What’s Wrong With Pope Francis’ Same-Gender Blessings Support?

Today’s post is from Bondings 2.0 contributor Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D., professor emerita, Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Lisa’s previous posts on the blog are available here.

Pope Francis has voiced hopeful stances recently regarding the status of LGBTQ+ people in the Church. He must do more. 

Pope Francis

Among his hope-inspiring acts are these two. First, in a thoughtful response to questions thrown his way by five cardinals, he took up the question of blessing same-sex relationships. He reaffirmed the Church’s definition of marriage and warned against acts that “imply that it is recognizing as a marriage something that is not.” But, he said, “in dealing with people, we must not lose pastoral charity…the defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement.” 

The Pope then says that “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” He spoke of situations that are “not morally acceptable,” but may involve “people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors.” He said “pastoral prudence” might allow blessing people in such circumstances, though it should never be raised to the level of a diocesan norm. 

But here’s the problem. “Pastoral prudence” ducks the real question. In his response to the dubia (the Latin word for the questions asked by the five cardinals), Francis reaffirms the theology of marriage that excludes same-gender couples, implicitly affirming the magisterial sexual ethics that declares their intimate relationships to be sinful. Instead of confronting the theology that underlies Church teaching on sex, he portrays LGBTQ+ people as impaired or broken and unable to live up to that teaching. He seems not to be cognizant of a great deal of careful theological work over the last century or so that provides a more humane and scientifically sound approach to human sexuality than current magisterial teaching does. When Francis appeals to “pastoral prudence,” he makes a basic mistake: he leaves unchallenged a theology that justifies the ecclesial cruelty that still rules official magisterial teaching on sexuality. 

Then he makes it worse. When Francis explicitly forbids diocesan norms allowing blessings of same-gender couples, he leaves it up to individual priests to decide on their own to bless queer couples or not. Since the Pope refuses to endorse a renewed theology of sexuality (or even a plurality of licit stances on matters of sexual ethics) and prohibits episcopal policies to support blessings of same-gender couples, priests who choose to stand with queer couples are vulnerable to attack from the public (and other priests) and attacks and punishments from their own (or other) bishops. He invites priests to consider that it might be a good idea to bless same-gender couples, then makes it absolutely clear that he does not have their backs and disallows their bishops from standing with them openly, as a matter of diocesan policy. 

This “pastoral prudence” stance also would tend to push such blessings underground instead of being public. But isn’t a declaration that, with God’s help, two people pledge to care for each other forever worthy of public celebration? Reform of Church practice should not be accomplished by leaving individual priests in the crosshairs of homophobes armed with a tired, obsolete sexual ethics. 

Pope Francis with Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, along with New Ways Ministry staff members (from left) Matthew Myers, Francis DeBernardo, and Robert Shine

Francis’ second noteworthy act was to meet with Sr. Jeannine Gramick and three staff members of the New Ways Ministry in a cordial and affirming dialogue built on a longer correspondence. Such a meeting—at least such a meeting that didn’t culminate in papal censure, silencing or condemnation–will one day be seen as a watershed moment in the history of LGBTQ+ equality in the Church. Francis would do well to learn from their example. For decades, Sr. Gramick and New Ways Ministry have been clear where they stand, and what they stand for: the equal dignity of all of God’s people in life and in love. They have borne magisterial censure and the disdain of Catholic trolls with equanimity, faithfulness, and joy. Why can’t the Pope take a similar stand? 

The silence on issues relating to LGBTQ+ Catholics in the report from the Synod on Synodality, then, is no surprise. The Pope won’t take a stand himself, and forbids dioceses from establishing policies on blessing same-sex couples—why shouldn’t the Synod delegates also maintain a similar delicate silence hiding behind the hurtful and outdated status quo? 

Lisa Fullam, November 7, 2023

10 replies
  1. Sarah Rubin
    Sarah Rubin says:

    While I applaud your article questioning why Pope Francis did not make it possible for same-sex couples to be blessed, I have always asked why, since the church requires men and women to get married in the history of the church, how come our nuns and priest don’t get married because they could also bear children?

