What Pope Francis’s Recent Decree Means for Gay Catholics Like Me

Several years ago, my partner and I asked a priest for a blessing. We wouldn’t describe ourselves as particularly pious, but our Catholic faith has shaped our lives both as individuals and as a couple. We met more than a decade ago, volunteering on a spring-break service trip run by our university’s Catholic student center. We attend church most Sundays, volunteer occasionally at our parish, and try to live out the Gospel as best we can. We’re also gay, so when we approached the priest, we knew we were putting him in a difficult position: At the time, the Church didn’t officially allow clergy to bless same-sex couples.

A priest can bless just about anything—person, place, object, event. The process has many forms and functions but ultimately serves to invoke God’s love and remind us of God’s presence. Some blessings occur within a liturgy, such as the one a priest offers a congregation after Mass. Others, like the blessing that my partner and I requested, are less formal; they’re offered spontaneously and wouldn’t be found in a book of prayers.

Every so often, I come across photos of priests blessing homes, pets, motorcycles, even sneakers belonging to marathoners about to run a race. Recently, I saw one of a priest blessing a men’s bathroom. I couldn’t suppress a flash of anger. How could the Church deny gay and lesbian Catholics a privilege that it affords to a bathroom?

That changed in December, when the Vatican issued a decree, called Fiducia Supplicans, allowing priests to bless Catholics in same-sex relationships and other “irregular situations”—such as those who are divorced and remarried. This being the Catholic Church, the announcement came with a series of rules and caveats. And it was emphatic that the Church’s definition of marriage (an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman) hadn’t been altered. But the decree itself was a meaningful shift.

As recently as 2021, the Vatican ruled that priests couldn’t bless same-sex relationships, because God “cannot bless sin.” Now Pope Francis, who for a decade had offered kind words and gestures to gay and lesbian Catholics, was expanding the Church’s understanding of God’s mercy, and affirming that we belong.

Fiducia Supplicans had its share of critics. Some Catholics—even some who favor greater outreach to the LGBTQ community—were confused by how a priest could bless people in a relationship that the Church still considers sinful. They felt the decree was yet another example of Francis confounding his flock. Others were concerned that the document effectively undermined the Church’s traditional conception of marriage, or even cast doubt on the timelessness of Catholic teaching because it seemed to contradict the 2021 statement. In their view, the Church was prioritizing contemporary social mores over its foundational moral teachings. Bishops—including several national conferences in Africa, where clergy tend to be more traditionalist—denounced the decree.

Many progressive and LGBTQ Catholics, by contrast, felt that it didn’t go far enough. Their frustration grew two weeks later, when the Vatican followed up the decree with a press release that seemed to trivialize the newly allowed blessings, describing them as “just simple pastoral channels that help people give expression to their faith, even if they are great sinners.” That last clause felt like a needless slap in the face.

Francis’s central task as pope is to preserve the communion of the Church even as its divisions grow. The issue of homosexuality has fractured many Christian denominations that are less diverse than Catholicism. Most of them don’t have to figure out how to be a home to LGBTQ believers and a contingent of leaders (mainly bishops in Africa, in the Catholic Church’s case) who support criminalizing same-sex relationships.

Francis’s critics contend that he has done more to inflame the Church’s divisions than he has to bridge them. But at the very least, he is acutely aware of those divisions. He said last week that the decree “aims to include, not divide. It invites us to welcome and then entrust people, and to trust in God.” Francis knew the decree would be celebrated by progressives and condemned by conservatives. But the specifics of the document don’t align neatly with progressive priorities.

For one thing, it doesn’t force any bishop’s hand. Those who disagree with the document, or who lead churches in countries where homosexuality is a crime, do not have to start allowing their priests to bless same-sex couples. And in addition to repeatedly emphasizing the Church’s official teaching on marriage—a clear effort to limit confusion and traditionalist outcry—the document also prohibits the newly allowed blessings from being incorporated into formal liturgical ceremonies, as some bishops in Europe have been pushing for. Last month, Francis clarified that when a same-sex couple ask a priest for a blessing, the priest “does not bless the union, but simply the people who together have requested it.” This seemed like an effort to quell concerns that the decree condoned same-sex unions.

It would be cynical, however, to view the pope’s policy on blessings as purely political. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has called on the Church to be more merciful toward Catholics who haven’t always felt welcome. He urges priests to acknowledge and respond to the complex lives of the faithful rather than fixate on doctrine. He also has strong personal convictions about sex and gender that resist easy categorization. Despite earnestly trying to welcome gay and lesbian Catholics, he assails what he calls “gender ideology”—his shorthand for movements that, in his view, eliminate the distinction between men and women—and described surrogacy, which many same-sex couples use to build families, as “despicable.”

This may be the first time that the Church has expressly allowed priests to bless people in same-sex unions, but the practice isn’t new. When I was researching the history of the Church’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis for my book Hidden Mercy, I interviewed priests who ministered to young gay men dying from AIDS-related complications. They shared stories about praying with and for gay couples who’d been abandoned by their families. They asked God to bless the remaining time these couples had together, for strength and courage as they faced devastating illness, and for peace when the time came.

Despite those precedents, I understand why the document has confused many Catholics. Some have rightly asked why a bishop can still fire one of his employees for being in a same-sex relationship that a priest can now bless. Others have posed a more personal question: Why would gay and lesbian Catholics even want the Church’s blessing when it continues to condemn same-sex relationships?

When I’m speaking to groups of Catholics, I often talk about how it isn’t easy for anyone to remain part of the Church. At some point, I say, something in your life will conflict with the Church’s ideals. Theology is pristine; life is messy.

I could choose to leave the Catholic Church and join any number of denominations that are more welcoming to gay and lesbian believers. I’ve stayed for many reasons, not least because of Catholicism’s diversity, whose benefits far outweigh the challenges it poses. But mostly I stay because I believe that my otherwise ordinary life has been made sacred by my faith and the sacraments.

Back when my partner and I asked the priest for a blessing—before we were sure we could get one—we weren’t seeking to protest the Church’s teaching. We wanted the priest to offer thanks on our behalf for the people we loved, and to pray that God would remain with us for whatever lay ahead. We wanted to acknowledge that something divine was at work in our lives, even if we didn’t fully understand it. We wanted to acknowledge that, by having found each other, my partner and I were already blessed.

The priest agreed, and we bowed our heads.

The Atlantic