Beware the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar went to his reward in 44 BCE. This was the day that the “Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex” was unleashed for public consumption. In the time it took Brutus to plunge his sword, what today one would call a New York minute, the statement has been rejected widely.
The agency was answering its own “Doubt” about whether the institutional Roman Catholic Church could—really the question is should—bless same-sex partnerships. The “Response” was a clear, clipped “Negative.”
The Responsum, dated February 22, 2021, was signed by Luis F. Cardinal Ladria the Prefect, and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the Secretary of the CDF with the explicit approval of Pope Francis, of whom many hoped for better. The rest of the short document was an Explanatory Note, footnotes to other Vatican documents, and a Commentary as if somehow no did not mean no.
The backstory: Some German bishops, among others, have been in conversation about such blessing ceremonies. They knew that marriage was off the table, but they also knew that Catholics wanted some acknowledgement of the goodness of same-sex love and would go elsewhere if they couldn’t get it at home. Market share is always a factor in these matters, not to take anything away from the Germans’ good will.
Georg Bätzing, president of the Bishops’ Conference in Germany, understated that there are “no easy answers” on these questions, noting that the document reflects current official teaching. True enough. What it does not reflect is current practice.
In Catholicism, practice always comes first, then often a heavy-handed condemnation, then documents trickle out that confirm what is already the case. Of course this can take decades, even centuries, but that is the usual order of things. This little theological tidbit might actually foreshadow something.
Catholics in many parts of the world already bless same-sex unions. That genie left the bottle some years ago. Now that the Vatican has hoisted its flag, they may regret not staying quiet. I foresee story after story of good Father So-and-So who blessed Bob and Bill, Olivia y Cristina, Jacques et Georges. More common are the stories not of priests, many of whom remain too timid to bless themselves, but of lay people, indeed whole communities that gather to affirm the goodness of couples who love.
Some of those celebrations are actually weddings, the Sacrament of Marriage, which is alluded to with trepidation in the document. Beware—same-sex blessing ceremonies would “constitute a certain imitation or analogue to the nuptial blessing.” True enough, they do not imitate the Sacraments of Orders (Ordination) nor Penance (Confession) for goodness sake. Committed love is committed love.
The Vatican statement is focused narrowly on blessing ceremonies, what it categorizes as ‘a sacramental,’ not a sacrament. The difference, spelled out awkwardly in the document, is that sacramentals point to the sacrament, so these too have to be nixed for same-sex couples. If a same-sex union were to be blessed—that is, prayed for and with, heaven forfend—it might occur to the people blessed that they were somehow, however remotely, like heterosexual people who marry. They might even get the notion that they could marry! So in this stroke of theological genius, the Vatican is foreclosing that option before it even arises by stopping the sacramental, the blessing, ahead of the sacrament, the marriage. Alas, it is too late.
Earth to Rome: lots of communities are already celebrating both same-sex blessings and same-sex weddings, indeed even calling them Catholic marriages, naming them as sacraments because they are. According to contemporary Catholic definitions, a sacrament is an occasion when a community lifts an everyday human experience to public expression because it is holy. For example, a baby does not ‘become’ Christian through the Sacrament of Baptism. The fact of their being part of a Christian community is highlighted in the baptismal ceremony (i.e., sacrament) for everyone to affirm and embrace.
Likewise, with ordination. Magic words spoken by a bishop do not a priest make. The ordinand’s demonstrated commitment to ministry is recognized and affirmed in the Sacrament of Ordination. That is why in Catholic teaching, the ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage are the people who make a covenant with one another, not the priest who is a witness along with the rest of the community called church. As was true in the civil arena, it is a short step from heterosexual marriage to same-sex marriage in religion.
So the Vatican’s ethical contortions in this document are all the more pitiful. It claims that the church can bless “individual persons with homosexual inclinations” who live according to the Church’s teachings, i.e., a celibate existence. But should such persons find love, happiness, companionship, energy to create family and spark community, should it occur to such persons and their loved ones that their lives are healthy, good, natural, holy, and worthy of celebration and encouragement, the answer, to quote this dubious document, is “Negative.” Happily, the Roman Catholic institutional Church is only a small and shrinking part of a much broader Catholic community that has more common sense and ethical savvy. Catholic people are far more generous in their thinking and blessing than many Vatican officials.
Meanwhile, it’s heartening to know that on the strength of this document, people, including some priests and deacons, are jumping out of the woodwork to offer their pastoral services to bless same-sex couples. Thanks to the media coverage of this “doubt,” ministerial resources offered by groups like DignityUSA, New Ways Ministry, and the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics are getting broader attention. Some other Christian denominations around the world are making clear that they will bless Catholics whether the Catholic Church does or not.
My guess is that there may be some good queer people in the Vatican at work on this. They know that when the institution publishes such an egregious statement that claims that God “does not and cannot bless sin,” despite the many and varied same-sex couples who live exemplary lives, there is bound to be hearty rejection, a lack of reception as it’s called theologically. Like the ban on birth control before it, that which is not received lays the groundwork for future normative Catholic practice. So shall it be for Catholic same-sex unions, marriages, weddings, even divorces. The Vatican doth doubt too much.