On Monday, March 15th, Pope Francis demonstrated the limits to his “reformist”  policies. He expressed his agreement with a Vatican Responsum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding blessings for same-sex unions. The question to the CDF was: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum answered with a very firm NO, saying that same-sex unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” The CDF says acknowledging those unions is “illicit,”and that God “cannot bless sin.”

Once again we see the papal paradox. In his public rhetoric, Pope Francis is positive and supportive of gay people; but in official ecclesiastical policy, he remains rigidly closed and negative. It reminds me of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed open to change on sexual morality but then issued his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterating the church’s ban on artificial contraception.

For many people today there will be more anguish, confusion, and anger. The Belgian Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, wrote in an opinion piece in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard on Wednesday, March 17, that he feels “shame for my Church” and “intellectual and moral incomprehension” after Pope Francis approved the “negative” response to a question about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless same-sex unions.

Jamie Manson, journalist, president of Catholics for Choice, and a member of the LGBTQ community, said in an interview with NPR’s A. Martinez: “You know, my sense is that this will be a final blow for a number of Catholics who really had been holding onto hope because of Pope Francis. The media had such a love affair with him, and I think people were really holding on tight to the last threads of hope. And this could be the final blow.”

Nevertheless, we do need to examine the issue with knowledge and an open mind. I suggest an examination using the four traditional sources of moral knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Historically, moral theologians have relied upon these four sources in formulating norms to guide human behavior. When there is a conflict between these sources, a process of research, dialogue, and discernment must be undertaken to determine the best course of action. That’s where we are today.

This weekend I can only offer some discussion/thought starters. I do recommend an excellent book by Todd Salzman, Professor of Theology at Creighton University, The Sexual Person. Todd is a pastoral-minded theologian who writes with knowledge, perception, and human sensitivity.

SCRIPTURE – Up to now, the traditional religious condemnation of homosexual behavior has been based on: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10. In the light of contemporary Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarship, however, it is impossible to affirm that these texts provide a solid foundation for condemning homosexual acts today. They cannot be taken literally but must be interpreted in terms of the authors’ times, culture, and social contexts.

The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts was shaped by the socio-historical understanding of the times in which they were written. The understanding, back then, was that all human beings were naturally heterosexual and, therefore, any homosexual behavior was unnatural, a perversion, and immoral. That biblical assumption is now shown to be scientifically incorrect. Some people are, by nature, homosexual.

No doubt the most influential biblical account leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts has been the biblical account about Sodom in the book of Genesis. A contextual exegesis, now agreed upon by most contemporary biblical scholars, shows that the homosexual interpretation of that account is really not accurate. The clearer sin in both the Hebrew text and the original Hebrew context was the sin of inhospitality. A prime affirmation of this interpretation is found in Jesus’ mention of Sodom were his disciples accorded inhospitality. (Luke 10:8-12)

TRADITION – Relying upon the historical critical method, it is clear that traditional interpretations of scriptures condemning homosexual acts lack legitimacy. An historical-critical perspective does not support the old “traditional” normative conclusions as applicable to contemporary understandings of homosexuality. The old tradition is time-bound. A new tradition is already taking shape.

REASON – The heterosexual orientation is an innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the opposite sex. It is natural. The homosexual orientation is a similarly innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the same sex. It is natural. A person’s sexual orientation is neither chosen nor readily changeable. It simply is.

Sexual acts – whether heterosexual or homosexual –  are moral when they are natural and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. As Todd Salzman so clearly sums it up: “Sexual acts are moral when they are reasonable, and they are reasonable when, as a result of careful attention to and understanding of all the relevant human circumstances, a person makes an informed judgment that a given sexual action is according to right reason and facilitates human flourishing.”

EXPERIENCE – Dr. Mary E. Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology in Silver Spring, Maryland, responded to the March 15th papal statement this way: “Catholics in many parts of the world already bless same-sex unions. That genie left the bottle some years ago. Now that the Vatican has hoisted its flag, they may regret not staying quiet. I foresee story after story of good Father So-and-So who blessed Bob and Bill, Olivia y Cristina, Jacques et Georges. More common are the stories not of priests, many of whom remain too timid to bless themselves, but of lay people, indeed whole communities that gather to affirm the goodness of couples who love.”

A gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, Bryan Massingale, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table…than it was before.”

Support for same-sex marriage among Americans as a whole has grown since Gallup analytics began asking about it in 1996. As of 2020, two in three US adults (67%) say marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, matching the previous high Gallup measured in 2018.

Most US Catholics, according to Gallup, believe that same-sex unions should be legal; and they go farther than the pope and support marriage for same-sex couples. Catholics, who constitute more than a fifth of US adults, have been consistently more supportive of same-sex marriage than the population as a whole, for more than a decade. Pope Francis’ comments will please some US bishops but will most likely make little difference for the belief of Catholic laypeople in the United States, where same-sex couples have enjoyed full marriage rights and protections since 2015.

And so, one way or another, we still move and must still move ahead. – Jack

28 thoughts on “No Blessings for Gay Unions?

  1. I am glad my comments as a lesbian and religious studies student left no impression whatsoever .

  2. Hi Jack, I’m no theologian but I am a Biologist by training: Zoology is my Honours Degree subject. Pope Francis’ statement has shocked me to the core. I look at the words in Genesis and I see, in my translation, “He created them male and female”. Now to me, as a native tongue speaker of English, I read that as ‘and’ not ‘OR’. If it said ‘He created them male OR female’ that would be a binary statement, i.e. they were created one or the other. Obviously the words in modern English may not be exact translations of words in Hebrew or Aramaic or whatever language was spoken in C6th BC. Language is important – the word ‘or’ is binary i.e. one or the other, whereas ‘and’ suggests both or as well as or also.

    However, leaving the nuances of language aside, to me as a Biologist/Zoologist it makes perfect sense for the words to be male AND female and not male OR female. Here are just a few examples:

    1. Many molluscs, particularly of the clam-type (bivalves) & snail-types (gastropods) can change sex during their life times and others are predominantly hermaphrodite (male AND female at the same time). See https://www.nature.com/articles/srep29439?utm_source=other_website&utm_medium=display&utm_content=leaderboard&utm_campaign=JRCN_2_LW_X-moldailyfeed

    2. Many fish species from clown fish, gobies, moray eels, etc., demonstrate changes in physical sexual attributes and sexual behaviour, usually in response to environmental or food supply stress or social group pressures. These changes can occur male to female or female to male or one to the other and back again in some species. Some species only change one way some can change both ways. There is a vast amount of scientific research on this. For a simple introductory information see https://ourblueplanet.bbcearth.com/blog/?article=incredible-sex-changing-fish-from-blue-planet

    **God created these animals, male AND female: male AND female is deeply embedded in God’s plan!**

    3. From an evolutionary, scientific and genetic standpoint, humans are animals, specifically mammals and a form of primate. Just as some fish and molluscs can show ‘intersex’ or hermaphrodite characteristics, so do many human babies, year after year after year, many are born with both types of sexual organs to varying degrees (intersex) or even no sexual organs at all. These babies have not made a choice about their their sexual orientation, physical appearance nor their sexual characteristics at birth; nor have their parents – it’s a shock to them too! It is fairly rare, but TOTALLY NORMAL, it happens the world over, and has done certainly for centuries (according to historic scientific literature) and presumably for millennia. There is a large amount of scientific research and information out there, but for a very simple overview have a look at this: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/10/its-intersex-awareness-day-here-are-5-myths-we-need-to-shatter/

    4. Regarding same-sex sexual behaviour/homosexuality there is a large amount of scientific data about observations of same-sex behaviour in a huge range of animal species, and in many mammalian species, and in primates in particular. There is a wide range of scientific study and observation of this. This is just one example: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/190987/scientists-explore-evolution-animal-homosexuality/

    In strict biological and scientific terms we are a type of animal, just as chimps are a type of animal. Humans are only about 1.2%-6% (depending on how it is calculated) genetically different from chimpanzees and bonobos , i.e. we are approx 94% to over 98% identical. Whilst our ‘soul’ may be different from animals, our biology, our natural drives, our physical morphology certainly are not!

