The head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has now left the "window" open to the blessing of same-sex couples
Pope Francis has said there could be ways to bless gay people, responding to five conservative cardinals who challenged him to reaffirm the church's teaching on homosexuality ahead of a major meeting where LGBTI+ Catholics are on the agenda.
The Vatican on Monday released a letter Francis sent to the cardinals on July 11 after receiving a list of five questions, or dubia, from them a day earlier. In it, Francis suggests that such blessings could be studied if they do not confuse the blessing with sacramental marriage.
New Ways Ministry, which supports LGBTQ+ Catholics, said the letter "significantly advances" efforts to welcome LGBTQ+ Catholics into the church and represents "a big straw to break the camel's back" in their marginalization.
The Vatican maintains that marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. As a result, he has long opposed gay marriage. But Francis has voiced his support for civil laws that extend legal benefits to same-sex spouses, and Catholic priests in parts of Europe are blessing same-sex unions without Vatican censure.
Francis' response to the cardinals, however, marks a reversal from the Vatican's current official position. In an explanatory note in 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the church could not bless same-sex unions because "God cannot bless sin."
In his new letter, Francis reiterated that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But in response to the cardinals' question about same-sex unions and blessings, he said "pastoral charity" requires patience and understanding and priests cannot become judges "who only deny, reject and exclude".
"For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a false conception of marriage," he wrote. "Because when a blessing is asked, it expresses a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us live better."
He said there were situations objectively "not morally acceptable," but the same "pastoral charity" required treating people as sinners who might not be fully responsible for their situation.
Francis added that dioceses or bishops' conferences are not needed to turn such pastoral charity into fixed rules or protocols, saying the issue could be addressed on a case-by-case basis "because the life of the church runs in channels beyond the rules."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, welcomed the Pope's openness.
"The allowance of pastors to bless same-sex couples means that the church does recognize that holy love can exist between same-sex couples, and the love of those couples reflects the love of God," DeBernardo said. "These recognitions, while not quite what LGBTI+ Catholics would like, are a huge step towards fuller and more complete equality."
The five cardinals, all conservative prelates from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, had in their letter challenged Francis to affirm the church's teaching on homosexuals, the ordination of women, the authority of the Pope and other issues .
They released the material two days before the start of a major three-week Vatican session in which LGBTI+ Catholics and their place in the church are on the agenda.
The signatories were some of Francis's staunchest critics, all retired from the most dogmatic generation of cardinals appointed by St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
The Vatican's doctrinal office published its response to them a few hours later, though it did so without his introduction, in which he urged the cardinals not to fear the synod.