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On October 2, the Vatican publicly released a letter Pope Francis wrote on July 11 accepting same-sex blessings. The letter was a response to five Conservative cardinals who, in a list of dubia, questioned his stance on the Catholic Church’s teachings relating to homosexuality, among other concerns, including the ordination of women. This move preceded a global gathering of laypeople and bishops to discuss the future of the Catholic Church, where LGBTQ+ matters are on the agenda.
In the letter, Pope Francis argues that these blessings may be considerable as long as they are not confused with those from holy matrimony. The Catholic Church maintains that blessings from holy matrimony are between a man and a woman and that pastoral charity — a virtue that entails Christ’s values of self-giving and humbleness — needs patience and understanding. Nonetheless, “we cannot become judges who only deny, reject and exclude.”
This relatively progressive positioning from the pope can be seen as a considerable move, especially after the Vatican doctrinal office stated in 2021 that the Catholic Church could not bless same-sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
What Are Dubias, and What Does This One Entail?
A dubia (singular dubium) refers to a call for clarification from an office of the Roman Curia — a group of Vatican bureaucrats that assist the pope. The specific dubia that Pope Francis addressed in October were written by cardinals Raymond Leo Burke and Walter Brandmüller and received approval from cardinals Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Robert Sarah and Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.
The pope stated that individual clergies should be responsible for determining the blessings with “pastoral prudence.” In his view, same-gender blessings are tolerable “because when a benediction is requested, it is expressing a request for help from God.” It is important to point out that the Catholic Church still considers sacramental marriage between same-sex people sinful due to its definition of holy matrimony as “an exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation.”
Francis shared in the dubia that the Divine Revelation — meaning divine guidance, or the words of God making itself known to use — shows that the judgment of the Catholic Church could mature itself but not change. It can also help express matters of “overflowing richness.” He further underpinned that the Catholic Church cannot change what has been revealed “for the salvation of all.”
Even though the Catholic Church still considers marriage between same-sex couples sinful, Pope Francis has publicly advocated for a progressive approach toward LGBTQ+ issues, saying, “[Let us] make the distinction first between sin and crime.” His point was that while gay activity may be a sin, it should not be prosecuted as a crime. To better understand why the pope could be considered “progressive,” it is important to examine his policies.
Pope Francis’s Progressive Papacy
According to Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University, since the day Pope Francis came into power, he expressed his position that the parochial world no longer dictated the judgements on what is considered Catholic. “The Western hemisphere, the North Atlantic, a certain bourgeois Catholicism, he has rejected that in the most radical terms,” Faggioli said. This radical rejection took the form of the pope criticizing what he defined as the “globalization of indifference,” the idea that we live in a culture that makes us think of ourselves without hearing the cries of others. That makes us live in our alienated reality.
In the same year, in an apostolic exhortation — a message of guidance sent by the pope — Pope Francis condemned consumer culture and trickle-down economics. He argued that this economy is founded upon exclusion and inequality that “such an economy kills.”
In a speech in Bolivia in 2015, he made a surprising speech on environmentalism. He referred to environmental harm as “the dung of the devil, the unfettered pursuit of money.” He added that once money becomes idealized, it guides people’s actions and “ruins society, [setting] people [up] against one another” and endangering “our common home, our sister mother Earth.”
In July 2016, Pope Francis held an audience with Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender man, and his fiancée at the Vatican. In March 2023, on a flight back from a visit to Sudan, Pope Francis condemned laws that criminalized LGBTQ+ people. He vocalized that these legislations were unjust and sinful, considering that LGBTQ+ people “are children of God and God loves them.”
More recently, the pope has also opened the door for divorced Catholics to be able to receive communion and accelerate the end-of-marriage procedure by permitting bishops to nullify marriages. This act was a power reserved for a church court. Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto stated that the pope is “asking for bishops to have a true change of heart.”
According to biographer Marco Politi, Pope Francis is making the Catholic Church less Vatican-centric by giving more decision-making power to bishops. Although it is a slow process, the pope has been reaching this goal by opening room for women in leadership positions and declaring a fight against clericalism — a policy of increasing the power of a religious hierarchy. “With his words, he paves the way to new attitudes.”
For the pope to have an almost anti-capitalist and negative response to a traditional worldview of Catholicism is noteworthy. Many followers, particularly more conservative and bourgeois Catholics, may begin viewing the pope as a partial and politically driven individual. Furthermore, they might see themselves as not being represented by their religious leader and distance themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.
A Progressive, Revolutionary Move?
