Catholic priests can now officially bless same-sex couples and others in marriages not recognized by the Church, per a new communique from the Vatican’s top doctrine office. The 45-point message was issued Monday morning and signed by Pope Francis.
The document, entitled “Fiducia supplicans,” is the first new declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) since the year 2000 and maintains that the Church’s teachings on marriage, divorce, and sexuality have not changed.
“This Declaration remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion,” wrote dicastery head Cardinal Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández in a preface.
“The value of this document, however, is that it offers a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings, which is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.”
The document’s various points, integrating the Scriptures and covering themes ranging from the meaning of marriage to the purpose of Catholic blessings, move in dialogue with Pope Francis’ recent responses to conservative cardinals on a set of hot-button moral questions (“dubia”). The replies, which included comments on same-sex blessings and remarriage after divorce, were published in the form of a letter issued by the DDF this fall.
“Pope Francis’ recent response to the second of the five questions posed by two Cardinals offers an opportunity to explore this issue further, especially in its pastoral implication.” Fernandez wrote in this week’s declaration.
“In order to help us understand the value of a more pastoral approach to blessings, Pope Francis urges us to contemplate, with an attitude of faith and fatherly mercy, the fact that ‘when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better.’”
Thought by many to be a Church-sponsored endorsement of the activities of a given couple, the rite of Catholic blessings is, in the new declaration, described more along the lines of the pope’s longstanding campaign of mercy. Therein, the sacraments—and now sacramentals—are seen as assistance for the weak rather than a “reward of saints.”
The apparent shift from the DDF comes after many years of wrangling in Rome on the issue of same-sex blessings, including a 2021 “responsum”—of less weight than a declaration—stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Pope Francis has also recently chided German clerics, including bishops, who went ahead of the Vatican to essentially greenlight the practice of blessing gay unions and those of divorced and remarried Catholics.
This week’s document explicitly supersedes the note of two years ago but reiterates that, even though Catholic priests can perform such blessings, it does not constitute an endorsement of a couple's actual union or sexual activities. Further, the dicastery distinguishes between blessings connected to a liturgical rite (such as marriage) and those more akin to a spontaneous prayer request.
“Since the Church has always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit, the Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice,” it states.
“One must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone, for it would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments.”
Reiterating Pope Francis’ words in response to the dubia earlier this year, the new declaration emphasizes that each case of Catholic same-sex blessings and those for divorced and remarried Catholics must be based on “pastoral prudence” and “should not necessarily become a norm.”
The declaration also forbids that such blessings be offered in connection with a civil union ceremony or any outward indications (such as “clothing, gestures, or words”) that could evoke images of a marriage rite or other form of wedding.
As for the development of the new practice, the dicastery says no firm ritual should be established and “no further responses” from the dicastery should be expected, as the declaration is said to be “sufficient to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard.”
“In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.