In move that would signal a seismic shift for the Catholic church, Pope Francis said he’s open to blessing same-sex unions and to studying the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.
The comments came in an eight-page letter Francis penned on Sept. 25 — and released by the Vatican on Monday — in response to five cardinals who had written to the pope expressing concern about a number of issues that will be discussed at a meeting of bishops set to start Wednesday at the Vatican.
“Pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” Francis wrote.
Pope Francis has voiced support for civil laws extending legal benefits to gay couples, while Catholic priests in Germany have been blessing same-sex unions in recent years.
Pope Francis did offer up a defense of the church’s centuries-old teaching that marriage is a “indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation” — but emphasized that the church not “lose pastoral charity” and not turn into an institution that “become judges who only deny, reject, exclude.”
Francis’ letter is a departure from a March 2021 decree issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith forbidding priests from blessing same-sex unions since God “cannot bless sin.”
This time, however, the pope made clear that any type of blessing should not be confused with equating gay marriage with the traditional kind.
“When you ask for a blessing,” he wrote, “you are expressing a request for help from God, a prayer to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us live better.”
New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, was pleased with the pope’s letter.
“The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry. “Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
In the same letter, the pontiff also addressed the cardinals’ question regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood could be open to further study.
The pope’s response was to a set of questions — formally known as a dubia — specifically referencing gay blessings, women’s ordination to priesthood, synodality, divine revelation and the nature of forgiveness.
The five prelates who had submitted the questions — German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, Chinese Cardinal Zen Ze-Kiun, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íniguez and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah — did so ahead of the Synod on Synodality, part of a three-year process by which the concerns of Catholics will be discussed.
As for ordaining women, Pope Francis referenced Pope John Paul II’s declaration in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis issued in 1994 that the church had “no authority” to make females part of the curia.
“It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be accepted by everyone,” Francis wrote. “No one can contradict it publicly and yet it can be an object of study, as in the case of the validity of the ordinations in the Anglican communion.”
The papal bombshell comes just says after Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Vatican’s new chief of doctrine, said that “those who expect big changes” to come out of this month’s synod would be “disappointed.”
The Argentine prelate — speaking on Saturday in an interview with ACI Prensa, Catholic News Agency’s Spanish-language partner, left the door open to such changes happening at a later date.
“People who are afraid of strange or misplaced doctrinal advances, and people who, on the other hand, expect great changes, are going to be really disappointed,” he said.
The Synod on Synodality, he added, “is not conceived in this vein.”
In 2019, Pope Francis, who has expressed progressive positions on an array of social and cultural issues since assuming the papacy a decade ago, said he was not afraid of a schism within the church, even as criticism from conservative clerics about his leadership mounted.
“I pray that there will not be schisms, but I am not afraid,” he said.
More recently, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez, who recently took up the position as head of the Vatican’s chief doctrinal office, signaled an openness to theological debates — but also warned of schism.
The 61-year-old theologian criticized bishops — both “progressive” and those from “traditionalist groups” — who he said think they have a “special gift of the Holy Spirit to judge the doctrine of the Holy Father,” warning that are on a road to “heresy” and “schism.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
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