Pope's approval of gay blessings could have impact where rights are restricted, LGBTQ+ advocates say

Pope Francis’ authorization for Catholic priests to offer blessings to same-sex couples is in many ways a recognition of what has been going on in some European parishes for years

Nicole Winfield
Tuesday 19 December 2023 15:29 GMT
Pope approves blessings for same-sex couples

Pope Francis’ authorization for Catholic priests to offer blessings to same-sex couples is in many ways a recognition of what has been going on in some European parishes for years. But Francis’ decision to officially spell out his approval could send a message of tolerance to places where gay rights are more restricted.

From Uganda to the United States, laws that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people or even criminalize homosexuality have increased in recent years, leaving communities feeling under attack. Pastors in some conservative Christian denominations in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, have sometimes supported such measures as consistent with biblical teaching about homosexuality.

The Vatican says gays should be treated with dignity and respect but says homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Francis hasn’t changed that teaching, but he has spent much of his 10-year pontificate trying to show a more welcoming attitude to LGBTQ+ Catholics.

The Vatican statement Monday marked a new step in Francis’ campaign, explicitly authorizing priests to offer non-sacramental blessings to same-sex couples. The conditions are that such blessings must in no way resemble marriage, which the church teaches can only exist between a man and woman.

The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, a German priest who participated in open worship services blessing same-sex couples in May 2021, said Tuesday the approval essentially validated what he and other priests in Germany have been doing for years. But he said it would make life easier for homosexual couples in more conservative societies.

“In my church, such blessings always take place when anyone has the need,” Rothe said by phone from Munich.

However, he added that “in many countries around the world there are opposing moves to maintain homophobia in the church. For homosexual couples living there, the document will be a huge relief.”

In Nigeria, for example, law enforcement authorities staged mass arrests of gay people in October in a crackdown that human rights groups said made use of the country's same-sex prohibition law to target the LGBTQ+ community.

Nigeria is one of more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries where homosexuality is criminalized in laws that are broadly supported by the public, even though its constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination and the right to private and family life.

Uganda’s president earlier this year signed into law anti-gay legislation that prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people.

The bill signed by President Yoweri Museveni doesn’t criminalize those who identify as LGBTQ+, which an earlier draft bill had done. LGBTQ+ rights campaigners said even the amended legislation was unnecessary in a country where homosexuality has long been illegal under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity “against the order of nature.”

There was no immediate statement from the Catholic church in Uganda on the pope's authorization.

In the United States, the Human Rights Campaign has identified an “unprecedented and dangerous” spike in discriminatory laws sweeping statehouses this year, with more than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced.

“Given the homophobic and transphobic climate created by many bishops in the United States, the average same-sex couple likely still won’t feel comfortable presenting themselves to their local bishop or priest to ask for a blessing,” said Jamie L. Manson, a lesbian and president of Catholics for Choice, which advocates for greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church.

“Today’s declaration reveals that this is not a Pope Francis problem but a middle-management problem — one caused by decades of hardened institutional stigma and outspoken anti-LGBTQIA+ advocacy from a hierarchy increasingly mired in culture wars, in defiance of a pope who is moving the church in an opposite, more inclusive direction,” she said in a statement.

Starting from his famous “Who am I to judge” comment in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, Francis has evolved his position to increasingly make clear that everyone — “todos, todos, todos” — is a child of God, is loved by God and welcome in the church.

In a January interview with The Associated Press, Francis was asked specifically about countries that criminalize homosexuality and homosexual acts. He made clear he knew that some 60 countries globally have such laws on the books.

“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said at the time. Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and said such bishops need a process of conversion.

Raul Pena, a spokesman for Chrismhom, Madrid’s main Catholic LGBTQ+ association, referred to countries in Africa that are passing anti-gay laws. But he also said small-town, conservative dioceses in rural Spain could also benefit from Francis’ message.

“Because if the priest from your town talks about gays being the devil in his sermons each Sunday, which some priests do, now you have the pope signing a document saying that homosexuals who live as a couple can be blessed," he said. “It’s a fundamental step for those hierarchies and for those people who are in places where being LGBT is difficult."


Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed.

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