Pope Francis announced on Monday that he would allow priests to bless same-sex couples, a shift that angered some conservatives but was celebrated by those who said that the decision was a substantial step in moving the church toward greater acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.
“It really is a landmark and milestone in the church’s relationship with L.G.B.T.Q. people that can’t be overestimated or overstated,” Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland group that has advocated on behalf of gay Catholics since the 1970s, said. “This declaration is proof that church teaching can — and does — change.”
Conservative Catholics in the United States, many of whom are deeply skeptical of Francis’ leadership, were disappointed. Some reacted with anger and others with a sense of resignation.
The pope’s decision was issued “in contradiction to the unchangeable Catholic teaching that the church cannot bless sinful relationships,” the conservative LifeSiteNews wrote.
The pope’s decision does not mean that the church will now marry same-sex couples. Priests may now offer blessings to people in same-sex marriages, although the blessings must not take the form of a liturgical rite that could be confused with the sacrament of marriage, and they cannot include “any clothing, gestures or words that are proper to a wedding.”
The new rule upends the Vatican’s longtime assertion that blessing same-sex couples at all would undermine the church’s teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, including a 2021 ruling that said God “cannot bless sin.”
The head of the church’s office on doctrine, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, wrote in an introduction to the papal document that it was “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.”
In a brief and cautious statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized the distinction between formal sacramental blessings and “pastoral blessings.”
“The church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, and this declaration affirms that, while also making an effort to accompany people through the imparting of pastoral blessings because each of us needs God’s healing love and mercy in our lives,” Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the bishops, said.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, an outspoken conservative in a city known as a longtime vanguard of gay rights, stressed that the document did not change Catholic doctrine.
“I encourage those who have questions to read the Vatican declaration closely, and in continuity with the church’s unchanging teaching,” he said in a statement. “Doing so will enable one to understand how it encourages pastoral solicitude while maintaining fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Francis signaled in October that he was open to the possibility of blessing same-sex couples, the latest in a series of moves on L.G.B.T.Q. issues since Cardinal Fernández assumed his role as the Vatican’s head of church doctrine. In November, the pope made clear that transgender people could be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings in certain circumstances.
The document does not suggest that every priest will be expected to offer blessings in every circumstance, but some Catholic leaders worried that the guidance could create awkwardness for priests who declined a request from a gay couple as a matter of conscience.
Young priests in the United States are overwhelmingly conservative, even more so than the older cohort of bishops who lead them, setting up the possibility of conflicts in individual parishes and dioceses.
“I will never confer a blessing upon two men or two women who are involved in a sexual relationship that is by its nature gravely sinful,” said the Rev. Gerald Murray, the pastor at Holy Family Church in New York and an outspoken conservative. “The pope has placed priests who uphold Catholic doctrine about the immorality of sodomy and adultery into a terrible position.”
For many conservatives, the document was the logical culmination of a papacy that began with Francis asking, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay priests in 2013. Though he has made few concrete changes, Francis has signaled for years that he intended to take a softer line on Catholic doctrine on sexuality and marriage, emphasizing openness over restriction.
“It’s another one of these ways to approve of homosexual relations without actually saying we’re approving of them,” said Peter Kwasniewski, a traditionalist Catholic author.
The decision is unlikely to agitate most Catholics in the American pews. More than six in 10 Catholics in the United States said they supported same-sex marriage in a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2019.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, an organization supporting L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, said the shift from the Vatican’s 2021 statement was “meteoric.”
But Ms. Duddy-Burke, who is married to a woman, said she would not be seeking a blessing for her marriage. “We don’t feel that a blessing from a priest is necessary to validate our commitment or relationship,” she said.
And much was left to be done, as Ms. Duddy-Burke saw it. “It feels like another window in the church has been opened,” she said, “while we’re still waiting for the doors to be thrown wide.”