Yesterday, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released a responsum ad dubia, or document answering questions, signed by Pope Francis. The document affirms that transgender people, including those who have undergone a medical transition, can be baptized as Catholics, as well as serve as godparents and witnesses to marriage. However, it takes a more negative approach to people in same-gender relationships serving as godparents.
The responsum answered questions posed by Brazilian Bishop José Negri of Santo Amaro about LGBTQ+ people’s participation in the Sacraments. The document in Italian is available here. For more coverage, see the National Catholic Reporter.
The following is a statement from Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, about the Vatican’s new guidance:
The Vatican’s affirmation that transgender people should be welcomed in the church’s sacramental life signals Pope Francis’ desire for a pastorally-focused approach to LGBTQ+ issues is taking hold.
This affirmation, itself a reversal of a previous Vatican decision, contrasts strikingly against the restrictions some U.S. bishops have imposed on LGBTQ+ people in recent years. Additionally, though the document appears to caution that people in same-gender relationships may not be suitable godparents, the new decision’s emphasis that “pastoral prudence” be used on a case-by-case basis opens the possibilities for married gay people to serve in such roles.
In a note signed by Pope Francis, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith affirms that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents, and be witnesses at Catholic weddings. This development confirms that the pope and high-ranking church leaders do not perceive gender identity as a de facto barrier for participating in Catholic sacraments. The doctrinal note is a 180-degree reversal of a 2015 decision by the same dicastery that prevented a transgender man in Spain from serving as a godparent, despite the local bishop’s support for the man’s involvement.
Significantly, not only does this doctrinal note, known as a responsum ad dubia, remove barriers to transgender people’s participation, it proves that the Catholic Church can—and does—change its mind about certain practices and policies.
The doctrinal note also reveals that the church must continue to do more for LGBTQ+ equality. We applaud that statements about transgender Catholics are generally positive, and that the Vatican affirms that children of same-gender couples can and should be baptized. Yet, possibly barring someone in a public and committed relationship to serve as a godparent shows that the Vatican remains bound by a narrow definition of marriage used as a litmus test for Catholics’ participation in the church.
If church leaders do not employ pastoral prudence with this guideline, it could be used by other officials to establish other policies which would exclude such people from other areas of church life. We have already seen how church institutions have fired many of their employees simply because they sought legal protections for their families through getting married by the state. Focusing particularly on the ineligibility of people in “stable, marriage-like relations” who are “well known by the community” suggests that the DDF remains more concerned about “causing scandal” than about integrating LGBTQ+ Catholics in the lives of the church and of their families. We hope that church leaders will apply these guidelines by following Pope Francis’ example of extravagant welcome, rather than using them to continue old restrictions.
The Vatican’s more positive approach to transgender and nonbinary people as participants in the sacraments contrasts with, and even contradicts, some U.S. bishops’ approach. In recent years, several dozen dioceses have issued policies with restrictions for LGBTQ+ Catholics, including prohibiting transgender people from being baptized or serving as godparents. Such policies must now be reconsidered, and likely rescinded, given that Pope Francis and the Vatican are leading the church on a different path.
The Synod on Synodality’s first General Assembly this past October produced a document that seemingly ignored LGBTQ+ issues, despite the desire for greater inclusion being a dominant theme in the preceding two years of consultations. The Vatican’s new intervention about godparents and marriage witnesses indicates that Pope Francis and other high-ranking church leaders will keep advancing LGBTQ+ equality in the church, even if the synodal process takes more time to do so.
Welcoming transgender people more fully to the Sacraments is a good step; that welcome needs to be expanded even more now, including to Catholics in same-gender marriages who want to support their family members and friends in the practice of their faith.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 9, 2023