In the weeks since Pope Francis approved a rule allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, some bishops in conservative corners of the church, such as Africa, have said they wouldn’t allow priests to perform the practice, which they believe contradicts church doctrine.
On Thursday, the Vatican said in a statement that any bishops opposed to the rule should take an “extended period of pastoral reflection” to wrap their heads around why the Vatican says it is in keeping with church teaching.
The Vatican also said that while “local culture” should be taken into account when it came to applying the declaration, bishops could not — in “a total or definitive denial” — forbid priests who want to bestow the blessings from doing so.
Bishops who oppose the rule, the Vatican said, should not misconstrue it as a Vatican effort to “approve nor justify” relationships considered sinful, and should understand that it does not undercut church teaching against same-sex marriage, because informal blessings are not formal rites.
In one specific area, though, the Vatican suggested that applying the rule, and blessing same-sex couples, might be a dangerous idea.
The Vatican noted that in some countries where homosexuality is criminalized — laws that Francis has previously spoken out against — a bishop should prevent priests from outing same-sex couples through blessings.
“If there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself as a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent,” the Vatican said.
Thursday’s statement on December’s “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings” was issued by the church’s highest-ranking doctrinal official, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who also said that the rule must be understood as a way for pastors to be closer, and more helpful, to their congregants.
After the rule was issued in December, Zambia’s bishops conference said same-sex couple blessings were “not for implementation in Zambia.” The bishops conference of Malawi refused to permit “blessings of any kind” for “same-sex unions of any kind.”
Thursday’s statement seemed designed not to alienate those bishops, while at the same time making clear that the rule was nevertheless the church’s path. It also sought to head off critiques from some conservative prelates that the declaration eroded church doctrine.
That was impossible, the Vatican argued, because the declaration did not concern church teaching, and so it could not be considered “heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous.” Instead it “is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality” and plainly states that “the Church does not have the power to impart” blessings on same-sex unions.
The Vatican also accepted that the rule’s application may take more time depending on “local contexts.” It notes that in some places — such as Western Europe or the United States, where blessings of same-sex couples have already been celebrated — the declaration could be applied immediately. “In others it will be necessary not to introduce” the rule to allow more time for it to be read and interpreted, the statement said.
That did not mean it could be ignored, however.
As long as the declaration “signed and approved by the supreme pontiff himself” is respected and bishops make an effort “to accommodate the reflection contained in it,” they could decide that priests perform the blessings only in private. Bishops, after all, the Vatican noted, are trusted to know their flocks best.
The Vatican recognized that some bishops reject the blessings, “for the moment,” but added that “we all need to grow equally in the conviction that: nonritualized blessings are not a consecration of the person nor of the couple who receives them, they are not a justification of all their actions, and they are not an endorsement of the life that they lead.”
What they are, the Vatican says, is a way, without litmus tests or inquiries about people’s private lives, for pastors to be closer to the faithful.
As in the original declaration, the Vatican argued in its statement that an embrace of “spontaneous or pastoral” blessing, more in keeping with popular faith, and clearly separate from liturgy and ritual, is the true innovation. In short, the rule intends for on-the-fly blessings to flourish.
Some liberal churches in Belgium had previously adopted liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples, something the Vatican again made clear is now forbidden, because a liturgical format could be confused with a sacrament such as marriage.
The Vatican emphasized repeatedly that the blessings were not an acceptance of a situation it considers sinful.
“Obviously it is not a marriage, but equally it is not an ‘approval’ or ratification of anything either,” the Vatican wrote.
To avoid any confusion or conflation with blessing a union, the Vatican added that “the blessing must not take place in a prominent place within a sacred building,” such as an altar.
The Vatican gave an example of a short blessing and added: “We are talking about something that lasts about 10 or 15 seconds. Does it make sense to deny these kinds of blessings to these two people who ask for them? Is it not more appropriate to support their faith?”
Francis clearly thinks it is and is making it clear this will be the way forward — even if the blessings are not adopted everywhere immediately.
“We will all have to become accustomed to accepting the fact that, if a priest gives this type of simple blessings, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything nor is he denying Catholic doctrine,” the Vatican said. And that is true, it added, “even if they are great sinners.”