Pope’s Shift on Gay Couples Followed Quiet Talks and Loud Resistance

— Pope Francis spoke with L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and their supporters for years before letting priests bless same-sex couples. But the move’s timing also owed something to its conservative opponents.

By Jason Horowitz

In March 2021, as stunned L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics grappled with a Vatican document approved by Pope Francis that ruled against blessing same-sex unions, one of his confidants, who is gay, says they spoke on the phone.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a sexual abuse survivor who had befriended the pope over years of conversations, says that Francis, who had just returned from Iraq, gave him the sense that the Vatican “machine” had gotten ahead of him in the ruling; it stated that God “cannot bless sin.”

But he says Francis “acknowledged that the buck stops with him. I got the impression that he wanted to fix it.”

For Mr. Cruz, who visited Francis for his 87th birthday over the weekend, and for many L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, Francis did just that this week. He signed off on a major declaration by the same Vatican office on church doctrine that had issued the negative ruling two years before.

The new rule allows priests to bless same-sex couples as long as the blessing is not connected to the ceremony of a same-sex union, to avoid confusion with the sacrament of marriage. While the declaration does not change church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” it is a concrete sign of acceptance for a portion of the faithful that the church has long castigated.

Juan Carlos Cruz, clean-shaven and with short dark hair, in a gray V-neck sweater and checked shirt.
Juan Carlos Cruz, a sexual abuse survivor from Chile who befriended the pope.

Now, as liberals celebrate and same-sex couples begin receiving public blessings, some are wondering why the pope delivered the groundbreaking rule now, more than a decade after he started his pontificate with a resoundingly inclusive message on gay issues. “Who am I to judge?” he famously said in 2013, when asked about a priest rumored to be gay.

People who have talked to him over the years and Vatican analysts say Francis’ thinking evolved through frequent private conversations with L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and the priests and nuns who minister to them.

It was a long process, filled with fits and starts, but also the result of a gradual reorganization of the church by Francis, including the recent appointment to top jobs of like-minded churchmen who were amenable to the changes. The death last year of his conservative predecessor freed the pope’s hand, experts say, but they also believe that the overreach of Vatican antagonists — who sought to box Francis in — played a part, backfiring spectacularly.

“Like anyone, he learns from listening,” said 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 need to better recognize these members of the church.

Speaking this week, Father Martin would not divulge the content of those meetings over recent years, though he noted they had become “longer and longer.” During the most recent conversation in October, around the time of a major church assembly, he said that Francis “encouraged me, as he always does, to focus on the individual, to focus on the person, to focus on the pastoral needs.” The new document, he said, “is very much in line with that, that approach.”

Father James Martin, with a hand upraised, blessing two men in an apartment.
Rev. James Martin, a prominent advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, gave a blessing this week after the church ruling.

Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based advocacy group for gay Catholics, said he also met with the pope in October and sensed a similar opening to a change. Among the others at the meeting, he said, was Sister Jeannine Gramick, an American nun who has ministered to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics for a half century and was censured by Francis’ predecessors. Mr. DeBernardo said they met with Francis for 50 minutes and talked about blessings.

“Out of the blue, he said, ‘You know, what gets me most upset are priests who chastise people in the confessional, who reprimand them,’” Mr. DeBernardo recalled. It is that instinct, to emphasize pastoral welcoming over “giving litmus tests for orthodoxy,” that he sees as key to the new document.

The Vatican and the office responsible for the declaration did not reply to requests for comment about specific meetings or the decision-making process behind the document.

In his decade as pope, Francis has filled L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics with hope. He made a point to congratulate Sister Gramick and encourage her work. He met with and ministered to transgender Catholics himself and counseled gay couples on the upbringing of their children. He said homosexuality should not be criminalized and supported civil unions. And he recently made it clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings.

But he also frequently confounded L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics with mixed messages, making it difficult to tell where Francis, for all his inclusive language, actually stood.

After the 2021 ruling against blessings, many of Francis’s liberal supporters note that he immediately sought to distance himself from it. They argue that it was rammed through without the pope’s understanding its full import or that he allowed it to go forward only under pressure from the doctrinal office, an explanation that top conservative cardinals mocked and that members of the office at the time said was simply not true.

Throughout, Francis kept talking to gay Catholics and their advocates, even as he had to weigh tensions on the left and the right that could affect the future of the church.

In Germany, where the church is liberal, priests have been blessing gay unions against Vatican orders, and bishops in Belgium have even published guidelines for blessings at same-sex ceremonies, something the new declaration prohibits. But in conservative African nations, where the church sees its future, opposition to gay rights and unions is fervent.

Already there have been some signs of revolt, with the conservative publication The Catholic Herald reporting that Archbishop Tomash Peta of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan, had sent a letter prohibiting his priests from performing blessings for same-sex couples, calling the declaration a “great deception.”

Two men standing on front of a priest outside a Gothic cathedral.
Same-sex couples participating in a public blessing ceremony in front of Cologne Cathedral in September. In Germany, where the church is liberal, priests have been blessing gay unions against Vatican orders.

But as Francis has aged, and ailed, he seems to be in more of a hurry to finish remaking his church.

In January last year, he fired the doctrine office’s No. 2 official, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who was widely considered responsible for the 2021 document, sending him to a small Italian town. (Archbishop Morandi did not return a request for comment.) In July, the pope then reorganized the office, appointing a close adviser and fellow Argentine, Víctor Manuel Fernández, as its chief.

“Finally after 10 years of pontificate, Francis was able to appoint a cardinal that responds to his vision of the church,” said Mr. Politi.

Sandro Magister, another longtime Vatican expert who thinks that Francis’ unilateral decisions are undercutting his professed belief in a church governed by consensus, agreed that Cardinal Fernández was key, as was the death of the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.

“After Benedict died, Francis has started to dare,” he said. Had Benedict remained alive, he added, Francis would never have made Cardinal Fernández watchdog of the church’s doctrine, a position Benedict held for more than 20 years.

Early in his tenure, Cardinal Fernández, loathed by conservatives, indicated that the question of gay blessings was likely to be examined again. It didn’t take long for conservatives to test him, and Francis.

Víctor Manuel Fernández leading Mass as an archbishop.
Francis appointed a close adviser and fellow Argentine, Víctor Manuel Fernández, to lead the church’s doctrine office.

Over the summer, Cardinal Raymond Burke — an American and the de facto leader of the opposition to the pope — and other conservatives sent a letter to Francis asking for a definitive answer on the blessings. The 2021 document seemed to give them a precedent, and an advantage.

Then they made their demand for clarification public just before a major October assembly of bishops and laypeople that was expected to tackle such sensitive topics. It seemed like a clear warning shot to Francis and his doctrine office.

Cardinal Fernández responded by publishing Francis’ private response. While the pope 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, a seeming reversal of the “cannot bless sin” ruling.

Francis seemed to have opened the door a crack. Then, this week, Cardinal Fernández burst through it.

In his introduction to the new rule, he cited the pope’s response to Cardinal Burke as a critical factor in the ruling. It provided, he wrote, “important clarifications for this reflection and represents a decisive element.”

In other words, the conservatives kept pushing for an answer, and they got one.

“Let us remain vigilant,” Pope Francis said Thursday in his traditional Christmas greetings to members of the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, “against rigid ideological positions that often, under the guise of good intentions, separate us from reality and prevent us from moving forward.”

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