Both the Joy and the Uproar Over the Pope’s Blessings for LGBTQ Catholics are Small Potatoes Compared to this Age-Old Church Problem

Image of Pope Francis: Catholic Church England and Wales/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Roman Catholicism is in precarious shape when blessings are controversial. Just before Christmas, and on the heels of the Synoda gathering of bishops and some lay people to discuss church policyPope Francis issued an unexpected statement. Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings held the line on heterosexual-only marriages but included the possibility of blessing both same-sex couples and those heterosexuals who live in “irregular” situations like being divorced and remarried. While the blessings controversy is catching the press attention, papal power to make such decisions and impose them on the church is what’s really at stake. If the Synod gave the illusion that Roman Catholicism was becoming more inclusivedemocratic even, at least somedaythis announcement shattered it, even if some liked what the Pope had to say. 

Fiducia Supplicans is a Rorschach test for a deeply conflicted church. Some are delighted that same-sex people can finally receive a blessing from an ordained male priest. Others, including many African bishops (with the exception of the ones in North Africa) have rejected the directive out of hand as heretical. Fraught as all of this is, blessings are small potatoes compared with the challenges to papal authority by conservatives and the conundrum of papal fiats for progressives. 

The document begins, “The supplicating trust of the faithful People of God receives the gift of blessing that flows from the Heart of Christ through his Church.” The titles of such documents customarily hail from their first line. In this unfortunate case of opaque prose, the title conjures up poor souls on their knees begging for God-knows-what. One cause of some of the confusion over the document could be that it’s not written clearly. Covering up bad news, or beating around the bush to distract attention from the matter at hand does not invite transparent prose. The ‘humble entreaty’ introduction quickly sets one’s teeth on edge especially when the topic is whether and how to offer a simple blessing. It seems that something else is at stake. A good guess is that it’s power, especially the absolute papal power for which the Roman Catholic Church is well known.

Most of the document is dedicated to rehearsing the nature and scope of blessings. This content is bookended by sections on marriage blessings (for the good kids) and blessings for couples in “irregular situations and of couples of the same sex” (the bad kids). 

The long excursus into the finer points of blessings themselves seems aimed at distracting from the heart of the matter: only people in heterosexual couples (theoretically in monogamous, committed relationships) can enter into sacramental marriages. Everyone and everything else—parrots, ships, homes, airplanes, and airports—can receive a blessing. But LGBTIQ+ people cannot because their sexual expression is considered “intrinsically disordered” (Persona Humana: Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Sec. 8, par. 4).

So the new declaration on blessings is hardly a step forward in Catholicism where anti-LGBTQI+ animus is legend. 

Scholar Phyllis Zagano observed sagely that “the writer buried the lede,” since “only near its end does the document affirm that liturgical blessings of gay marriages and any rites in conjunction with a civil ceremony are not permitted.” The controversy over blessings must be about other things because the official teaching on same-sex love and on all marriages has not changed one bit. 

Catholic queer groups, including the progressive New Ways Ministry and DignityUSA, declared this a new moment, a step, however small, in the right direction. No one claimed it was a major shift in theology or practice. Some male ordained priests have been blessing same-sex couples (as well as divorced and remarried people) under the table for decades. Now they can do so without looking over their shoulders. In other words, they are now in sync with their employer, in no danger of reprimand. 

But in the process, it’s really the institutional church that’s shoring up lost power in that it is now ‘allowing’ what’s already going on. That approach is common in Catholicism, where theology often follows pastoral practice. But in this case the institution gives nothing by way of theological change, and takes everything by granting permission for what’s already happening. What it’s doing is recentering itself as the authority.

Nay-sayer bishops were quick to opine that this was Francis’ way of opening the door to all kinds of, to their mind, ‘illicit’ behavior. That is clearly not the case. The Declaration includes so many insulting caveats about the blessings—what a priest can wear (not vestments), how long the blessings are to be (short), and the circumstances in which they are conveyed (not in a liturgical setting)—that there’s no room for confusion about papal intention.

Regularizing such practices is more about internal church discipline than it is about seeing same-sex love as morally equivalent to heterosexual love. It is hardly headlines that priests are expected to conform with Vatican guidelines. Since some priests are blessing same-sex couples—famously in Germany whose economic prowess makes it a serious threat to Rome—the Declaration is an old Vatican face- and power-saving practice. 

What’s less clear is why the blesser of relationships that are not eligible for the Sacrament of Marriage needs to be an ordained cleric. After all, in traditional Catholic theology it’s the two (heterosexual) people who marry who are the ordinary ministers of the sacrament while the priest or deacon is simply an official witness. So why not follow that model here, encouraging people ineligible for the sacrament to bless one another and move right along? This is just one more clue that something else is going on here—namely, an awkward attempt to give the illusion of change and acceptance while keeping the major pillars and powers of the church solidly in place.

Blowback against the document occasioned a further clarification by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office in charge of such matters, on January 4, 2024. This move contradicted the clear statement in the original Declaration that “no further response should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type” (par. 41). The Declaration caught so many people off guard that the new and controversial Prefect of DDF, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández (whose earlier writings on kissing raised hackles among the scrupulous) issued the clarifying press release. 

The serious matters of queer people being in danger of arrest, imprisonment, and/or worse in many countries are important to lift up. But the Prefect doesn’t seem to appreciate that Catholic anti-queer theology is a major contributor to such laws and practices. The rest of the presser is a rehearsal of the restrictions on the blessings—e.g., they are to last “a few seconds”—and how they aren’t intended “to justify anything that is not morally acceptable” or be taken as a form of absolution for alleged sinful behavior like same-sex love. So why such an uproar over the incredibly shrinking blessings?

A major factor is the ongoing synodal process, the value of which is being litigated through the blessing controversy. The synodal process—which literally means walking together—began in local parishes and base groups, and trickled up (or something) to a continental and eventually global meeting which was held in Rome. Many conservative bishops in the US, for example, all but ignored it even though the Vatican touted it as the most important instance of church change since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The problem is that the Synod, for all of its language of inclusion and moving stories of personal exchanges in the Aula (where the in-person sessions were held in October 2023), set the parameters for the blessing blow-up

The final synod document didn’t even include the terminology ‘LGBTQ+,’ which had been used in its working document—much less anything else queer-related. That term of art was replaced, presumably under pressure from conservatives, with “people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage situation, identity, and sexuality.” (Synthesis Report, 16.h) Passing over LGBTIQ+ issues foreshadowed the blessing document, though few people realized it.

The sop to the Right was not to do anything new, like call people what they want to be called. They’re described by their alleged feelings not by common identity. At issue is not what people feel, but what the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s destructive teachings on same-sex love do. For instance, some teen suicides can be traced to them. 

Then, a few weeks later, out comes the blessings document as a sop to the Left. Conservatives felt blindsided. Progressives were all over the map, from praise that it’s a gift to scorn that it’s an insulting token. What the Pope giveth the Pope (this one or the next one) can taketh away. 

The dissonance created when the welcoming language and practice of synodality clash with the reality of papal fiat is unmistakable. I’ve long argued that the problem with the synodal process is that the pope still has final authority no matter what other people say. This Declaration is Exhibit A. 

The blessings are shrinking before our eyes. The text encourages priests to exercise “freedom and spontaneity” whereas the press release specifies blessings to be just a few seconds, like maybe at drive-by speed! Likewise, the text refers to “Blessings of Couples in Irregular Situations and of Couples of the Same Sex,” though in his late January comments, Pope Francis insists this is really about blessing individuals, not couples. Say what? He’s walking back what was a pretty small step in the first place. Theology is right up there with watching the law and sausage being made as a dirty business. 

The Pope’s biographer Austen Ivereigh admitted that times are tough for the Vatican as critics have emerged on all sides of the blessing controversy. Disagreement goes with the papal territory of course. Still, he bemoaned, “But what’s new is the lack of respect, the lack of deference to papal authority, which has become somehow permissible in this pontificate in a way I have never seen before.” He doesn’t suggest why, but I have a few ideas.

First, squaring a circle is tough work. Either there is collaboration and collegiality or there is not. You cannot waste people’s time and money creating documents, meeting up, and singing happy songs about synodality, and then in the final document not include the concerns of the people involved. For instance, despite a lid put on the event to keep it from the press, every leaked indication from the meeting is that LGBTIQ+ issues were among the most hotly contested. They merited nary a mention in the final report. So, to suddenly focus on same-sex blessings after the fact hardly seems synodal. Popes are not elected popularly and usually serve until they die. But some semblance of accountability, if not democracy, seems little to ask. 

Second, like it or not, in a world on the steroid known as social media and instantaneous reporting, only dictators and strongmen get away with top-down behavior. It’s no wonder that some African bishops and some European bishops are not on the same page given their distinct contexts. The postmodern questions are concerned with why anyone expects they would be and why they need to be, except to perpetuate the myth that the Vatican is God-ordained to run the entire Catholic Church from on high. No such luck in 2024, Synod or no Synod. What contemporary Catholics are learning is not how to obey dicta from on high, but how to live with differences. It’s no easy lift for those accustomed to making pronouncements and expecting people to snap to. And it doesn’t guarantee a progressive outcome by any means. But there is integrity in the effort to listen to many views and find ways forward that’s missing from the authoritarian model.

Third, Pope Francis, for all his pastoral intent, still holds all the cards. The way the blessing document was rolled out was dubious. A would-be synodal pope ruling by fiat does not make a pretty headline. No wonder the press focused on same-sex blessings despite the fact that the Declaration really represents the reinforcement of the power structure status quo.

The current papal way of operating tempts even well intended progressive people to act in disingenuous ways. It’s hard not to laud the Pope when he does something however tiny, like the blessings, which seems to be moving the Church in the right direction. But people making decisions together rather than having such imposed on them are, in the long run, far more important than any single progressive move. 

It’s hard to be morally consistent and have it both ways— applauding the Pope when he does “the right thing” but not wanting him to have power when he does “the wrong thing.” So, for pro-queer groups to praise the Pope on same-sex blessings seems only to reinforce papal authority rather than to shore up shared decision-making and the value of learning to live with differences in a very diverse world. These power issues and not same-sex blessings are what are clearly at stake in the Declaration. They will be harder to adjudicate than figuring out who gets a sprinkle of holy water. 

Precarity is a common human experience these days, as church officials are learning. But it’s immigrants, survivors of war, victims of torture, pregnant women, and others who are in really precarious positions. For them, energies to provide more certainty trump any of these seemingly in-church concerns like blessings. I pay attention to the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s contradictions because the precarity of my queer siblings throughout the world is proof that they are related. I hope that solving one issue might provide clues for solving others.