The Vatican’s declaration that priests may not bless same-sex unions is not surprising. Priests are not supposed to bless any union that isn’t a marriage as the church understands it, a permanent and exclusive communion of life between one man and one woman. What is deplorable is the explanation that priests cannot bless same-sex unions because “God can’t bless sin.” It does make you wonder what Rome sees when it sees a same-sex couple. Like heterosexual couples, the distinguishing mark of their union is the love that binds them together. And surely, most assuredly, God is eager to bless love. The Vatican doesn’t see a loving couple. It sees two people who have sex in a way which it considers unnatural. The sexual activity in a same-sex union, like that of a heterosexual couple, symbolizes and strengthens at its best the loving union that is the point of it all. Any adult, anywhere and at any time, can have sex, and some of it is probably sinful and God wouldn’t bless that kind of sexual activity, any more than God would bless theft or violence. But God, unlike the Vatican, is not obsessed with sex. God is obsessed with love. Real, genuine love is its own justification, and I am pretty sure that God smiles on it and, in all probability, is nothing like as curious or censorious as the Church when it comes to bedroom behavior. After all, it was love that we were created for.
A marriage ceremony blesses the love between two people, not the sex they have. Or does it, for the Vatican? Moreover, Catholic sacramental theology is quite clear that the ministers of a marriage are the couple who are marrying one another. The “blessing” that the church gives to this is public witness to the love that actually enacts the sacrament. It’s not a license and the church is not a gatekeeper. It’s a recognition and a celebration of the joy of the couple and their friends and family, a joy in which God shares, that two people have bound themselves together in love.
It’s a pretty well-known fact that Pope Francis favors civil unions for same-sex couples. He supported the church’s recognition of civil unions in Argentina before he became Pope, though he failed to persuade his brother bishops. The Pope continues to uphold the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage, so why does he favor civil unions? Surely the Pope is not suggesting that civil marriage can be covered for sinful behavior. The Vatican’s declaration that “God does not bless sin” seems to be more than a little at odds with the famous “who am I to judge” remark of Pope Francis. God and not the church is the judge of sin. Not even the Pope can stand in such judgment, by his own estimation. Judgments about sin in the mouths of human beings are prime examples of being too big for your theological boots. I think it was Jesus who discouraged this kind of language when he advised that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
So what are LGBTQ+ Catholics to do? First, they should know that they are not alone. There are many theologians and countless clergy who will be made very uncomfortable by the suggestion that same-sex unions cannot be blessed because “God does not bless sin.” There are bishops in Europe and even a few here in the United States who do not like the implications of the Vatican document, and quite a few more who are tying themselves in knots trying to explain how Pope Francis could approve this document without seeming hypocritical, given his fairly recent remarks supporting civil unions. There are even some well-informed voices suggesting that the document was rushed past the Pope when he was busy preparing for his trip to Iraq earlier this month. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened in Rome, and there are many senior ecclesiastics who don’t like the Pope’s position on LGBTQ+ issues. Even the ones among them who are closeted or not-so-closeted gay men.
A second thing that might encourage LGBTQ+ Catholics is the obvious point that the Vatican statement that priests may not bless same-sex unions would never have been written were it not that priests were already blessing same-sex unions. In Germany and Austria in particular, these blessings are common if not commonplace, and I would wager that numbers of American clergy also bless same-sex couples. What this also shows is that theological understanding in the church is always in process. This is what theologians call “the development of doctrine,” and it has always been the case, because an institution is inevitably affected by the historical circumstances. Unfortunately, development is sometimes one step forward and two back, and this particular moment is clearly a big step backwards.
Some have said that the Vatican statement is impotent, because it will have no practical effect. This charge of impotence is worth thinking about a bit more, because the lay faithful simply do not share the Vatican disapproval of same-sex unions, and at least in the United States there are statistics to back this up. Of all Christian groups measured by their support for or tolerance of same-sex marriage or civil unions, the Catholics are arguably the most “gay-friendly.” How does the church understand the majority position? Are we simply blindly sinful, guilty of ignorance and needing to bend the knee and obey? Or is the teaching not being expressed sufficiently clearly? Or is it just bad teaching? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presumably favors the first option. The majority of the rest of us don’t.
It seems pretty clear that what makes sex sinful is not the absence of sacramental marriage but the absence of love. If the Church wishes to continue to insist that same-sex unions are not candidates for sacramental marriage, that is the Church’s prerogative, though that does not make it in itself a correct judgment. But it is absolutely unacceptable that any loving relationship be declared beyond God’s blessing. The Church says that it believes that God blesses all individuals, gay and straight alike, made in the divine image and likeness. But apparently not the former if they enter into a loving relationship. How crazy is that?