Why the Roman Catholic Church now allows priests to bless same-sex couples

December 21, 2023

The end of 2023 has seen the largest Christian denominations in American struggling in the face of doctrinal shifts on sexuality. The UMC has lost one-fourth of its churches because of a refusal to uphold a biblical sexual ethic. Before the split, the UMC was the third largest Christian denomination in America, and second largest Protestant group. And the Roman Catholic Church—the largest Christian denomination in America—saw a seismic shift in its own practices earlier this week when Pope Francis announced that blessings for same-sex couples were now permitted.

The news was quickly met with scorn from conservatives with the church, and praise from the liberal wings. Indeed, the Rev. James Martin blessed a same-sex couple the day after the announcement, using the language of the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:23b–26) because there is no standard language found in the published book of blessings for the couple.

What happened?

In the declaration On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican announced that a new rule was in effect allowing the blessing of same-sex couples. Officially, the declaration does not change the official doctrine of the church and does “not allo[w] any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.” The declaration is forthright that “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.” 

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. However, the declaration creates a new category where the same-sex couple could be blessed (though not in rituals, language, or garb which would appear to indicate the sacrament of marriage), without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

However, as others have noted, and the introduction to the declaration makes clear, this is a “real development from what has been said about blessings…” and marks a “specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” Whereas before, the strictly liturgical definition of blessing required “what is blessed be conformed to God’s will,” this more pastoral definition does not. Rather, it recognizes that those seeking the blessing may be engaged in activity or relationships which fall outside the Church’s official teaching, but it does not prohibit priests from performing the blessing in those circumstances because the request “expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God…” This is clearly a change and a permitting of what was formerly prohibited. 

Officially, the declaration allows for the blessing of same-sex couples, but not their union. The blessing must not be ritualized or occur in any way that would confuse people to think that it was a blessing of their union, similar to a blessing of a marriage. As part of that lack of ritualization, there should be no official blessing created or disseminated by official Church channels, instead preferring spontaneity on the part of those seeking the blessing and the priests who offer them.

Why does it matter?

It is no small thing for the largest Christian denomination to change its teaching on such an important topic as biblical sexuality, marriage, and the family, even if they protest it’s a slight modification. While officially the Catholic Church has not changed its definition of marriage, the altering of the activity causes massive shifts. If, as the Catholic Church claims, Lex orandi, Lex credenda (“the law of prayer is the law of what is believed”), then actions have a deep connection to the official teachings of the Church. The declaration does not prescribe rituals, because to do so would cause confusion and make the action look too similar to the blessing of a marriage. However, it allows for actions already occurring (as Rev. Martin said in his explanation, “It was really nice … to be able to do that publicly”) and brings them into the light as a good.

This points to what the declaration sees as the need for this pastoral enlargement of blessings. Namely, these arise out of a popular piety and practice, and to create rituals and solemn rites would both confuse the official Church teaching and would be a measure of “excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives.” Spontaneity and freedom are to characterize these pious practices, not doctrine and established Church teaching. Further, a standard for seeking the blessing is itself problematic because there should not be “exhaustive moral analysis” placed on those who ask for the blessing.

As an evangelical, Protestant Christian, there is likely little surprise that I disagree with the Pope. Though arguably there are Protestants who uphold Catholic doctrine better than the current Pope. However, if pastoral practice is to have any meaning, then it must flow from clear doctrine. It is not shaped by the winds of culture and the climate of ideologies that trample Church teaching. Further, it cannot take what God has called evil and name it good. Any attempts to circumvent the official teaching by blessing a same-sex couple, but not the union (one wonders how this couple found themselves together apart from their union), are linguistic games more likely to push the Catholic Church toward a more inclusive stance, all while winking at official teaching. 

If the law of prayer means anything, it means that in the decades to come, the act of blessing couples will lead to a revision of the doctrine which says their union is outside God’s blessing. For now, the doctrine remains clear. Yet, what does doctrine matter when priests—by their actions—flout the dogma and act contrary to the teaching?

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24