The Vatican published a letter in response to the cardinals just ahead of a major three-week synod at which the place of LGBTQ+ Catholics in the church will be on the agenda.
Pope Francis has suggested there could be ways to bless same-sex unions, responding to five conservative cardinals who challenged him to affirm church teaching on homosexuality ahead of a big meeting where LGBTQ+ Catholics are on the agenda.
The Vatican on Monday published a letter Francis wrote to the cardinals on 11 July after receiving a list of five questions from them a day earlier.
Francis suggests such blessings could be studied if they didn't confuse the blessing with sacramental marriage.
New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, said the letter significantly advances efforts to make LGBTQ+ Catholics welcomed in the church and was “one big straw towards breaking the camel’s back” in their marginalisation.
The Vatican holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman. As a result, it has long opposed gay marriage.
However, Francis has voiced support for civil laws extending legal benefits to same-sex spouses, and Catholic priests in parts of Europe have been blessing same-sex unions without Vatican censure.
Francis’ response to the cardinals, however, marks a reversal from the Vatican’s current official position. In an explanatory note in 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn’t bless gay unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
In his new letter, Francis reiterated that matrimony is a union between a man and a woman. However, responding to the cardinals’ question about homosexual unions and blessings, he said “pastoral charity” requires patience and understanding and that regardless, priests cannot become judges “who only deny, reject and exclude.”
“For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of benediction, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” he wrote. “Because when a benediction is requested, it is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us to live better.”
He noted that there are situations that are objectively “not morally acceptable.” But he said the same “pastoral charity” requires that people be treated as sinners who might not be fully at fault for their situations.
Francis added that there is no need for dioceses or bishops conferences to turn such pastoral charity into fixed norms or protocols, saying the issue could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis “because the life of the church runs on channels beyond norms.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, welcomed the pope's openness.
"The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognise that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God," he said in a statement. “Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
The five cardinals, all of them conservative prelates from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, had challenged Francis to affirm church teaching on gays, women’s ordination, the authority of the pope and other issues in their letter.
They published the material two days before the start of a major three-week synod, or meeting, at the Vatican at which LGBTQ+ Catholics and their place in the church are on the agenda.
The signatories were some of Francis’ most vocal critics, all of them retired and of the more doctrinaire generation of cardinals appointed by St John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.