A key point of contention in the debate over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) document last Monday that banned blessings for same-gender couples is what role Pope Francis played in its promulgation. A new report from America suggests the pope took a step on Sunday to distance himself from the document.
“[The three unnamed sources] noted that when commenting on the Gospel of the day, which recounts that some Greeks wanted ‘to see Jesus,’ Pope Francis said many people today also want to see, to meet and to know Jesus, and so ‘we Christians and our communities’ have ‘the great responsibility’ to make this possible by ‘the witness of a life that is given in service, a life that takes upon itself the style of God: closeness, compassion and tenderness.’
“Francis explained that this ‘means sowing seeds of love, not with fleeting words but through concrete, simple and courageous examples; not with theoretical condemnations but with gestures of love.’ He added that ‘then the Lord, with his grace, makes us bear fruit, even when the soil is dry due to misunderstandings, difficulty or persecution or claims of legalism or clerical moralism. This is barren soil. Precisely then, in trials and in solitude, while the seed is dying, that is the moment in which life blossoms, to bear ripe fruit in due time.’
“He said that ‘it is in this intertwining of death and life that we can experience the joy and true fruitfulness of love, which always, I repeat, is given in God’s style: closeness, compassion, tenderness.'”
One of the senior Vatican sources commented that the “closeness, compassion, tenderness,” which Francis repeated, “are the true measure of the very magisterium [i.e., the teaching authority of the Church] when it enlightens consciences and guides the faithful.” He added, “Every ‘responsum’ [i.e., official magisterial answer] and the doctrine in which it is couched should rise to that measure.”
O’Connell reported that these sources suggested the pope might further respond to the Vatican ban in the future, although no details were given as to how or when. This America report follows a previous one that reported the CDF document may have been slipped by Francis as he prepared for his visit to Iraq.
Conservative critics of Pope Francis, who has been the church’s most LGBTQ-friendly pope, have supported the CDF document and point to the text’s claim that Francis “was informed and gave his assent” to the document. But Vatican observers noted this wording is irregular given that the language is normally about a pope approving a document.
Still, that technical evaluation has not stifled criticism. The National Catholic Reporter published an editorial suggesting the CDF document risks making Pope Francis a “hypocrite.” NCR highlighted the pope’s LGBTQ-positive actions, before commenting further:
“But we come to the point of absurdity — and hypocrisy — when a pope says he wants to welcome LGBT people into the church but then simply cannot countenance that they might want to pursue loving relationships, just like the rest of humanity. . .
“Where has that Pope Francis gone? Surely, as the world stumbles to emerge from the greatest health and economic crisis in a century, there are more urgent issues for the Vatican to focus on rather than how God does or doesn’t view gay unions.
“For Catholic LGBT couples and their families, the timing is especially unfortunate. The forced distancing imposed by the pandemic has cut many off from their usual support structures, including their parishes. And now the pope of ‘building bridges and not walls’ has erected another barrier.”
Elsewhere, Jobert E. Abueva, who is gay, wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer that the Vatican’s document, coupled with Pope Francis’ involvement, was the last straw into leaving the church. Patrick Reardon, a lifelong Catholic writing in The Chicago Tribune, took aim at the pope, too, suggesting Francis made more sense when he endorsed civil unions for same-gender couples. And lesbian Catholic Deirdre Pike wrote in Broadview that this pope who had done so much to break down barriers seemingly “said it was okay to release that sword of words to pierce our hearts.” She writes:
“Between the pain of the words themselves and the thought of Francis reading them and nodding, ‘yes, this is what people in same-sex relationships need to hear,’ I am sick, sad and sorry. . .Even if pastoral leaders do as the archbishop of Chicago has called for in light of the hate mail from the Vatican, it just might be too late.”
Jesuit Fr. James Martin told Reuters he fears this document may lead to many LGBTQ Catholics and those who love them to leave the church.
What role Pope Francis played in the Vatican’s responsum may never be clear, especially if we don’t get clear direct messages from him. Much of the church’s politicking goes on behind the scenes. In some sense, the pope is the world’s least powerful monarch, and this may be doubly true for Francis who has sought reforms in a Curia bureaucracy that has resisted him for eight years now. But it is also true that Francis has broken the mold for popes, making interview comments (think of his “Who am I to judge?” remark) and taking pastoral actions (like meeting with transgender Catholics) that overcome that resistance.
For those Catholics who remain, how the pope proceeds next matters greatly. What NCR’s executive editor, Heidi Schlumpf, writing for CNN, wrote before the latest America report emerged still remains true:
“While Pope Francis’ baby steps are appreciated, it’s time to take some giant steps. It is my fervent hope that the church will not only one day bless same-sex couples, but acknowledge the sacramentality of their marriages. The pope has the power to do so; he is the pope, after all.”
While it is perhaps quixotic at this point to hope for Pope Francis to acknowledge same-gender marriages as sacramentally valid, distancing himself in the Angelus address is a first step, but it is deficient if he doesn’t build on it in the future with more direct language. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document has created a pastoral crisis this past week, perhaps unlike anything experienced since 1986 when it issued its damaging letter on homosexuality that introduced the terms “objective disorder” and “intrinsically evil” into the discourse. The pope has the power to, and needs to, rescind the CDF responsum, allow the debate over same-gender blessings to continue, and apologize in deep humility for the pain this incident has caused to millions.
Thousands of Catholics are calling on the pope to do just that through New Ways Ministry’s statement, which is also a commitment by the faithful to bless same-gender couples. If you have not already added your name, you can do so here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 22, 2021
For all the previous posts concerning the Vatican’s ban on blessing same-gender couples, click here.
For a listing of Catholic leaders who have spoken positively about same-gender relationships and unions, click here.
For information about a Catholic blessing for a same-gender couple, click here.
For more information on how to be welcoming to married same-gender couples, click here.