In an 11-year papacy marked by surprises, Pope Francis’s decision to allow Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples is perhaps his biggest one yet. Just two years ago, the same Vatican department that released this week’s new document said that priests couldn’t bless same-sex couples because God “can’t bless sin.”
More than any other move in his papacy, this decision was met with swift opposition from conservative clerics and theologians. University of Notre Dame theologian Ulrich Lehner said it was “the most unfortunate public announcement in decades.” He argued that “some bishops will use it as a pretext to do what the document explicitly forbids, especially since the Vatican has not stopped them before. It is — and I hate to say it — an invitation to schism.”
Lehner and other conservatives’ claims aren’t only overheated — they’re flat-out wrong. Pope Francis’s new document doesn’t subvert Church teaching. It upholds it.
To the chagrin of my fellow progressives, it’s essential to note that the document doesn’t change the Catholic Church’s teaching on gay marriage. It’s prohibited — without exception.
What is evolving is how the Church responds to LGBT people who participate in same-sex relationships. Until recently, the Church’s particular focus on sexual issues — what Francis himself called an “obsession” — meant that nearly all sexual sins were treated over and above other sins, even the most serious ones.
This Christmas season, priests will rightly visit prisons across the world to give their blessings to rapists, pedophiles and murderers. If they can do that with people whose sins are nearly unforgivable, they most certainly do that with people whose “irregular relationships” are not.
A blessing isn’t an endorsement. It’s an invitation to God and the persons receiving it to grow closer together. What Christian wouldn’t want such an invitation to be extended to each and every person — no matter who they are?
At the heart of Christianity lies the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This unconditional love, preached by Jesus Christ, forms the bedrock of Christian ethics. Through his groundbreaking decision, Pope Francis is not rebelling against this tradition but instead upholding it in its purest form. His action vividly demonstrates the Church’s commitment to embrace and offer pastoral care to all individuals, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
Pope Francis’s favorite word is mercy.
During the first year of his pontificate, he was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis’s birth name)?” He responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon [with mercy].”
Francis wants to extend his theology of God’s infinite mercy to the entire Church: As he said a decade ago, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”
Francis’s simple pastoral step isn’t breaking any new ground theologically, nor does it intend to change the Church’s theological and political stances on gay marriage.
Francis’s message to the LGBT community has been simple but has once again proclaimed the fundamental truths of the Christian faith: You are children of God. The Lord loves you. Christ walks with you. The pope cherishes you, and the Church welcomes you.
Christopher Hale is a DNC delegate for President Biden and a Democratic strategist. He formerly led Catholic outreach for President Obama and served as a nonprofit executive. He was the 2020 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Congress in Tennessee’s 4th District.
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