Americans woke up Monday morning to the news that the Vatican office in charge of preserving Catholic tradition had issued a decree, in the Pope's name, banning priests and bishops from blessing same sex couples.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—who later became Pope Benedict XVI—is the department in charge of preserving Catholic doctrine and teachings.
“The Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex,” the decree says.
Rev. James Martin, S.J., a renowned LGBT advocate inside the Catholic Church and now a communications specialist for the Pope, clarified that the decree is in most likely a response to what is happening in the Church in Germany, in particular.
German bishops and priests will be gathering for a synod—a conference to determine Church policy—and there is a group among them with a growing voice in favor of blessing same sex couples even if they can't officially get married.
Popularly known as “Father Jim,” Martin says there was what is called a dubium, or question, posed officially by a bishop in Germany. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had to respond with an official answer. The decree is merely an answer to that dubium.
“In the West, a few priests have done [same sex] blessings, sometimes at receptions after [a civil] union was legalized, or privately with the couple,” Father Martin explained in a statement. “Sometimes a Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated for the couple and the couples' families after the civil union was performed.”
The decree is basically an official opinion from the Congregation (like that of a judicial opinion in the American judiciary) that, though rare, such blessings need to stop.
Father Martin, the author of several pro-LGBT Catholic books went on to say, “The church is called to continue to reach out to LGBT people with 'respect, compassion and sensitivity,' as detailed in the Catechism, imitating Jesus's reaching out to all those who feel in any way marginalized.”
Seen as opposing Pope Francis' seemingly slow move toward changing Church attitudes regarding how to treat LGBT persons who want to live their lives in the Catholic tradition, many LGBT Catholics felt betrayed by the news.
Other advocates inside the Church have signaled the Pope approved the language after being pressured by Vatican officials to firm up a message that supports doctrine—as society moves ever further toward full LGBT equality.
In the United States, the Equality Act sits in the U.S. Senate. If passed, the law would give federal protections for LGBT persons in all aspects of life—including nondiscrimination in religious-based public services and accommodations.
The papal department insists this pronouncement is not discrimination against LGBT persons but rather an affirmation of what the Church believes about marriage.
“The declaration of the unlawfulness of blessings of unions between persons of the same sex … is not intended to be, a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.”
The decree continues, “The Christian community and its Pastors are called to welcome with respect and sensitivity persons with homosexual inclinations, and will know how to find the most appropriate ways, consistent with Church teaching, to proclaim to them the Gospel in its fullness. At the same time, they should recognize the genuine nearness of the Church – which prays for them, accompanies them and shares their journey of Christian faith.”
Pope Francis said in an Italian documentary that he supports civil authorities to take care of same-sex civil unions, leaving the Church out of it. At the head of his pontificate, Pope Francis told reporters on a flight “Who am I to judge?” about a gay person.
Both times, Vatican officials backtracked the Pope's comments to conform to the Church's official stance that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered” and not as God intended human beings.
Recently, several bishops in the United States issued a letter in partnership with the Tyler Clementi Foundation calling on Catholic leaders to support LGBT youth. People like Father Martin are calling on more bishops and other religious communities to join in.
Father Martin has been a major voice for the Church's moderation toward full acceptance of LGBT people in the life of Catholicism. In 2018, he published Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Several bishops in the U.S. disinvited him from speaking at their venues, attacking his books as going against the teachings of the Church.
Despite the disinvitations, several more progressive bishops like Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, invited Father Martin to speak in the archdiocese about his LGBT book. Cupich is also a Pope Francis appointee.