Blessings instead are better imparted, the Vatican says, during a meeting with a priest, a visit to a shrine, during a pilgrimage or as a prayer recited in a group.
The new rule was issued in a declaration, a rare and important Vatican document, by the church’s office on doctrine and introduced by its head, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who said that the declaration did not amend “the traditional doctrine of the church about marriage,” because it allowed no liturgical rite that could be confused with the sacrament of marriage.
“It is precisely in this context,” Cardinal Fernández wrote, “that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”
In his introduction to the declaration, which was signed and approved by Pope Francis, Cardinal Fernández nevertheless acknowledged that broadening the scope of who could receive blessings amounted to “a real development” and a “specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” He said the decision was “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.”
In recent decades, many Christian denominations have decided to allow blessings and marriages of same-sex couples, and to ordain openly gay clergy. But debates over the issue have led to conservative breakaways in Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and other churches. The Roman Catholic Church has long been seen as among the least likely to change its stance.
But Francis, who turned 87 on Sunday, has in recent weeks sought to jump-start discussion on the most sensitive topics in his church even as he has cracked down on his most incessant conservative critics.
The new declaration is something akin to an executive order outside the more deliberative process he has favored, and it shows that he has come to see the issue of blessing for same-sex couples in terms of his vision of a more pastoral, and less rigid, church.
“The request for a blessing,” the declaration states, “expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live. It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered.”
Supporters of a church more welcoming to same-sex couples agreed.
“This new declaration opens the door to nonliturgical blessings for same-sex couples, something that had been previously off-limits for bishops, priests and deacons,” said the Rev. James Martin, a prominent advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, who has met frequently with Francis, a fellow Jesuit, and talked to him about the church’s need to better recognize L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics. “Along with many priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex unions.”
There has been a burst of activity on the L.G.B.T.Q. issue in recent months from the office of the Doctrine of the Faith, run by Cardinal Fernández. It comes after many advocates for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics were deeply frustrated by a lack of progress, or even recognition, during a major October meeting of bishops and lay people that will be repeated next year and could potentially lead to major changes in the church.
On October 31, Francis approved another document by Cardinal Fernández’s department, making clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings, furthering his vision of a more inclusive church.
Earlier in October, the Vatican released Francis’ private response over the summer to doubts from conservative cardinals about the possibility of blessing same-sex couples, a practice they absolutely opposed. Francis instead suggested the blessings were a possibility, seemingly reversing a 2021 Vatican ruling that came down hard against the blessing of gay unions, arguing that God “cannot bless sin.”
While the pope then also clearly upheld the church position that marriage could exist only between a man and a woman, he said that priests should exercise “pastoral charity” when it came to requests for blessings. But Francis also made clear that he did not want the delivering of a blessing to a same-sex couple by an ordained minister to become a simple protocol, as had been the case in parts of the liberal German church that support same-sex blessings. He has urged priests to be open to “channels beyond norms.”
Indeed, the heart of the new declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” is a resistance to a rigid church, one that excludes people from blessings because they fail doctrinal or moral litmus tests, but also one that turns blessings — including to same-sex couples — into another suffocating formality. Francis wants most of all a spontaneity and closeness to the faithful that he sees as vital to the church’s survival.
The blessing “should not become a liturgical or semiliturgical act, similar to a sacrament,” the declaration states. “Indeed, such a ritualization would constitute a serious impoverishment because it would subject a gesture of great value in popular piety to excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives.”
It also does not want the blessings to be seen as a substitute for the marriage sacrament for same-sex couples or other couples in “irregular situations.”
Conservatives from Africa, where bishops are highly skeptical of the church’s opening to L.G.B.T.Q. people, to North America, where much of the opposition to Pope Francis is financed, expressed reservations.
“After today’s statement,” John Oballa, the bishop of Ngong Diocese in Kenya, southwest of the capital, Nairobi, said in an interview Monday, “we are sure many questions will be coming from the congregation” about what all this means. “They will like to know how far this goes, what implications it will have and what it portends for the future.”
LifeSite News, a conservative outlet based in North America, wrote Monday that the document was issued “in contradiction to the unchangeable Catholic teaching that the church cannot bless sinful relationships.”
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has a large conservative contingent, accepted the new rule, noting that it marked a distinction between sacramental blessings like marriage and a pastoral blessing for people seeing “God’s loving grace in their lives.”
“The church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, and this declaration affirms that, while also making an effort to accompany people through the imparting of pastoral blessings,” said Chieko Noguchi, the conference’s spokesperson.
The rules amounted to a clear opening toward L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and away from the Vatican’s previous guidance.
The declaration notes that the prior judgment from the Vatican, in 2021, stressed that the church did not have the power to bless human relationships that failed to conform with “God’s designs,” including sexual relations outside marriage and same-sex unions that presumed “to be a marriage.”
But the new Vatican declaration argued that this was an overly narrow view of blessings, which are intended to evoke God’s presence in all facets of life, and can be bestowed on people, objects of worship, places of work, ships and much else. It makes the case that blessings are a “a pastoral resource to be valued rather than a risk or a problem.”
In a secular era when the church is often on the defensive, the Vatican apparently did not want to deprive itself of one of its most effective tools for connecting with a popular piety that Francis sees as critical for the church’s future.
By restricting blessings, the new declaration states, “there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites,” and “overshadow” its intention to express God’s love.
It adds: “Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.”
The issue of blessing same-sex couples has exploded in recent years, especially in Germany, where priests have regularly offered blessings despite resistance from the Vatican.
“It cannot be overstated how significant the Vatican’s new declaration is,” Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for gay Catholics, said in a statement. He welcomed the pope’s decision not to make blessings subject to a moral litmus test, what he called a step “to overturn the harsh policing of pastoral care” by his predecessors. “This declaration is proof that church teaching can —and does — change.”
Francis, who has received official expressions of doubt on his teaching on the issue from conservative critics, but who is also under constant pressure from liberals in Germany who want a more formalized approach to blessing same-sex unions, seemed to be done with the issue.
“Thus, beyond the guidance provided above,” the declaration states, “no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type.”
© 2023 The New York Times Company