The Vatican on Monday approved blessings for same-sex couples, a hugely contested issue in the Catholic Church, as long as they are not in contexts related to civil unions or weddings.
In a document approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican backed “the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations (including unmarried couples or divorcees) and for couples of the same sex”.
“One should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing,” it said.
But the document, published by the Vatican’s faith department, does not change the Catholic Church’s stance on same-sex marriages or unions.
It reiterates the long-held position that marriage is between only a man and a woman, for the purpose of having children — and says no blessings should be given that confuse the issue.
“This blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them,” the document said.
But it is the first time the Vatican has opened the way so clearly to the blessing of same-sex couples, which has been a source of tension within the Church.
A blessing, generally carried out by a priest, consists of invoking God’s benevolence on a person.
Conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, are strongly opposed to blessing same-sex couples.
But in some places, such as Belgium and Germany, priests have already been doing it, including in church.
James Martin, a US Jesuit priest and well-known advocate for LGBTQ believers, said the document was a “major step forward in the church’s ministry to LGBTQ people”.
He said it was also a “marked shift” from a 2021 decision in which the Vatican said the Church did not have the power to bless same-sex unions because God could not “bless sin”.
The Vatican’s announcement, known as a declaration, was published six weeks after the end of a global meeting on the Church’s future, which debated social issues such as opening doors to LGBTQ people or divorced and remarried people.
In early October, five conservative cardinals publicly asked Pope Francis to reaffirm Catholic doctrine on same-sex couples, but the hot-button issue was not addressed in the meeting’s final text.
The head of the Vatican’s faith department wrote in an introduction to the document that it was “a broadening and enrichment” of the Vatican’s stance on blessings.
The text, entitled “Fiducia Supplicans — On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings”, was “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis“, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez wrote.
The Argentine pontiff, 87, has sought to make the Church more welcoming to those it has long considered “sinners”, even if they cannot fully participate in it.
Just weeks after taking office in March 2013, Francis notably said that “if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”
Monday’s document says: “To avoid any form of confusion or scandal”, blessings for same-sex couples cannot be “performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding”.
“Such a blessing may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage,” it said.