The Roman Catholic Blessing of Same-Sex CouplesDecember 21st, 2023
Headlines around the world this week have declared that Pope Francis Approves Blessings for Same-Sex Couples, hailing it as a major shift in Vatican doctrine. This refers to a 5,000 word document entitled Fiducia Supplicans, which was issued as a “declaration.” In the Roman Catholic world, statements from the Vatican fall in four different categories, and this represents a significantly expanded teaching from the Papacy regarding the theology of blessing.
Like all such controversial statements, the global headlines do not always give the deeper nuances in a theological position so, from a PR or “optics” point of view, the general impression, which countless headlines have reinforced, is that the Roman Catholic church is now blessing same-sex arrangements, thus taking a step towards normalizing same-sex marriage in the church. The reality is that the statement is far more limited. A few points will make this clear:
- The document clearly retains the church’s position that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman.
- Any blessing given to a same-sex couple cannot be given in a formal “liturgical” setting, which would mirror the kind of ceremony we associate with Christian marriage.
- Any blessing given to a same-sex couple is not intended to extend moral legitimacy to same-sex unions.
The blessing the document envisions is what is known as a “spontaneous” blessing. It may not be fully appreciated by many Protestants, but it is very common for Roman Catholic priests (identifiable by their clerical collar) who may be found in malls, airports, places of pilgrimage etc. to be approached by someone asking for their blessing. The document now allows priests to bless same-sex couples in these “spontaneous” non-liturgical situations.
In my view, the theological problem with this position is three-fold:
First, it tacitly implies that the Catholic church is now blessing what it has historically taught (and continues to teach) to be an irregular arrangement that is inherently sinful. The idea that the church can “bless” a same-sex couple as long as it is not called marriage ends up being, practically speaking, a distinction without a difference. Rank and file Catholics will regard this as a kind of back door “moral equivalency” for same-sex unions since in the eyes of the law (since 2015) the state regards these unions as a legal expression of marriage. By “blessing” these unions, the church is tacitly affirming the legal status of same-sex couples as a married couple.
Second, it opens up a “third way” between the state of Christian marriage and the state of Christian celibacy. The church has historically taught that men and women are either “married” or “celibate.” If married, then the couple (theologically speaking) stands as an icon or “sign” pointing to the mystery of Christ and the Church. If single, then the person stands as a living icon of the Incarnation and an eschatological pointer to the New Creation where people will “neither marry, nor be given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30). There is no biblical space for a “third way” between marriage and celibacy, since only the first two find biblical sanction. For more on the theology of marriage and celibacy, see chapters 3 and 5 of my book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality and the Human Body (Zondervan/Seedbed, 2020).
Third, the document emphasizes the blessing of “couples,” not “persons.” Any person approaching a priest is entitled to a prayer of “blessing.” This is widely understood and is regarded as an expression of universal grace. I once hosted a group of donors to the Holy Land. One of the places we visited was the traditional site of the pool of Bethesda. I asked if anyone in our group would like to come forward and receive a prayer of blessing. Various members of the group came forward for prayer. However, tourists were regularly arriving to the site, and they observed me praying for people. The other tourists did not realize that I was part of a particular group, so I noticed that complete strangers were getting in line hoping for a prayer of blessing and/or healing. I prayed for many people, some who did not even speak English, right there at the pool of Bethesda. I didn’t inquire about the moral state of anyone; I simply prayed God’s blessing on whoever came forward. This is precisely what the Roman Catholic church envisions. However, this has always been the case, long before the publication of Fidudcia Supplicans. The fact that this document emphasizes “couples” rather than “individuals” shifts the blessing from an expression of universal grace to all people (a noble thing) to an emphasis on the particular context, which is two people joined in a same-sex union. Therefore, the emphasis shifts from a general prayer for the bestowal of God’s grace to a particular blessing on a particular same-sex arrangement that the church has declared sinful.
Thus, while the Vatican may honestly be seeking to expand the doctrine of blessing, I remain deeply concerned that Fiducia Supplicans will inadvertently be widely regarded as cracking the door for the full embrace of same-sex marriage in the church. Many of us know painfully well where these theologically cracked doors lead. Those of us from Protestant traditions who are seeking to maintain the biblical view of marriage will find our jobs more difficult, not because the Roman Catholic Church has changed their doctrine of marriage (which they have not) but because they have introduced greater cultural confusion at a time when what we all need most is greater cultural clarity.
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