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‘Beware of reading too much too quickly’ into same-sex blessings document, say global bishops

(OSV News) -- While several Western European bishops praised the Dec. 18 declaration of the Vatican's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on blessing same-sex couples as "a major breakthrough in pastoral care," reactions elsewhere have been mixed, with African bishops offering explainers for "confused" faithful or banning same-sex blessings.

And Ukraine's Catholic bishops warned of "ambiguous wording" and criticized the document for lacking a call to "sinners to conversion."

The declaration "Fiducia Supplicans" ("Supplicating Trust") -- subtitled "On the pastoral meaning of blessings" -- says a Catholic priest can bless a same-sex or other unmarried couple as long as it is not a formal liturgical blessing and does not give the impression that the Catholic Church is blessing the union as if it were a marriage.

The bishops of Malawi, Zambia and Kazakhstan were the first to draw a red line by banning blessings of homosexual couples in their regions. These "directly and seriously contradict divine revelation and the uninterrupted, 2,000-year-old teaching and practice of the Catholic Church," the bishops of Kazakhstan's capital Astana said in a pastoral letter.

The Malawian bishops' conference also banned the blessing of same-sex partnerships "in order to avoid confusion among the faithful." It added that in any case, the Vatican document did not explicitly refer to such couples but merely to blessings for individuals "regardless of their relationship status."

"While we understand the legitimate interest and fears this Declaration has generated," the conference said, "we wish to assure all Catholics and all those interested in Catholic teaching that the teaching of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church on Marriage remains … 'an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.'"

The Zambian bishops' conference issued a similar statement saying that the Vatican declaration will not be implemented by the Catholic Church in the country.

In Kenya, the bishops said that "certain aspects" of the Vatican document were "causing anxiety and even confusion" among "Christians and in general the people of God," with many "wondering" whether by this letter, the Catholic Church was "endorsing and approving" same-sex marriages or changing the church's understanding of marriage.

"This declaration does not in any way approve of same-sex marriages nor try to give a back door recognition of such unions," Kenyan bishops wrote. "It does not seek an alternative union blessing to substitute sacramental marriage," said the bishops in a statement Dec. 20, signed by Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa, president of the Kenyan bishops' conference.

"What this document seeks is to awaken the invitation of all people to God's action and grace. The church seeks to reach out to all individuals in order to stir them to the path of conversion and salvation," the statement said.

The bishops said that "in our African context," while recognizing the "confusion existing in the more developed countries" of new "unchristian models of conjugal unions and styles of life" -- "we are very clear what a family and marriage is."

"The social situation of same-sex marriages does not find acceptance in our culture," said the statement.

In Western Europe, the declaration has been mainly warmly welcomed.

In Germany, several bishops including the president of the bishops' conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, hailed the Vatican declaration as an important progress and "a major breakthrough in pastoral care."

Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers of Dresden-Meissen said he was "very happy and very surprised" at the decision. "This has never happened before in the history of the church, this milestone that the pope is now making possible here," he told German public broadcaster ARD Dec. 19.

The bishop said that the church was "a little bit guilty" that "we have not only brought people together through our moral teaching but have also marginalized people."

Archbishop Hervé Giraud of Sens-Auxerre in the French Burgundy region, who is a moral theologian, told OSV News that "we all have homosexuals in our families, even the most Catholic families, who are seeking to be close to the church" and said his "main concern regarding this new document, as a pastor, will be to ensure that the content is clearly understood."

He emphasized that the document was "signed by Pope Francis himself," therefore is "a document of the ordinary magisterium, but one that is clearly of considerable importance."

"As Benedict XVI has said, faith and reason must go hand in hand, and when faced with this text, we must take the time to understand it properly and make it understood, with intelligence, beyond the rapidity of the media effect it generates, which can lead to confusion," he said, pointing out the document itself says that "the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex" should not "be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage."

"It is very important to note this distinction," the French archbishop said, adding that "Pope Francis is trying to move away from the simple 'forbidden-permit' approach and place people under God's watchful eye."

"The pope is talking about a blessing of growth, a blessing that wants to encourage, move forward, sometimes rectify if something needs to be rectified," Archbishop Giraud told OSV News.

While "God does not reject those who approach him" and there is "no question here of a blessing ritual," the document "leaves a great deal of responsibility to each priest, who alone can know the reality of the situation of the people who approach him," the archbishop said.

"So beware of reading too much too quickly: The pope is not saying that everything is equal. He is not going to recognize a homosexual marriage. That is not what he is saying. What he is trying to do is to follow the example of Jesus, who goes as far as possible to meet everyone, whatever their situation, to help them get back on their feet and move forward. It is a beautiful idea that needs to be explained with pedagogy and precision," Archbishop Giraud said.

In Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, who is primate of all Ireland, welcomed the fact that the document is "very clear that there is no change to the perennial teaching of the church on marriage as between a man and a woman."

"At a practical level as a priest, I welcome the clarity in this document. The pope is very clear that these pastoral blessings are not a kind of a liturgical or ritual acknowledgment that these unions are equivalent or in any way analogous to the marriage between a man or a woman," he told OSV News.

"At the same time, it shows that the issues and the hurts experienced by people identifying as LGBT+ have certainly been heard very loudly within the church. I do hope that people who may have felt excluded in the past, will see this as some step towards them with the love and mercy of Christ," Archbishop Martin said.

He stressed there had been some confusion in the media treatment of the declaration, suggesting that the church is now blessing same-sex marriage. "The church is not and that is absolutely clear in this declaration," he continued.

"Some priests and laypeople may feel that this is going to cause confusion: Is this the church recognizing civil marriage or same sex marriage as equivalent to sacramental marriage between a man and a woman? The document is crystal clear that that is not the case," Archbishop Martin said.

Emphasizing that with the document, Pope Francis is trying "to get the balance of the teacher and the shepherd," he added that "all of us priests and bishops have a responsibility to uphold the teachings of the church as handed down to us, as rooted in the gospel and in tradition, that all sexual activity finds its proper and natural place within the setting of a sacramental marriage for those in the Catholic Church. Therein lies the teaching role of the pope who is setting out the clarity of the Church's teaching on marriage."

"At the same time, the pope is very much exercising his pastoral role in accompanying people," Archbishop Martin told OSV News. "One of the great gifts of the priesthood is being able to offer people a blessing. These informal, pastoral, but beautiful moments, where you are able to bless someone where they are at, is something we do every day as a priest."

"This particular declaration makes somebody like me or any priest a little bit more comfortable that they can do this without feeling, 'Am I contradicting the teaching of the church?' So, there is a clarity here, which I think will help pastors on the ground," he noted.

Mexican bishops' urged "priests and pastoral agents and the faithful in general not to generate confusion or distort the pastoral meaning of what Pope Francis requests, that is: a welcoming attitude, closeness and discernment towards those who request a blessing, guiding them with gentleness, firmness, and clarity on their path to fulfill God's will in their lives."

The Mexican bishops' conference statement said Dec. 19 that "informal blessings, not liturgically ritualized, can be imparted in countless situations of different human realities, as a sign of our praise and gratitude to God and as an openness to his grace and mercy."

Clergy in Latin America said the Vatican's changes created some confusion for people, but emphasized church teachings on marriage remain unchanged.

"The church considers marriage to be between a man and a woman, everything else could be another kind of relationship, but it is not marriage. The church blesses the individuals and here there is confusion," Bishop Carlos Briceño Arch of Veracruz, Mexico, told a Dec. 19 press conference.

"It's not that the church is deciding to bless the unions of same-sex persons, it's blessing the individual persons. There is a lot of confusion in the media on this issue. It is one thing is blessing all people and another thing is marriage," the bishop said.

Father Eduardo Hayen Cuarón, seminary director in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, said the blessings might inadvertently signal approval, even if that is not the intention.

"We must avoid any gesture that shows that God approves of these unions, and pray for conversion for people who live that way," he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"Blessing irregular or same-sex couples can cause confusion in the faithful, or can serve as an incentive for these couples to continue living in sin. That is what priests must avoid at all costs," he added.

"I will limit myself to praying for them so that they can shape their lives according to divine designs," he said.

Ukraine's bishops took a similar if not harsher approach to the document.

"While the entire document makes it clear that there is no 'permission' or 'blessing' for homosexual cohabitation or any life of sin, nor any change in the church's traditional teaching on marriage, the notion of blessing same-sex couples, or sacramentally unregulated couples, can be perceived as legalizing these relationships," the Roman Catholic bishops' of Ukraine said in a Dec. 19 statement.

While the "document seeks to emphasize the boundless love of God for all people, sinners included, and in this regard to show that the Church does not reject these people," the Ukrainian bishops said, they also warned of "ambiguous wording" that "causes divergent interpretations among the faithful."

"What we missed in the document is that the Gospel calls sinners to conversion, and without a call to leave the sinful life of homosexual couples," the blessing may look like an approval of such, the bishops said.

Bishop Pavlo Koncharuk and Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporozhzhia furtherly warn in a Dec. 20 statement that "the blessing of a same-sex couple is the beginning of the acceptance of this form of relationship."

"We see a great danger of introducing such wording as the beginning of steps that will gradually allow further legalization. There can be no wording "blessing of a same-sex couple" because these concepts are mutually exclusive," they said.

(Contributing to this story were David Agren, Caroline de Sury, Paulina Guzik, Sarah MacDonald, Fredrick Nzwili and the German Catholic news agency KNA.)