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.
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?