Earlier today, March 15, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published a document concerning the blessing of same-sex unions. While it’s only two pages long, and the Vatican provided additional commentary to clarify it, it’s guaranteed to be misrepresented in the secular media. Here are seven main points to take from it.
One. This document is a response (responsum) to a specific question (dubium) that was submitted to the CDF. The question they answered was, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” And their response was in the negative. The rest of the document explains how the CDF arrived at its answer. Both the response and the explanation were approved by Pope Francis and thus this document is an expression of his official teaching authority (ordinary magisterium).
Two. The CDF reiterated the teaching that liturgical blessings are sacramentals (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1671). As the name implies, sacramentals “are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments” (CCC 1667). However, they “do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do” (CCC 1670). Rather, sacramentals, “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC 1670). In other words, God has given the Church authority to bless people, objects, and places to set them apart as vehicles of God’s grace for the faithful. These blessings don’t confer grace in and of themselves like the sacraments do, but they help dispose the faithful to receive the grace God is always offering them. For example, the sacred icon of the Holy Trinity that hangs in my office doesn’t radically change me like my baptism did, but it reminds me of my baptism and invites me to recall God’s desire to save me and share his life with me.
Three. The CDF explained that the theology of blessings and sacramentals has two major implications for the question of blessing same-sex unions. The first is that blessings upon couples point to, or “bear a resemblance to,” the Sacrament of Marriage. And, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis, reiterates the traditional teaching of the Church, that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (AL 251). The second implication is that the Church cannot bless anything that is objectively contrary to God’s revealed design and plan for creation. Therefore, the CDF concluded, “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.” This document is fundamentally “a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.”
Four. The CDF reaffirms the Church’s consistent teaching against all unjust discrimination towards our gay brothers and sisters. As Pope Francis states in Amoris Laetitia, “We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence” (AL 250).
Five. Even though the CDF is clear that, “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex” it acknowledges and affirms the evangelical desires motivating the request. The CDF says, “In some ecclesial contexts, plans and proposals for blessings of unions of persons of the same sex are being advanced. Such projects are not infrequently motivated by a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons.” They also indicate that this desire is consistent with Pope Francis’s exhortation to the Church to help gay men and women to “receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives…” (AL 250). The CDF also says, “The Christian community and its Pastors are called to welcome with respect and sensitivity persons with homosexual inclinations” and goes out of its way to clarify that this ruling about same-sex unions “does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.” It is the sexual unions that are disordered, not homosexual persons themselves.
Six. The CDF does not single out same-sex relationships as especially disordered or evil. They are clear that any actively sexual relationship outside the context of marriage cannot be blessed and same-sex unions are simply one of those kinds of relationships. Further, they state that such relationships, even though they are objectively contrary to God’s plan for sex, can still have “positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated.”
Seven. The CDF’s declaration should not be seen in opposition to the pope’s comments about civil unions in the Francesco documentary that premiered last October. (WPI explained these comments in several articles.) Those statements were taken from a 2019 interview where Pope Francis said, “Homosexuals have a right to be in the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out of the family or have a miserable life because of it. We need to have a law of civil union. They have a right to be legally covered.” As already mentioned, the CDF was specifically responding to a question concerning the sacramental tradition of the Church, not legal protections for committed partners, same-sex or otherwise. As Dawn Eden Goldstein and Robert Fastiggi explained at the time, “The Church has long recognized that marriages and other unions recognized by the state have legitimate civil effects regardless of whether such unions are recognized by the Church.”