracted Catholics living in accordance with the church’s vision for human sexuality, told OSV News that the church needs to recognize that people come to the church for a blessing “because they think we have a blessing to offer.”
She said, regardless of “why,” the church has an opportunity to encounter people in a moment of vulnerability who are asking, “Give us something to help us.”
Imagining a response, Tushnet asked, “What if we said, ‘We want to do that. We really want to help you.’ And we’re not going to say, ‘Have you tried not being gay? Have you tried not loving your partner? Have you tried feeling less?’ We’re going to look for what is good in what you’re bringing to us, and say, ‘What if the church is able to guide you?'”
Tushnet sees pastoral possibilities in historical precedents. Within the church’s historical treasury are medieval texts that bless two people of the same sex — not entering into quasi-matrimonial arrangements but brother-brother or sister-sister bonds of spiritual kinship.
“There are traditions that can be drawn on,” Tushnet said. “If we’re asking what kinds of wisdom does the church have for living out love between two people of the same sex, one of the answers is a devoted, life-changing friendship that makes two people ‘kin,’ that’s adorned by promises, that’s publicly recognized and honored.”
Tushnet also pointed to Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, as scriptural examples of such kinship covenants between people with a deep affinity.
“A lot of questions surrounding the lives of gay people in the church are framed in terms of sex or the moral life,” Tushnet said. Yet beneath the surface, she thinks, are other questions, such as, “How can I love?”
“‘What do I do with these longings, and is there any way that they can lead me to God instead of away?’ And I think (Pope Francis’) responses actually do kind of get that that’s part of where people are coming from,” she said, “which is to me, huge.”