A response letter to five conservative cardinals who were asking Pope Francis to clarify whether blessings of same-sex unions are permitted went public on Monday, signaling a slight shift in the Catholic Church’s previous stance on LGBTQ+ unions.
“We cannot be judges who only deny, push back and exclude,” Pope Francis wrote in a July letter. “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.” It’s a step back from a 2021 Vatican statement—made by an official who Francis has since removed—that said blessings of same-sex couples were not permitted.
While the pope’s note denounces same-sex marriages, religious leaders say it also recognizes the possibility for change in an institution with decreasing rates of attendance, and acknowledges the need to address issues of inclusion within the religion.
The topic will likely be at the center of conversations beginning on Wednesday, when bishops from across the globe, and for the first time ever, female clergy, will gather for a meeting known as the synod in Rome. “The pope, especially in what he’s doing, is calling the church to a time of communicating, of listening and sharing, of growing, of moving ahead together,” says Rev. John P. Alvarado, a now-retired pastor who moderates an LGBTQ faith sharing group in New Jersey.
But although the pope’s letter does not state an official stance by the church, some see the papacy’s written statement as a point of celebration.
“Pope Francis’ statement recognizes a reality already happening in many parts of the church. There are Catholic communities in many parts of the world that extend some type of blessings to same-sex couples,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization working for the inclusion and respect of LGBTQ+ Catholics.
Understanding the pope’s message
Francis’s letter falls short of supporting the blessings of queer couples, but clarifies that the church is open to discerning whether blessings of same-sex unions can be permitted on a case-by-case basis. He encourages church leaders to act with “pastoral charity,” meaning that people should not “deny, push back and exclude” people from the church.
“He’s not saying that we should create a ritual that can be done anywhere, anytime, but [that blessings] can be a response to individuals or couples or groups of people who ask for a special blessing on an occasion,” Bishop John Stowe of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, tells TIME. “How do we be faithful to who and what the church has always been, while not alienating people today?”
The Catholic Church believes marriage can only occur between a man and a woman, but a blessing can still hold great significance to queer couples because they act as prayers for God’s presence and help, Stowe says. “It almost signifies God’s approval.”
Francis has been explicit in saying that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin. But he’s also signaled greater support for the queer community, to which he has faced much criticism. Francis first made headlines in 2013 when he said, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” the pope said. In January 2020, he signaled that he agreed that queer couples should have civil protections, separate from the church, noting that “you can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this.” And this January, the pope spoke out against the criminalization of homosexuality.
Stowe says that the idea of same-sex attraction as sin comes from medieval theology, which says that “everything has its purpose and the purpose of sexual relations is procreation.” But he admits that many lay people are reconsidering that ideal. “The discipline of theology means faith seeking understanding. So we have to explore how we best understand that and best apply that in light of what we now know about anthropology, about human development, [and] about sexual orientation not being something that one freely chooses.”
Alvarado agrees. “What is the difficulty with blessing people even of the same sex, who are willing to commit themselves to loving each other in a very formal structured way?” he says.
Nearly one in seven “highly religious” LGBTQ people are in a same-sex relationship, according to a UCLA Williams Institute survey.
Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry in Maryland, says that the Catholic Church has made substantial changes and clarifications in the past. The most popular one involves usury—the practice of charging interest on a loan—which was previously prohibited. The Catholic Church has also previously clarified its stance on slavery and the death penalty, which Pope Francis condemned in 2018. These issues do not concern an individual’s personal identity, but DeBernardo says that they show openness to adaptation over time.
“Pope Francis’ response is both unprecedented and compassionate and continues to urge every Catholic and leader toward acceptance and recognition of LGBTQ people,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a press release. “This is not full marriage recognition, but it will make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQ families.”
Inclusion in the church
Discussions concerning the inclusion of queer people in the Catholic church also arrive at a pivotal moment.
A June 2023 Gallup poll revealed that from 2020 through the present, an average of 30% of adults say they have attended a worship service in the past seven days. The biggest drop in church attendance was experienced among Catholics, one of the largest faith groups in the U.S. It also comes at a moment of increasing violence against the LGBTQ+ community, as record numbers of laws targeting queer folks are passed nationwide.
Some sects of Abrahamic religions, like Reform Judaism, have passed rules supporting LGBTQ+ individuals since the 70s. Germanic Catholic churches are also catching on. Bishops in the European country approved blessings for same-sex unions after their own synodal assembly in March.
Francis spoke out against the measure but will likely take on the topic for discussion during this year’s Synod on Synodality. The gathering, DeBernardo says, signals that Francis is looking to church leaders to figure out how to engage in better dialogue among each other, share new ideas, and consult people other than bishops in the decisions of the church. Smaller discussions among dioceses have already been occurring over the past two years leading up to this meeting, which is what prompted the cardinals to ask the papacy to better explain his stance towards blessing same-sex unions.
The meeting is a longtime coming. Global leaders last gathered at this scale to discuss the future of Catholicism some 60 years ago, during the Second Vatican Council. That gathering, which was only open to bishops, largely modernized the church, although changes were later rolled back under the leadership of the conservative popes that followed.
This synod, which serves to advise the papacy, will last until Oct. 29. Once that is completed, laymen and women will vote on what they believe the church’s stance should be regarding certain teachings or practices. An initial report will be presented to the pope after which Francis will take another six to eight months to reflect and study it before he releases his own official document that could deliver the church’s official stance on the blessings of same-sex couples.
Serious decision-making may also be prolonged until next year, when leaders will meet again for the second part of the synod in October 2024.
For now, religious leaders hope that decision-makers will do what’s right. “It’s a challenge,” says Alvarado when speaking of the purpose of the gathering. “We want to do what’s good and holy. But is it in line with the gospel? Is it in line with the gospel that speaks of love? That speaks of mercy? Of healing? And of inclusion, not exclusion?”