Not since Thomas doubted the resurrection of Jesus (John 20) has a Catholic dubium caused a stir like the recent Vatican response to its own question about blessing same sex couples. As in the ‘doubting Thomas’ case, history will not look fondly on contemporary doubters, including Pope Francis who “was informed and gave his assent” to the March 15, 2021 document that set off a firestorm.
The Vatican’s ban on same-sex blessings was hardly a surprise to those who keep an eye on all things Roman, as I try to do in this space. What amazes are the many and varied ways some Catholics try to explain and excuse a statement that is perfectly consistent with current institutional church teaching. The welcome surprise is the strength and breadth of the negative reaction. This chapter of church history is not yet a wrap. Stay tuned: straw breaks camel’s back.
Conservative Catholics have every right to claim that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the statement, represents their anti-LGBTQ+ views. It’s hard to take the harsh but clear one-word answer, “Negative,” to the question of such blessings and make it something positive. Some try, unsuccessfully.
I begin, however, with the myriad positive replies which have come from around the world—from the Philippines and Malta to Argentina and New Zealand. If this were a Vatican trial balloon to gauge support for excluding same-sex loving people, it lost air on liftoff and crashed immediately. There are many casualties, especially young people who are taught such nonsense in Catholic schools. Some African Catholics report that their well-being is in jeopardy because of the statement. To dignify this teaching with responses will save lives.
Among my favorite responses is a letter from Italian parents of LGBTQ+ children who met with Francis in September 2020. They gave him their book entitled Lucky Parents: The Testimonies of Christian Parents Struggling with the Discovery of Homosexual Children. In words that surely echoed through the empty Vatican halls this Lent, they wrote: “If Mother Church does not have the ‘power’ to bless this love, we as parents, who are called to listen and support our children, can bless them today and always and we are ready to find a ‘sacramental’ to do so.”
Another wonderful reply came from an Irish priest, Brian D’Arcy, who put it well on an RTE radio show: “If I can bless a submarine going to war, I can bless same sex couples.” While many Catholics, myself included, recoil at blessing anything related to war, the man makes a good point.
The Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland minced no words: “The ACP believes that the CDF document is unfortunate and unwise, both in content and in timing. It is also contradictory. The content is negative, and condemnatory.”
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a women’s religious order in the US, offered a welcome statement: “We stand with those who are marginalized and we are saddened by the effects the Vatican’s latest pronouncement has on the LGBTQ+ community…When one of us is marginalized the entire human family is diminished.”
The Institute Leadership Team of the Sister of Mercy was equally strong: “…we are disheartened to read the recent declaration from the Vatican refusing to allow the blessing of same-sex loving people in committed relationships. We know and love many of these couples as family, friends, and companions in ministry. As Christians, we share one another’s joys, and in this case, sorrows.”
Thousands of Catholics from more than forty countries have signed statements supporting such blessings. Some clergy and laity pledge to bless couples, engaging in ecclesial disobedience that Rome might notice. Priests and bishops in many countries, notably Germany, Belgium, and Austria, have voiced their support for LGBTQ+ people against what former Irish president Mary McAleese called a decision that is “gratuitously cruel in the extreme.”
Theologians in large numbers have expressed their disdain. Protestant pastors have stepped forth and welcomed same-sex couples to their churches, offering blessings. I bet many would offer legal marriage as well, hardly poaching adherents from a tradition that seems happy to see us go.
One million German-speaking Catholic women from five organizations signaled their view that same-sex couples be eligible for church blessings. New Ways Ministry reports almost every day on a new group stepping forward, most recently the Association of Catholic Gay Pastors in the Netherlands. The mere existence of such a group and their clear statement that they will ignore the Vatican’s pronouncement is a harbinger of things to come.
All of this in a month’s time during a global pandemic.
Meanwhile, on Planet Rome, where revenues have dropped so profoundly that the cardinals received a pay cut, the rumor mill is working overtime. There’s every indication that the Vatican is in turmoil over this. Some unnamed sources suggested that the timing of the Responsum was because the documentary “Francesco” was about to be released in digital form. In the film, the eponymous star seemed to approve of same-sex civil unions. However, in my view, the pope’s support for civil unions in his native Argentina was an unsuccessful ploy to prevent same-sex marriages from becoming legal in his native country.
I’m fascinated by the would-be progressive Catholics who try to have it every which way, maintaining a touchstone to orthodoxy while also trying to be on the right side of history on this one: an impossible task. I will not name names because my point is not to call out people. I claim that certain kinds of arguments, despite good intentions, are really not helpful.
One such approach advanced by a papal sympathizer is that the document is really a wonderful step forward insofar as the Vatican is newly saying nice things about queer people but just will not bless them. That analysis is like a patient coming out of their annual physical reporting that the doctor said their height and weight are great, but they have a terminal condition and will be dead in a week. It misses the point that however wonderful queer Catholics might be, their relationships are not worth blessing. This is insulting no matter how you slice it.
Other papal defenders float the still unproven claim that Pope Francis, poor dear, was ambushed by some bad boys at the CDF. He really didn’t want to approve the document, but the bullies forced him. Since when do popes not have the final say? What about the good grace to accept responsibility for mistakes they make?
A slightly more stylized version of this defense is that Francis was so busy getting ready for his trip to Iraq that he couldn’t read the page-and-a-half document, so he approved it on the fly. I travel a lot, so I know the rigors of packing. I imagine him looking for that favorite pair of black socks just when the CDF rep stops by his room with the document and a pen. He’s so fixated on finding a mate for the one black sock that in a fit of distraction he says yes. The sock did it.
Another pitiful effort to blunt the sharp end of the CDF sword was offered by a would-be defender of queer Catholics who delivered himself of a discourse on the need for queer Catholics to follow Jesus who was scorned, beaten, and finally killed. As one commentator pointed out, at least Jesus had some choice about suffering, unlike LGBTQ+ Catholics upon whom suffering is foisted by the Church. Such pernicious advice, made worse when offered to queer people who are already put upon, is a breathtakingly awful excuse for pastoral care.
Still another response from a lawyer went this way: the document says the Church cannot bless same-sex relationships, but surely each member of the couple could be blessed individually. My response is an abbreviated, “What?” Try that with heterosexual people—just bless the bride then bless the groom but don’t mention the marriage. I doubt that would fly in a church near you!
It is stunning the lengths to which his defenders go to offer ludicrous excuses for the fact that yes, Virginia, Pope Francis really did approve this “gratuitously cruel” statement which is doing a lot of harm. I would love to be wrong on this because it has lowered Francis’ standing on other issues like ecology, war, and economics. Of course he could step forward and issue a clarification. But that’s not much of a Vatican custom—at least within the same century as making a colossal mistake. Great harm is already done.
So far, the big take-away from this uproar is the bald fact that blessings are happening all over the map, with or without clergy participation. As lay people step forward and assume their rightful place as ministers, the Vatican is discovering, to its chagrin, that it is increasingly irrelevant in the lives of increasingly more people. DignityUSA, the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, and other groups are filling the void in a new Catholic world.
The end of the original Thomas story is that when he finally had a chance to meet Jesus himself, Thomas made clear that he had been wrong. One hopes other doubters will take a lesson.