    I could go on and on, as you can probably guess! It makes my blood boil when I hear “it’s not in God’s plan” because it VERY CERTAINLY IS in God’s Plan… all the evidence from the wonders of the natural world that God created points us very clearly in that direction.

    1. Many thanks Betty. Yes when it comes to scripture and tradition ongoing education especially for people in leadership positions is absolutely essential.

  3. Dear Jack,
    This recent statement from the Vatican was a heartbreak. With all the divisions in our church, this one only adds to the crisis of confidence about our inclusivity. The impressive scientific evidence provided by Gabrielle shows us that long established norms are obviously subject to re-evaluation. But yours and her objective analysis alone will offer little reason to change the thinking to those who have a long entrenched in the belief that God “loves the sinner but hates the SIN.” I have grown in my understanding of homosexuality through personal experience when I discovered that dearly beloved friends were gay. One of my son’s lifelong friends who was with him in Catholic grade school, scouts, and family events and later became a respected teacher revealed his sexual orientation. Another of my teacher friends was homosexual. These and other personal experiences made me contront my previous perceptions more than any dialogue, treatise, or professional readings. I had, finally, put a face on the “problem” and realized that I was uninformed and wrong in my beliefs. It really helps to have wonderful experts like Gabrielle offer intellectual insights but seeing dear ones is electrifyingly emotionally self-confrontational. No priest or pope will ever convince me now that the good, kind, and loving people I know are in any way intrinsically maladjusted. The Jesus I know has and will continue to bless them. I am sincerely saddened by this jarring position that forces us Catholics to support a belief that we know is wrong.
    Frank Skeltis

    1. Actually I think transformation comes through personal encounter. I learned this years ago with my Father. He was not gay but he was a Protestant and in the St Mary’s Catholic elementary school in Paw Paw fourth grade teacher and the pastor of our parish continually asserted that Protestants followed a false religion. We were ordered by the parish priest to destroy any “Protestant Bibles” in our homes. Pious Jack tried to do. Dad asked me what in heck I was doing with his Bible the Word of God! Feeling stupid and embarrassed and looking at my Dad, my eyes opened: my Dad was a wonderfully kind and a true Christian. There was nothing false about him! – Jack

  4. Jack, well done as usual. Also, I really appreciate Gabrielle’s comments. I feel I have to address this, along with the terrible violence in Atlanta, in the weekend’s homily. I’m just not sure how to do it. I find the CDF dictum to be painful on many different levels, insensitive, nowhere near any Gospel values, and certainly not reflective of how Jesus lived. I am glad I am retired. If I were in a position that required me to support this mess, eg a pastor, I don’t know what I would do. Fo now I will just do things as Bryan Massingale described. The CDF, with official approval, sees its mission as to hurt good people in the name of Jesus Christ. That is something I do not want to be a part of, and I will not do so. Stay safe. Jim

  5. Dr. Jack, thanks for confirming my worst fears about P. Francis, God love him. Our seminary formation since 1960 wants more than what was available in 1060. I agree with Frank Skeltis too, and can only imagine what our late friend Dick Cross would say in support of you, and Frank, and the others. An element of grace, whether prevenient or natural or otherwise, comes in your last line, Galileo’s: Eppur si muove! That is what restores my faith in human decency even in face of unnatural static from the Vatican.

    1. Many thanks Dan. Yes I wonder what Dick Cross would say but have no doubts it would be positive. I was thinking about him last week while going through some old photos. He was such a fine man and such a good friend… – Jack

  6. Since Francis is already on record as favoring civil recognition of such partnerships as stabilizing, and providing family, I am puzzled about the issue of the “blessing.” Sounds to me as if the Congregation does not invoke the theolog yof marriage wherein the ministers of the sacrament are the couple. The priest is an official witness to protect the record of the transaction and lead the pledge of community support.. His blessing is a prayer that God will favor them in their Union. As usual the Vatican personnel are focus only on sex, and fail to attend to the notion of a person’s “choix fondamentale” or basic choice of living for God and others instead of only individual acts, though these too can give us perspective on the authenticity of that choice.

