Reporting the Pope Francis’ latest controversy, the BBC headline said, “Pope suggests Catholic Church could bless same-sex couples,” while Catholic media were more guarded with the Jesuit magazine America, a liberal publication, going with the more neutral “Same-sex blessings, women’s ordination and whether doctrine can change: What Pope Francis said to the ‘dubia’ cardinals.”
A “dubium” is a question. “Dubia” is the plural. Pope Francis has responded to five conservative cardinals asking him questions, one about whether the Catholic Church can hold blessings of same-sex marriages. The full text of the question and answer, in an interim translation by the Vatican News Agency, is below.
The question was quite simple – given the creation story and the teaching in Romans 1, can the Church go against Scripture?
The answer was complicated.
America summarized it this way: “Pope Francis responded to the cardinals’ question about same-sex marriage by affirming the Church’s teaching that marriage is an “exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to conceiving children,” adding that the Church avoids “rites and sacramentals” that could “imply that it is recognising as a marriage something that is not.”
“However, he added, ‘In dealing with people, we must not lose pastoral charity…the defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, encouragement.’ Because of this, the Pope said, the Church should discern ‘if there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a mistaken conception of marriage.’ He also indicated that such discernment might not result in formal rites or changes in rules, saying that some decisions that “can be a part of pastoral prudence, do not necessarily have to become a norm.”
To summarise the summary: No same-sex marriage ceremonies and no formal marriage-like blessing rites. But can we do some other form of blessing? Exactly what that could be is vague.
Or in the words of Al Mohler, a Southern Baptist leader: “The actual language used by Pope Francis says that this cannot be called marriage, because marriage is and can only be one thing according to the Roman Catholic Church, but he says it might be possible given the flexibility of Catholic moral teaching and Catholic dogma to come up with a way to bless same-sex unions in a way that will at least affirm those relationships.”
The Questions and Answers were released at the same time as the start of a key session of the “Synod on Synodality”, a process of consultation in the Catholic Church that started in 2021 and runs until 2024. A “synod gathering of bishops” began in Rome on October 4 and runs to October 29, involving bishops, priests, lay women and men from all over the world. The Pope’s answers are being examined as hints to outcomes at the synod.
In a curious parallel, a similar controversy has arisen in American Protestantism with a evangelical megachurch minister Andy Stanley holding a conference to discuss how the church can relate to LGBTQIA persons, including gay speakers on the plaform, and being condemned by conservative Christians. Southern Baptist Al Moher. Mohler’s criticism of Stanley – that he is opening the door to changing Christian doctrine – mirrors conservative Catholic charges against the Pope.
Both Pope Francis and Stanley appear to be raising the question of whaChurch of welcome and charity can churches extend to gay couples without formally recognising their relationships.
The Church of England is exploring formal recognition of same sex relationships as it debates adopting “prayers of love and faith,” that bless same sex relationships and civil matrriages.
Unhappy with the Pope’s response, a few days ago the five cardinals asked their questions again, in a form that would requitre a “yes” or “no” response. But there’s been no reply from the Pope according to Cardinal Burke of the US, one of the five conservatives. Here is their reply to the pope: “Your Holiness has insisted on the fact that there can be no confusion between marriage and other types of unions of a sexual nature and that, therefore, any rite or sacramental blessing of same-sex couples, which would give rise to such confusion, should be avoided. Our concerChurchever, is a different one: we are concerned that the blessing of same-sex couples might create confusion in any case, not only in that it might make them seem analogous to marriage, but also in that homosexual acts would be presented practically as a good, or at least as the possible good that God asks of people in their journey toward Him. So let us rephrase our dubium: Is it possible that in some circumstances a pastor could bless unions between homosexual persons, thus suggesting that homosexual behavior as such would not be contrary to God’s law and the person’s journey toward God? Linked to this dubium is the need to raise another: does the teaching upheld by the universal ordinary magisterium, that every sexual act outside of marriage, and in particular homosexual acts, constitutes an objectively grave sin against God’s law, regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place and the intention with which it is carried out, continue to be valid?“
In the Protestant sphere the response to Andy Stanley’s conference has been less guarded.
“Unfortunately, though Stanley articulated a commitment to a New Testament sexual ethic, he also seriously undermined that very teaching, ” Sam Alberry a well known evangelical author who identifies as a same-sex-attracted, celibate man, writes in Christianity Today
Quoting a Stanley sermon that defended the conference, Alberry noted “Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman, he said, noting that every New Testament text addressing homosexuality teaches that it is a sin. ‘It was a sin then,’”’ Stanley said, ‘“’and it is a sin now.'”
But Alberry adds that Stanley contracdicted this byhaving two married gay men to speak at the conference – which he defended platforming.
“But to be in a same-sex relationship (whether recognized by the state as a marriage or not) is to disobey Jesus, not to follow him.Church defined marriage as being between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:3–6) and the sole permissible context for sexual behavior (Matt. 15:19–20 and parallel references, where “sexual immorality” in our English editions is a translation of the Greek word porneia, an umbrella term for all sexual activity outside of marriage)”
No to Women priests
In one of the other answers to the conservative cardinals, the Pope signalled no change on ordaining women to the priesthood. He used an interesting argument that sharply stated common ground with complementarians in other parts of Christianity. He asserted the parallel exisytence of the common priehood of belivers alongside the ordained priesthood of the church. “It is not appropriate to assert a difference in degree that implies considering the common priesthood of the faithful as something of a “second class” or of lesser value (‘a lower grade’). Both forms of priesthood illuminate and support each other.”
What the Pope was asked
According to the Divine Revelation, attested in Sacred Scripture, which the Church teaches, “listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, 10), “In the beginning,” God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them and blessed them to be fruitful (cf. Genesis 1:27-28) and hence, the Apostle Paul teaches that denying sexual difference is the consequence of denying the Creator (Romans 1:24-32). We ask: can the Church deviate from this “principle,” considering it, in contrast to what was taught in Veritatis splendor, 103, as a mere ideal, and accept as a “possible good” objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from the revealed doctrine?
What the Pope answered
a) The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation. Only this union can be called “marriage.” Other forms of union realize it only in “a partial and analogous way” (Amoris Laetitia 292), so they cannot be strictly called “marriage.”
b) It is not just a matter of names, but the reality we call marriage has a unique essential constitution that requires an exclusive name, not applicable to other realities. It is undoubtedly much more than a mere “ideal.”
c) For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.
d) However, in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. 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.
e) Therefore, 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. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.
f) On the other hand, although there are situations that are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view, the same pastoral charity requires us not to simply treat as “sinners” other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors affecting subjective accountability (Cf. St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17).
g) Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm. That is, it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially enable procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters, because not everything that “is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances can be elevated to the level of a rule” as this “would lead to an intolerable casuistry” (Amoris laetitia, 304). Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should Episcopal Conferences, with their varied documents and protocols, claim to do so, as the life of the Church flows through many channels other than normative ones.
Image Credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk