(Art by David Sankey)

It has been several months since the release of the Vatican’s new declaration on the blessing of same-sex couples. Considering the reception of this teaching and the reasoning of Fiducia supplicans itself, I regard it as an essential but awkward step forward. It gives LGBTQ Catholics much to celebrate. Prior to the new declaration, no same-sex couples could be blessed by any cleric in the Catholic Church under any circumstances. With this development, they can now receive blessings with the sanction of the highest authorities in the Church. This change is not merely an act of tolerance but of welcome, and that is a significant step forward.

In terms of doctrine, however, it is an awkward step forward, and a sudden one. It is sure to give the Church a bit of whiplash. This is due, at least in part, to confusion among Catholics about what has changed and what has not. What has not changed is the teaching of the Church on marriage and the morality of homosexual acts. The declaration itself insists upon this. Marriage is an exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and woman and “it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning.”

To account for what has changed is a bit more complicated. To begin with, there is a change at the level of method. The declaration does not simply arrive at a different conclusion from previous teachings on same-sex relationships. It approaches the issue in an entirely different way, operating with a different set of priorities. The evidence for this lies in the distinction the declaration makes between “certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes” and “a more pastoral approach.” Fiducia supplicans unapologetically prioritizes the latter. It finds the practice of blessing same-sex couples valid not principally for doctrinal or theological reasons but rather for pastoral reasons. This prioritizing of pastoral care and accompaniment over doctrinal enforcement is a hallmark of Francis’s papacy. It has deep roots in his own experience as a priest and bishop in Latin America. Like Pope Francis’s earlier apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, this new declaration makes room for the reality of persons who are on the road to holiness, refusing to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Alongside a new practice, however, there must still be an appropriate development of doctrine. It is not true to say, in response to the declaration, that “nothing has changed” in Church teaching. To the contrary, the development of doctrine is a natural and indispensable process in the Church, a point that Pope Francis himself has clearly affirmed. And a change has indeed happened in Fiducia supplicans. The declaration is an explicit, if unwieldy, attempt to develop doctrine wisely in light of pastoral priorities. To understand what has taken place in terms of doctrine, one needs to go back to a previous Vatican statement on blessing same-sex couples and, perhaps briefly, to a twelfth-century theological insight. 


In 2021, the Vatican office that was then called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Responsum ad dubium that categorically ruled out the possibility of blessing same-sex couples. It did this for two reasons, stated very clearly in the explanatory note. Both reasons were based on the notion that blessings are a kind of “sacramental.” In the Catholic tradition, a sacramental is a practice—or an item associated with a practice—that resembles the sacraments and functions therefore as a sacred sign. This includes blessings, rites, prayers, and devotional objects. Sacramentals are distinguished from the sacraments themselves insofar as they signify grace but do not cause grace. According to the great scholastic theologian Peter Lombard, it is in their power to cause grace that the seven sacraments are distinguishable from other sacred signs. Principal among these other signs, which are not sacraments themselves but are still sacramental in character, is the act of blessing.

Against this theological background, the Responsum provides its two lines of reasoning meant to preclude the blessing of same-sex couples. First, there is the argument about what blessings are supposed to signify. Since the purpose of any sacramental is to signify grace and dispose us to receive it, a blessing can be conferred only on that which is “ordered to receive and express grace.” And since same-sex relationships involve an objectively disordered element—sex between two people outside of marriage—they are not capable of receiving a blessing. In short, a blessing cannot signify grace when it is not there. This fact, according to the Responsum, is unaffected by the presence of other “positive elements” in the relationship.

Like Pope Francis’s earlier apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, this new declaration makes room for the reality of persons who are on the road to holiness.

Second, there is the argument about imitation of the sacraments. Since sacramentals by their nature are meant to imitate and resemble sacraments, care must be taken not to misrepresent the meaning of the sacraments themselves. A blessing of a same-sex couple would be dangerously similar to the nuptial blessing imparted during the sacrament of matrimony. It would, therefore, imply that same-sex relationships are analogous to marriage. To avoid such scandal, the Responsum insists that the Church and its ministers may not offer such blessings.