  7. Just a bit of an aside here. Dan Meyer, former Saginaw St. Paul seminarian one year ahead of me, and his references to our dear Fr. Richard Cross give me happy recollections of the days of Vatican II. We young seminarians were filled with hope and enthusiasm for the future. Our leaders were visionaries and inspirational. We knew that our church was going to change the world because we would be the new leaders who were influenced by the Spirit-infused message of Vatican II and the dynamic priests who were our heroes. Perhaps this really is our time to stand strong for truth and justice.
    Frank Skeltis

    1. Yes indeed but there are many good people today…many young people as well…who give me hope and enthusiasm for the future even if I may not experience it. -jack

  8. Marriage is a very ancient institution that civilizations defined thousands of years ago. Marriage as a sacrament is a recent Christian conviction that is defined as a sign and realization that God is unconditional love. The people who deny that homosexuals can marry are people whose notion of marriage reflects the fertility cults of ancient civilization. The people who affirm gay marriage recognize how two people can so love one another that they can not begin to imagine that they would separate. This sense of marriage was recognized by Benedict XVI in his encyclical on Love. The encyclical indicated that the Church was moving beyond the fertility cults that saw procreation as the primary purpose of marriage and was beginning to focus on its sacramentality bringing us to an awareness and experience of the God in whom we believe. That two baptized Catholics, or any two people, are able to achieve this level of psychological development should be celebrated and singled out as the best, if not the only way, to understand the Incarnation, not be called into question. The entire success of the New Evangelization rests upon understanding how the causality of grace succeeds among us by virtue of our humanity. The Old Evangelization presumed a supernatural causality that was set in motion by a divine plan. The causality of grace, however, is the foundation of our freedom as the children of God; we are not the servants of a divine command; and we should not be trapped within oppressive and controlling legislation. Eventually, the Church will take back all its oppressive and unloving expressions of human intimacy. The voices that have spoken here in response to your reflection, Jack, have already begun to do this. The unified voice of all the faithful has been recognized as a source of doctrine since the Council of Ephesus when the people in opposition to the authorities ran through the streets affirming that Mary should be recognized as the Mother of God. Vatican II reaffirmed this tradition. Thanks for this wonderful reflection, Jack, that has given us a chance to voice our belief in God as love, I remain amazed that you are able to sustain such a gracious tone as you write about these controversial issues. Your gracious tone is causing me to suppress what I really want to say. If we could all sustain this tone, talk about the schism that so many fear is coming to the Church will fade away. Pope Francis needs our support more than ever. I think his personality is totally committed to grace; his theology, however, gets in the way of his human affection for others. When his love for others forces him to confront his theological limitations, things will improve.

    1. Any thanks Tom. About Francis I think you have said it very well: “totally committed to grace; his theology, however, gets in the way of his human affection for others. When his love for others forces him to confront his theological limitations, things will improve.” Warmest regards – Jack

  9. Jack,

    Like many I was saddened by this confusing stance of the Vatican. Why should the Church not acknowledge and affirm the loving union of two people? I prefer to adhere to the mantra of Francis’ from a couple of years ago, “who are we to judge?”


  10. Excellent observations. What would make decisions easier is if we could get serious discussion about the foundation of any sex discussion, pleasure. When we were taught way back when, the principal was, “for a sex act to be more, there must be the deposit of seed in the vagina.” It sounded too biological so someone came up with the euphemism, “open to the transmission of life.” But in reality it all boils down to the Augustinian attitude that sex is too pleasurable not to be sinful.

    The starting point of any discussion of sexuality must be why the pleasure of sex can be sinful. I never heard any discussion of that when I was in the seminary and nothing since. It is the attachment of moral good to the possibility of children and evil to having the pleasure without the possibility of children. As you put it so well, it is the clash between tradition and Scripture with reason and experience.

  11. It is ironic that in the fields of scientific study of the past, eg archeology, paleogeology, etc new discoeriries are leading to new interpretations all fhe time. Even now, new manuscripts of Hydyn”s work continue to be found centuries after his death, so we can’t say that a composer’s total music output is certain!!
    The CDF seems to be made of custodians not pastors!!

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