Pope has blessed.

— What about Church?

For the LGBTQ+ community, the Pope’s inclusive tone may come as a Christmas blessing, but with caveats and mixed reactions, its impact on everyday life remains uncertain, given the restrictions on gay rights in many countries.

By Stanley Carvalho

The recent approval by Pope Francis allowing priests to bless unmarried and same-sex couples appears to mark a significant change of stance for the Catholic Church. It aligns with his longstanding viewpoint since his election as Pope. The latest declaration is likely to be interpreted in different ways, with some reading much into it.

For the LGBTQ+ community, the Pope’s inclusive tone may come as a Christmas blessing, but with caveats and mixed reactions, its impact on everyday life remains uncertain, given the restrictions on gay rights in many countries.

The Vatican document made public on December 18 allows Roman Catholic priests to administer blessings to same-sex couples, provided they are not part of regular Church rituals or liturgies nor given in contexts related to civil unions or weddings.

The document referred to “the possibility of blessings for 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.”

It noted that priests should decide on a case-to-case basis and should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing. This effectively means authorising priests to offer non-sacramental blessings to same-sex couples, and the blessings should in no way resemble a wedding, which the Church teaches can only happen between a man and a woman.

It must be pointed out that the Vatican holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman and has long opposed same-sex marriage. The Pope’s ruling is seen widely as a landmark one, a historic shift in the Church’s thinking, but it is not quite the case; it is more like old wine in a new bottle!

Since his election as head of the Catholic Church in 2013, Pope Francis has adopted a conciliatory tone towards the LGBTQ+ community, much to the dismay of conservatives, both the clergy and the laity.

In his early days as Pope, when asked about gay priests, his response was, “Who am I to judge?”.

In the 2020 documentary film Francesco, the Pope called for civil union laws for same-sex couples. It was perhaps his clearest and most emphatic statement on the issue. But in 2021, the Pope, shockingly, approved a Vatican document that ruled against blessing same-sex unions. That negative ruling is now overturned.

Moreover, the latest ruling is, in some ways, a recognition of what has been going on in some European parishes for years, where same-sex couples receive blessings in open worship services, as testified by some priests.

However, Pope Francis’s ruling to document his approval marks a step forward that sends out a message of tolerance and inclusivity to places where LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against or even criminalised for entering into relationships.

In fact, Catholic bishops in certain countries support laws that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people and criminalise same-sex relationships, something the Pope himself acknowledged earlier this year, saying that such bishops need a process of conversion.
Commenting on the ruling on X (formerly Twitter), Fr. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest who administers to
the LGBTQ+ community, termed the document “a major step forward.”

The document, he said, “recognises the deep desire in many Catholic same-sex couples for God’s presence in their loving relationships. Along with many priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex unions.”

While there will be challenges in several countries that oppose same-sex relationships, the bigger challenge could be within the Catholic church and community itself. The conservatives are likely to see the Pope’s ruling as conflicting with the traditional church doctrine that is opposed to “sinful relationships.”

Ulrich Lehner, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, denounced the Vatican declaration as the most unfortunate public announcement in decades.

“Its imprecise language invites misunderstanding and will sow confusion. Moreover, some bishops will use it as a pretext to do what the document explicitly forbids, especially since the Vatican has not stopped them before. It is—and I hate to say it—an invitation to schism,” he said in a statement widely publicised.

It would be naïve to think that the Pope’s declaration will not be interpreted in different ways in the coming days. There is bound to be some misunderstanding and confusion, as Professor Lehner noted. The subject is likely to generate much discussion across the world.

However, regardless of the reactions and interpretations, what rings out loud is Pope Francis’s consistent stance on extending a larger welcome to LGBTQ+ and same-sex people. Only this time the emphasis is on blessing, the distinction between a simple pastoral blessing and a liturgical blessing, and the many contexts in which they occur.

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