Pope Francis has expressed openness to the idea of blessing same-sex unions, one of several topics in a newly published letter the supreme pontiff sent to a group of his critics—also fellow bishops—in July.
The letter, published on Monday, was in response to a set of questions ("dubia") concerning statements from Francis that brought alarm to many conservative Catholic prelates and parishioners around the world.
The retired prelates behind the dubia were the American cardinal Raymond Burke, and fellow red hats Walter Brandmüller of Germany, Juan Sandoval Íñiguez of Mexico, Robert Sarah of Guinea, and Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, SDB of China.
Their questions concerned hot-button topics such as LGBTQ+ ministry, the granting of communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, and the possibility of changing church teaching as cultural understandings progress, among other issues.
“Cultural changes and new challenges in history do not modify Revelation but can stimulate us to express certain aspects of its overflowing richness better, which always offers more,” the Holy Father wrote in his response to the latter question, going on to quote his predecessors in the Holy See as well as documents from the Second Vatican Council.
On the topic of same-sex blessings, Francis noted that while the conservative positions expressed in the dubia accurately comport with Church teaching, Catholics “cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”
“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.”
The comments represent something of an about-face for the pope, who had reprimanded European Catholic bishops who recently pushed forward with such blessings in their jurisdictions despite cautions from Francis and the Vatican.
Even so, the pope appeared to hit out at rogue bishops' conferences in his response to the question, and the larger topic of same-sex blessings is thought to be one of several on the docket for Francis’ landmark 2023-24 Synod of Bishops (“The Synod on Synodality”), set to officially begin on Wednesday in Rome with laypeople, women, and LGBTQ+ advocates present as voting members.
The pope said in his response to the dubia that he chose to respond specifically because of the proximity in time to the gathering.
Also to be discussed at the synod, the first session of which will run throughout October, is the topic of women's ordination—also featured in the questions submitted by the retired cardinals. Far less revolutionary in his response on this point, Francis affirmed previous teaching from Pope John Paul II on the impossibility of ordaining women as Catholic priests, while noting that his predecessor's “definitive statement” on the matter is still up for some manner of debate.
“No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”
The publication of the pope's letter was made by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), newly headed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández, Francis’ fellow Argentinia. He requested last month that the pope allow him to publish the responses publicly.
The pope had originally authored and sent the text to the cardinals on July 12, within days of first receiving the questions. His responses prompted a set of reworded dubia from the retired prelates so as to procure from the Holy Father simple “yes” or “no” responses. The pontiff did not provide a second round of answers.
Years prior, an original set of dubia was sent to Pope Francis in 2016— just three years into his pontificate—by some of the same bishops behind the recent questionings, including Brandmüller and Burke. The two other prelates involved with the earlier dubia have since died, and the questions are not known to have received a response.
Those concerns were focused on Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), released that same year, which controversially proposed possible sacramental access for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment.
The topic was raised again this summer, with the DDF receiving a separate set of dubia from Cardinal Dominik Duka, OP of the Czech Republic. In a response, also made public today, Cardinal Fernández reiterated Pope Francis’ stance that the matter, like many irregular situations in the Church, is a matter of discernment between individual Catholics and their pastors.
“Francis maintains the proposal of full continence for the divorced and remarried in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it and therefore allows in certain cases, after proper discernment, the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation even when one fails in being faithful to the continence proposed by the Church,” he said, according to an English translation from Where Peter Is.
“‘Amoris laetitia’ emphasizes that all priests have the responsibility to accompany the persons concerned on the path of discernment.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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