In a letter written in July and published on Monday, Pope Francis signaled that he would be open to extending blessings to same-sex unions — but he stopped short of endorsing marriage equality.
“The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation,” he wrote in the letter, according to Vatican News, which published an English translation of the Pope’s letter.
“However, in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes,” he wrote. “Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”
New York native Aaron Bianco, an out gay advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic Church, said the news came as a surprise to him. Several years ago, Bianco was forced to leave his leadership role at St. John’s the Evangelist Catholic Church in San Diego after he was the target of serious harassment and threats from the fringes of the far right.
“I was a little shocked when the announcement came out because just a few months ago [Pope Francis] said that it would not be possible to bless them,” he said. “I applaud him. I have always said there’s a difference between blessing someone’s marriage or union than the sacrament of marriage in the church, and I’ve always contended that Catholic priests bless everything. They bless people’s cars, they bless people’s pets, why was it such a hard thought that they would bless two people that were trying to live a life together filled with love?”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBTQ organization, said that the news is welcome, even if it didn’t go as far as many hoped.
“This statement is one big straw towards breaking the camel’s back of the marginalized treatment LGBTQ+ people experience in the Church,” DeBernardo said. “The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God.”
This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has made remarks that appeared to be in support of LGBTQ inclusion in the church, though many of those developments have been followed up with clarifications. In 2016 he said the church should “apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended.” Earlier this year, Pope Francis said homosexuality is “not a crime,” but is still a sin. In 2020, it was revealed that Francis made comments endorsing civil unions and defending the right of same-sex couples to form families — but the Vatican subsequently stepped in to say his remarks were taken out of context.
Bianco said it was significant that the Pope’s announcement came in a response to five Cardinals that had questioned him. “I think that says a lot,” he said. “I think that’s even a bigger deal that he directed it back to those Cardinals.”
Bianco said the announcement will probably be the topic discussed at the synod, a meeting of leaders of the Catholic church in the Vatican that begins on Oct. 4. “But I always say don’t hold your breath with anything; there’s always one step forward and two steps back,” he added.
At the same time, Bianco emphasized there are “thousands” of Catholic priests that already bless same-sex couples.
“It is happening, and if people want to close their eyes and act like it’s not, that’s fine,” Bianco said. “It’s the people in the pews and the local priests that really start to change things. It’s not normally the Vatican. It happens locally.”