    Isn’t it ironic that they will take the narratives from Genesis yet? Ignore all of the proof and science of biology, especially when it comes to same-sex individuals and gender variant people. I am debating whether or not I should remain in the Catholic Church after coming back four years ago, because I am gender variant, and I don’t ever believe the church will ever support people like me or minister to people like me. Yes I have made some friends but still I have to stay under the radar so to speak in that way the diocese never gets a phone call complaining about me being involved in anything. Gays and Lesbians will have it much easier being in the church and serving while gender-variant people like me, who were kicked out previously, will get kicked out again. While is no secret that the church has many gay priest, and many lesbian nuns, which is not a problem to me, people like myself, will always be outcasts, and on the fringe of the church. While the church brags about how it does, social justice about many issues around the world, it creates its own injustice against people like me. Sad.

  2. Debra kowalczyk
    Debra kowalczyk says:

    Hi, this has been my thoughts since the beginning of the synod. If the basic outdated theology around sex does not change, it allows the belief that discrimination, hate and even violence are appropriate Christian responses. It gives this thought process even more power. This is a dangerous place to leave things. This article is absolutely correct.

  3. Anna
    Anna says:

    Thanks for your article. I feel very similarly. I was satisfied by the pope’s dubia response only in the schadenfreude I allowed myself to feel for those rude cardinals. We love Pope Francis, but again and again he seems to be all pastoralism and no theology. Does he expect every single Catholic priest to have the same inclination towards pastoralism as he does?

    I am continuously optimistic that the synod will result in something like a commission of theologians etc. to study the question from a theological standpoint, and come up with an actual answer.

  4. Thomas Deely
    Thomas Deely says:

    Very honest and corageous for “socking it to the Pope”…As an ally of LGTGQ persons ever since my very own gay brother and niece or nibling
    “socked it to me” for not “loving and accepting them” but instead harslly “judging” them. Well I am now remembering how all this began with that breath of hope when Pope Francis first said: “Who am I to judge?”…So I guess you’re right here. Pope Francis has, for the time being “ducked the question”…But we Redemptorist missionaries have recently been using the phrase “Missionaries of HOPE”…And so, in the years of earthly life that I may still have…I will continue to do that regarding what my gay brother used to call the “false teachings of the RC Church”…I HOPE that we will keep growing in wisdom, knowledge and mostly..UNDERSTANDING of all, I mean ALL alienations we have, albeit unwittingly supported

  5. Anthony Durante
    Anthony Durante says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fullam, for succinctly and clearly summarizing the second class status being assigned to all LGBTQ+ people in every “welcoming” statement of Pope Francis.
    I understand that he is desperately trying to maintain the unity of the Roman Catholic Church, but he is sadly doing so at the cost of continuing the marginalization of the many, many children of God who do not fit the far too narrow anthropology of magisterial teaching on gender and sexuality.

  6. Thomas William Bower
    Thomas William Bower says:

    The more I ponder the recent Vatican based statements about the lack of rights or love for same sex created individuals, the more I realize how nothing has changed since my chapter of Dignity Washington received a reply from now archbishop Lori of Baltimore, then secretary for archbishop Hickey of Washington, that there was no reason for there to be a meeting among the hierarchy and our group. Decades fly by, but hate stays unchanged. The wordsmithing is more polished, but unchanged.

  7. Elizabeth Berneking
    Elizabeth Berneking says:

    My heart aches for my gay son, cousin, grandson, my lesbian niece and all LGBTQ+ people who have been baptized in our Catholic Church and then rejected by our hierarchy and by many of our brothers and sisters for their “sins” because of the probable sin of passing judgment on them. Is it any wonder they look elsewhere for acceptance? I cling to my own faith with difficulty because of the Mass and the Eucharist, which I would be loath to live without.

  8. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    Bravo, LIsa,
    Jesus, in this past Sunday’s gospel was right on: Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” It seems applicable to what’s going on. How come when women take vows they can be called “brides of Christ”? That makes Christ the most notorious polygamist. And when men take vows – who’s the Groom/Bride? If the term “marriage” can be applied to the sisters/nuns why can’t it be used for other relations? “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/spirits admit impediments” said Shakespeare. Jesus still asked for a cup of water from that woman at the well, and didn’t prevent her from preaching his good news in town. He also prevented the throwing of stones at that one taken into adultery. The crowd of men lost her accomplice along the way, though SHE was caught in “flagrante delicto”. Was HE too quick on the getaway? Where are the present stone-throwers getting their rocks? “The Word became Flesh” – yet there’s still so many trying to take it away from us. Will only our souls resurrect? I’m surprised people aren’t advocating rewriting the Creed. Too much more to say. I’d say “enough for now” but it MUST be continued.
    Peace to ALL people of good will.

  9. JP
    JP says:

    The pope goes as far as he can without blowing up the Church. You need to watch Trad’s videos in YouTube (😳 omg) to learn how far behind (and angry with LGBTQ) they are.

    We LGBTQ+ people & allies are simply half a century ahead of the Church and its clergy’s curve. Don’t even think that the Church will give up its growth in Nigeria over the next few decades for a few LGBTQ+ people & allies in the West. They’re just trying to buy out time: at best, it will get to “do what you want in the (decaying) West while we secure growth in the upcoming global south”. Meanwhile, some western prelates may have the decency to try not to hurt the LGBTQ kids too badly. Or have enough “good” language to cover for whatever hurt will come.

    Once the global south comes up to speed in 50-100 years, the Church will change its doctrine, quoting the good works of New Ways Ministry and the Pope’s meeting with Sister Gramick to show that the Church was ‘always’ on the right side.

    Same as with Galileo / heliocentrism or Slavery or Evolution. Like for these topics, LGBTQ doctrine change may take a century or two, until it becomes absolutely evident. The process started in 1975 (Persona Humana, first use of the word ‘homosexual’ in a public Church document). God knows when it will be completed…

    Unlike heliocentrism or evolution, and very much like slavery, there are real, young people getting hurt here in the meantime. And there are allies who understand very well that hurt. The timeframe tolerated by western people may not be counted in decades at all. Hence, will the Church still even exist in the West in 50 years? And does the Vatican even care?

    At this point, I can only hope for a miracle from the Holy Spirit to change the RC Church. Based on Her patience for previous questions, I’m not super optimistic. Maybe it is for us to learn patience as well, do our best to shield the kids from the bad teaching, and be absolutely determined to stand up to clergy on this.

  10. Suzanne Bregman
    Suzanne Bregman says:

    Have moral theologians in concert reached out to Pope Francis on this matter? I understand the synthesis document emerging from this synod session calls for study of the sciences to be brought to bear on the Church’s understanding of sexual identity. That would be a major step forward. Though not a scientist, even I know that gender and genetics present in rich diversity in the natural world across species, including human beings. “And God saw that it was good!”
    Check out the most recent hopeful statement emerging from the Davenport (IA) diocese. (Full document at the diocesan website.)
    Lay input to the synodal process from around the world made clear that the faithful experience great inconsistency in pastoral praxis ranging from supportive care to outright condemnation. Inadequately trained, poorly formed, or rigidly dogmatic, judgmental clergy do damage to many, especially the most vulnerable. I’m not a moral theologian or Church historian either, but it seems to me that from its earliest days, the Church’s attitudes toward the body, sexuality, and women have been seriously problematic, no matter what one’s sexual identity may be. Social mores and philosophies were imported into Christianity that had nothing to do with Jesus and his teaching but became enshrined as dogma/spirituality. The Church of our day is still living with that legacy and a certain unhealthy obsession with sex and sexual sin.


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