Fiducia supplicans presents itself as a direct follow-up to the Responsum, intended not to abrogate its doctrinal claims but rather to elaborate on them and integrate them with pastoral considerations. It proposes, in essence, a broadened and enriched theology of blessings in order to make space for blessing same-sex couples under certain conditions. The central claim of the declaration with respect to the Responsum is that the latter’s first line of reasoning applied only to blessings in a liturgical context. When the blessing of a couple has a formal, ritual structure, and especially when it is associated liturgically with the sacraments, the relationship in question must “correspond with God’s designs written in creation” by meeting certain moral prerequisites. However, the declaration argues, the meaning of blessings is broader than this, and it must not be reduced to this liturgical context. In a wider biblical, theological, and pastoral perspective, blessings are an “expression of God’s merciful embrace” in which faithful persons demonstrate awareness of their dependence upon God’s saving presence and, in response, the Church offers God’s gifts and unconditional love. A blessing in this sense is appropriate even in sinful or “irregular” situations, so long as those who seek the blessing do so with sincerity.

The new declaration shares the Responsum’s concern about misrepresentation, but proposes a solution. To avoid confusing the blessing of same-sex couples with nuptial blessings, the former must be reserved for spontaneous and informal situations. These blessings must be kept out of a directly liturgical context, and they must never be ritualized. What the Fiducia supplicans envisions, therefore, is a twofold understanding of blessings. Blessings that are formal, or performed liturgically, belong to one category. These can be offered only to couples in relationships that meet appropriate moral criteria. Blessings that are spontaneous in nature belong to a broader category, and these are not subject to the same restriction.


The strength of this solution lies in its appeal to pastoral prudence. The declaration opens a space for ministers of the Church to discern what is fitting in their communities and to respond to the people they serve with wisdom and compassion. It also places a great deal of confidence in the faithful to seek what is right in their relationships with God and one another.

The declaration opens a space for ministers of the Church to discern what is fitting in their communities and to respond to the people they serve with wisdom and compassion.

Nevertheless, the reasoning behind this solution is awkward for two reasons. First, it effectively relegates same-sex couples to a lower category of blessing. Spontaneous blessings do possess their own integrity and value, but the fact remains that liturgical blessings, which are more proximate to the sacraments and are validated publicly before the People of God, are reserved for heterosexual couples only. Second, the solution offered by the declaration does not adequately address the Responsum’s central theological claim, which is what is most harmful to LGBTQ Catholics. The Responsum argued that it is not only inappropriate but actually impossible for the Church to bless same-sex couples because a blessing cannot signify grace in the context of a relationship that is not ordered to grace. Rather than revising this judgment, the declaration proposes a pastoral workaround. It limits the Responsum’s concern about misrepresentation only to liturgical blessings and suggests that, in the context of same-sex relationships, a personal attitude of sincerity and repentance is sufficient to merit another kind of blessing. No mention is made of the love between two people, their endurance and self-giving, the life and family they may have built together, or the joyful witness of their union to the Church. Neither is there any mention of the presence and action of God in these relationships. Once again, the relationship is reduced to sexual activity so that it cannot be acknowledged as a site of grace.

Some commentators have construed the distinction between liturgical and spontaneous blessings in terms of moral endorsement. Austen Ivereigh, for instance, argues that Fiducia supplicans distinguishes between blessings of a descending nature, which imply divine endorsement or approval, and blessings of an ascending nature, which express “supplicating trust.” On this view, the first category of blessings is liturgical, while the second category is spontaneous or pastoral. But the declaration itself does not make such a distinction. In fact, it points out that all blessings, including those available to same-sex couples, possess both a descending and an ascending dimension. Whether a blessing is official or not, it involves God’s grace as well as our trusting surrender to God. In my view, there is no real theological distinction here. The only distinction the declaration makes is between official and unofficial blessings, a distinction designed to preserve the Church from implying that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable.

The Church has taken a welcome step forward. But the magisterium still regards LGBTQ Catholics and their relationships as sinful—as incapable of carrying grace worthy of expressing through blessing. Of course, all human beings, living as we do in a fallen world, stand in need of God’s mercy. This is no less true of LGBTQ people. However, until the magisterium realizes that same-sex couples are in themselves a blessing to the Church, that their relationships are not reducible to sex, and that God is speaking in the life and love they share, then there is still work to be done. 

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Xavier M. Montecel is a Catholic moral theologian whose research focuses on the relationship between liturgy and ethics. He is Assistant Professor of Catholic Social and Theological Ethics at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

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