Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 9, 2023 / 06:19 am (CNA).
Comments from Pope Francis released by the Vatican last week about the possibility of blessing same-sex unions sparked debate among Church leaders.
In response to a dubia, or formal request for clarity, sent by five cardinals about the Church’s stance on blessing homosexual unions, among other topics, the pope told them “we must not lose … pastoral charity” and that “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons” that would not “transmit a mistaken conception of marriage.”
The pope rejected the concept of homosexual marriage and said dioceses and other Church structures should not establish official “rites or procedures” for such blessings, but he kept open the possibility of some sort of blessing subject to the pastoral prudence of a priest.
Here is a timeline of how this controversy has unfolded:
December 2019: German Synodal Way begins
German bishops initiate a gathering, called the “German Synodal Way,” designed to address a number of controversial issues, including the possibility of blessing same-sex unions.
March 2021: Vatican formally rejects blessing homosexual unions
On March 15, 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejects the notion that the Church could bless homosexual unions. Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, then the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, issues the statement in response to a formal question about the issue.
To the question “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” the office responds “negative.” The accompanying explanatory note includes the line: “The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the audience granted to the undersigned secretary of this congregation, was informed and gave his assent to the publication of the above-mentioned Responsum ad dubium, with the annexed explanatory note.”
May 2021: German priests bless homosexual unions
On May 10, priests throughout Germany defy the Vatican’s rejection of blessing homosexual unions. In protest of the Vatican’s position, priests hold “blessing services for lovers,” which are open to homosexual and heterosexual couples. These “blessings” take place in about 80 cities, but it is unclear how many homosexual couples participate.
July 2022: Vatican criticizes German Synodal Way
The Vatican issues a warning to German bishops on July 21, stating that the German Synodal Way threatens the unity of the Church. The warning comes as the bishops are considering a number of controversial topics, which included the so-called blessing of homosexual unions.
“It would not be permissible to introduce new official structures or doctrines in dioceses before an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church, which would constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church,” the Vatican warns.
September 2022: Belgian bishops formally back blessings
On Sept. 20, the bishops of Flanders, the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, publish a liturgy for the celebration of homosexuals who are in a relationship.
The liturgy includes prayers, scripture reading, and parts in which the couple can “express before God how they are committed to one another.”
The bishops also announce that each diocese will appoint a person “to give explicit attention to the situation of homosexual persons, their parents and families in the conduct of policy.” They add that Pope Francis expressed the need for this type of accompaniment in his 2016 apostolic exhortation on the pastoral care of families, Amoris laetitia (‘The Joy of Love’).”
November 2022: Vatican urges German bishops to halt Synodal Way
The Vatican requests that the German bishops temporarily halt the German Synodal Way, which the bishops ultimately refuse to do.
March 2023: German Synodal Way backs homosexual blessings
The German Synodal Way approves a document that allows for the blessing of homosexual unions, titled “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other.” The vote passes overwhelmingly with only nine of 58 bishops opposing the document. Another 11 abstain from voting. If the other 11 had voted against the proposal, it would have failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority.
July 2023: New Vatican leader suggests blessings possible
On July 1, Pope Francis appoints Argentine Archbishop (now Cardinal) Víctor Manuel Fernández to head the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the first week of his new role, the archbishop suggests that some type of blessing of homosexual unions could be considered.
When asked if he agreed with the Vatican’s rejection of “blessing” homosexual unions in 2021, Archbishop Fernández responds, “Now, if a blessing is given in such a way that it does not cause that confusion, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed.”
He adds, “As you will see, there is a point where we leave a properly theological discussion and move on to a question that is rather prudential or disciplinary.”
July 10, 2023: Five cardinals submit dubia to Pope Francis
Five cardinals submit a formal set of questions, or dubia, to Pope Francis to express their concerns and seek clarification on points of doctrine and discipline ahead of the Oct. 4 opening of the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican.
One of the questions pertains to same-sex blessings. The cardinals — German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller; American Cardinal Raymond Burke; Hong Kong Cardinal Zen Ze-Kiun; Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah — point to the Church’s teaching based on divine revelation and Scripture that “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them and blessed them, that they might be fruitful” (Gen 1:27-28), and St. Paul’s teaching that to deny sexual difference is the consequence of the denial of the Creator (Rom 1:24-32). They then ask the pope if the Church can deviate from such teaching and accept “as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as same-sex unions, without betraying revealed doctrine?”
July 11, 2023: Pope Francis responds to the dubia
Pope Francis addresses the cardinals’ questions the day after the dubia is sent. Regarding same-sex blessings, he writes that the Church “avoids any rite or sacramental that may contradict” its conviction in marriage as “an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation.”
“However,” the pope continues, “in dealing with people, we must not lose pastoral charity,” explaining that “pastoral prudence must discern properly if there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken conception of marriage.” Citing his 2015 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pope adds that such blessings “do not necessarily have to become a norm.”
Aug. 21, 2023: The cardinals submit a revised dubia
The same cardinals send a revised dubia to Pope Francis, this time requesting “yes” and “no” answers to their questions. They later explain that they took this step because pope’s responses “have not resolved the doubts we had raised, but have, if anything, deepened them.”
Oct. 2, 2023: The dubia and Pope Francis’ response are made public
The cardinals release their dubia to the news media, along with an accompanying statement to the faithful, but they do not publicly share the response they received from Pope Francis. Soon after, the Vatican releases the full text of the pope’s replies.