Many liberal Catholics and some Vatican bureaucrats strongly supported the pope’s openness to same-sex blessings. New Ways Ministry, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, argued that the letter “significantly advances” the fight to make LGBTQ+ Catholics feel embraced by the Catholic Church. The executive director of New Ways Ministry Francis DeBernardo expressed his approval also, saying that though more action is needed to dismantle harmful views against the LGBTQ+ community, “the allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples, implies that the [Catholic Church] does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God.”
Jaime Manson, a Catholic women’s rights activist, also expressed her support for the pope’s gesture in an interview with CBS News, stating that the pope’s response to the recent dubia opened the Catholic Church umbrella for LGBTQ+ couples, including herself and her partner. For Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow at the Centre for American Progress, the alienating effect of conservative Christianity is a pressing issue. He suggested that the pope’s words would “highlight the inclusive, accepting essence of Christianity that so many people care about.”
In a press release, Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) responded that Pope Francis’s progressiveness is “both unprecedented and compassionate and continues to urge every Catholic and leader toward acceptance and recognition of LGTBQ people.” She finally affirms that this action can significantly impact LGBTQ+ families.
The impact of Pope Francis’s action is indeed an impactful and relevant one to not only a possible slow acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community but also to debunking the parochial and regressive stereotype associated with the Catholic Church. He is proving to Catholics and non-Catholics that it is indeed possible to embrace a progressive stance without harming or dismantling the core values of Christianity.
A Regressive and Confusing Stance?
While some celebrate Pope Francis’s openness and progressiveness, some — especially conservative and traditionalist Catholics — have condemned and expressed concern about the pope’s statements.
For many practicing Catholics, the Divine Revelation and the words of the Bible are unchangeable and binding. Following the Second Vatican Council, “the obedience of faith” is given to God, who reveals his message to us (Dei Verbum 5). This revelation is connected with our salvation and must remain “forever whole and alive.” The International Theological Commission also argues that the Catholic Church’s clerical magisterium cannot be above the word of God and can only teach what it received. In this context, conservative Catholics view Pope Francis’s response to the dubia as a dissolution of Christian values that could cause ideological confusion.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American conservative cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, expressed his criticism of the current news through the Independent, stating that the push for a more modern view of Catholicism from the Pope was, “bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine.” According to Burke, this transformative narrative has also brought confusion and further division generally between the institution and Catholics.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island shared similar beliefs, adding that “[Pope Francis’s] statement clearly contradicts … the long-standing teaching of the [Catholic] Church about same-sex unions.” According to him, it is essentially wrong for the Catholic Church to accept objectively immoral relationships.
A conservative sociology professor at the Catholic University of America, Rev. Donald Paul Sullins, stated that Pope Francis’s openness to same-sex blessings “directly contradict[s] the Catholic Church’s most recent teaching on this matter.” He refers to a 2003 document from the Vatican, stating that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual [behaviour] or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
But criticism is not coming only from conservatives. Father Bryan Massingale, a Black, gay Catholic priest and a Professor of Theological and Social Ethics, stated his disappointment in the pope’s attempt to support the LGBTQ+ community using a framework of conservative and traditional sexual teachings. “He wants gays and lesbians to be treated with compassion, with sensitivity, with respect, but he also wants to draw the line at not changing any of the traditional sexual beliefs or doctrines of the Catholic Church,” Massingale told PBS NewsHour. He also expressed confusion: “how can you extend welcome and compassion while at the same time condemning acts of love as sin?” This contradiction could lead Catholics to distance themselves from the Catholic Church, Massingale suggested.
For the pope to consider the portrayal of homosexuality as a sin but not a crime is a controversial and confusing stance. What impact this approach can have on the LGBTQ+ community does not seem to make much of a difference. Instead, as shown throughout this article, it further maintains the division of beliefs between Conservative and Liberal Catholics.
Where Does This Leave the Catholic Church?
Undoubtedly, when it comes to debates about the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Church, there will always be an unmistakable and heated divisiveness. Some will defend the inflexibility and immutability of the Divine Revelation based on historical and cultural lenses, and some will support the pope’s openness to change. Pope Francis, however, does not seem to help relieve this bipolarity. Although he has been showing a more “progressive” stance towards the LGBTQ+ community and other pressing matters relating to the doctrines of Catholicism, his “acceptance” of LGBTQ+ individuals presents a shallow version of welcoming and love, that true acceptance has to be directly linked with Catholic central beliefs changing.
Edited by Sun Woo Baik