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Pope Francis kicks open the church door to gay couples — at last

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Pope Francis was the first Catholic leader to endorse same-sex unions (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The head of the global Catholic Church has effectively approved same-sex unions, as Alan Austin reports.

FORMER LEADER of the Jesuit Catholic order in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has been taking Roman Catholics worldwide on a rollicking ride. Now Pope Francis, the head of the world’s largest Christian denomination, has been striving to balance the powerful opposing forces on the issue of same-sex unions.

Last week, the Pope advanced the cause of those wanting gay couples treated the same as straights. This brings the vast global family into line with most other major Christian denominations. It is likely to hasten the end of the persecution of gay couples and individuals – often violent, sometimes deadly – which has bedevilled majority Catholic countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Papua New Guinea.

Church can no longer “reject and exclude”

Pope Francis went out of his way last week to press this issue forward by releasing previously private answers to questions on homosexuality raised by five conservative cardinals. He chose to do so on the eve of a major global synod which started last Wednesday in which this is likely to be a divisive topic.

The cardinals – the highest-ranking Catholic leaders in each country – wanted Pope Francis to affirm what they regard as absolute truth: that all same-sex unions are sinful and therefore prohibited.

He declined, saying:

The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject and exclude.

 

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. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is expressing a plea to God for help.

In other words, okay, you can keep the word “marriage” for man-woman unions. But we can no longer claim that is the only relationship acceptable to God.

The journey so far

Pope Francis gave hope to progressives at the outset of his papacy when he said in 2013 that “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

He went further in 2016 affirming that gay people “should not be discriminated against. They should be respected, accompanied pastorally... the Church should apologise to a gay person whom it has offended”.

In 2018, the Pope assured a gay Chilean man in a private conversation that God had given him his same-sex orientation, that he was cool with that, and so was God.

This was the clearest statement by any leading Catholic ever, so naturally made headlines in Russia, France, GermanyChinaIndonesiaBulgaria, TurkeyPeruChileColombia, Ecuador, Slovakia, the USA and elsewhere.

By this time, many Catholic dioceses in Europe were already blessing same-sex unions. In May 2020, Austrian theologian Ewald Volgger published the book The Benediction of Same-Sex Partnerships with liturgies for same-sex celebrations.

All these hopeful developments – from the progressive perspective – were dashed in March 2021 when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared bluntly that the Church could never bless gay unions because ‘God cannot bless sin’.

This dubium stated explicitly that:

‘It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships or partnerships, even stable ones, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage, as is the case with unions between persons of the same sex.’

That was intended to end the matter, but didn’t. The grassroots Parish Priests Initiative across Western Europe continued to defy the Vatican declaration.

The group said:

‘We members of the Parish Priests Initiative are deeply appalled by the new Roman decree that seeks to prohibit the blessing of same-sex loving couples. This is a relapse into times that we had hoped to have overcome with Pope Francis.’

The Pope has now effectively reversed that 2021 decree. Last week’s decision is unlikely to be overturned. His statement is clear, considered and not just an impromptu comment to a troubled pilgrim.

Importantly, it is consistent with the clear conclusion reached by all the sciences in recent decades that same-sex orientation is just as healthy, natural and God-given as heterosexual orientation. This revelation, along with better scriptural interpretation and historical research, underpins the theological shift.

Reactions far and wide

American Roman Catholic historian Kevin Elphick said:

‘I am genuinely heartened by the recent words of Pope Francis.’

Dr Elphick told IA:

‘I hope his stated rationale for such blessings helps to reframe the concerns expressed by his critics. The Church already has a clear history of blessing same-sex, paired partners which includes invoking a litany of paired saints as part of the recorded blessing.’

Executive director of Catholic LGBTQ+ advocacy group New Ways Ministry, Francis DeBernardo, said that while the response was not a ‘full-fledged, ringing endorsement’ of such blessings, it was welcome.

The Pope's words, he said, implied ‘that the church does indeed recognise that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God’.

Religious communities that now bless same-sex unions

Since we last updated this list in June 2019, it has grown substantially.

We can now add the Anglican Church in Wales, the Reformed Church in Austria, The Union of Protestant Churches of Alsace and Lorraine and the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany. Prayers for same-sex couples, but not full church blessings, have been agreed to in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Countries in which Roman Catholic parishes now celebrate gay unions include Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Bavaria and Belgium.

Once again, reform has been led by local communities. The hierarchy is now catching up.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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