Pope Francis has once again sparked immense controversy with his widely perceived liberalizing policies and ambiguity related to hotly contested moral issues, this time angering conservative Catholics by appearing to soften the Vatican's longtime ban on blessing gay couples, as a Wall Street Journal headline revealed this week.
The shift has unleashed a significant degree of confusion within the Roman Catholic world, with some leading conservative clerics and pundits accusing Francis of paving the way for eventual full 'recognition' of same-sex unions.
"Pope Francis softened the Vatican’s ban on blessing same-sex couples, saying that priests may use their discretion in giving such blessings, so long as they don’t imply a same-sex union is equivalent to a heterosexual marriage," the WSJ wrote Monday.
"The pope’s statement, in a letter released by the Vatican on Monday, marks a significant shift in the Catholic Church’s stance on blessing gay relationships. Its release comes on the eve of a major Vatican meeting that will consider possible changes to church teaching and practice on matters such as homosexuality and women’s ordination." The letter was actually written in July in response to questions privately posed by a group of prominent Cardinals, but has only been revealed this week.
Pope Francis suggested that priests or bishops may possibly bless same-sex couples (which some are interpreting as akin to Catholic recognition of a 'civil union') based on "pastoral prudence" and in "certain circumstances". According to the text:
But he said that priests, acting out of pastoral charity and not as “judges who only deny, reject, exclude,” should aim to discern “whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey a misconception of marriage.” He added that such pastoral charity should apply even in situations “that from an objective point of view are not morally acceptable.”
The pope suggested that such blessings should remain an unofficial practice, writing that such exercises of “pastoral prudence in certain circumstances need not be transformed into a norm.”
So for now the pope has articulated that any such "blessing" of same-sex couples should not be interpreted as the equivalent of church-recognized marriage; however, the ambiguity of the language, and fact that it is now being construed as an unprecedented reversal of prior Vatican moral teaching and practice, has outraged the more traditional wing of the Catholic Church which tends to see these subtle shifts articulating 'openness' as the proverbial camel's nose under the tent for major changes and compromise to come.
For example, the prominent American Catholic conservative publication Church Militant has sounded the alarm over the looming change, reporting that multiple doctrines are set to be overturned or at least are "open" to further "study", including the prohibition against women priests...
POPE FRANCIS OPENS DOOR TO BLESSING SAME-SEX UNIONS — Pontiff allows study on women's ordination, validity of Anglican orders— Church Militant (@Church_Militant) October 3, 2023
Confirmed in newly-published Vatican Papal response to the July dubia https://t.co/kU1vhsJBns
The Catholic publication noted that a ban on same-sex blessings was formally reaffirmed as recently as 2021 under his own pontificate: "In what could be a historic watershed, some believe Pope Francis has opened the door to blessing the union of homosexual couples in the Roman Catholic Church, which calls into question a ban on same-sex blessings issued by his own doctrinal watchdog in 2021," the report says.
Controversy had already been raging for years due in large part to the liberal German Catholic bishops. They have bucked official Vatican teaching and have instead been practicing blessings of same-sex couples. Conservative bishops and priests have meanwhile sought clarification from Rome on the issue. But instead of definitively halting or cracking down on the practice, Pope Francis' letter has introduced new confusion, and could actually be positively encouraging it.
One commentator on religious affairs has noted in wake of the news, "We have learned through secular experience that the first move is to allow for something but give it a different name, then give it parity, then define it as equally valid or the same thing, then finally make speaking against it illegal."
And in an similar vein, a prominent Catholic author and commentator Taylor Marshall called it "weaponized ambiguity". He explores the issue further in the below:
Did Pope Francis just approve Same-Sex Blessings? https://t.co/vhG8gNiDGt— Dr Taylor Marshall™️ (@TaylorRMarshall) October 3, 2023