Back to Forum

Blessing Same Sex Couples – And Stirring Up the Debate

Welcomed in many circles, condemned in others – that in short is the response to  Fiducia supplicans, the Declaration issued on behalf of Pope Francis by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on 18 December 2023 regarding blessing of couples in Irregular Situations and Same Sex Unions.[1]

The text has been misunderstood in many circles. A careful reading of it reveals that it does not alter church doctrine on homosexuality, the nature of Catholic marriage or official rejection of same sex marriage. What is does do is offer a pastoral solution to a tricky problem: blessing the couple while not blessing their union.

From the start Fiducia stresses that marriage is ‘the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children”’ (n. 4) and that ‘the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex’ (n.5). It then proceeds to reflect upon the theology of blessings in general. Blessings as sacramentals ‘lead us to grasp God’s presence in all the events of life and remind us that, even in the use of created things, human beings are invited to seek God, to love him, and to serve him faithfully. For this reason, blessings have as their recipients: people; objects of worship and devotion; sacred images; places of life, of work, and suffering; the fruits of the earth and human toil; and all created realities that refer back to the Creator, praising and blessing him by their beauty’ (n.8). With regards to blessing marriages, it continues:

…the Church has always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit, the Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice. (n. 11)

However, the document distinguishes between blessings that in a sense endorse a behavior and blessings that are sought to assist persons seeking God’s grace to live better lives (n. 21). Such a blessing, the text argues, should be open to anyone. Under such circumstances, and strictly outside of the context of a civil union, Fiducia allows the possibility of a same sex couple to be blessed.

In short, nothing has formally changed in church teaching, but in the spirit of Amoris Laetitia it allows for pastoral care of people in situations deemed to be irregular by the Church.

Reading through various WhatsApp groups, Websites and other sources, I have found that for many respondents it appears that the Church has overturned centuries of tradition. Even more worrying to me is the vitriolic and theologically ill-informed nature of many of these comments, particularly from sections of the African Church. The language of many posts is worth analyzing, because underlying it I detect a sense of confusion and fear.

For many there is confusion. We have been raised in a Church where any talk of change was made more than a little suspect for many years. The idea of a synodal as opposed to an exclusively hierarchical Church has come as a shock to some – particularly those who have assumed that the mode of governance we have had since 1870 was always the way we did things. For many, church teachings on sexuality drummed into us from our catechism days has also been a sacrosanct area, a position consolidated in us by observing how ethical ‘dissidents’ in the past – like Charles Curran, Andre Guindon, Robert Nugent, Jeannine Gramick and Margaret Farley – have been treated. There is confusion too over how we understand theology: while a more historical and developmental understanding has grown in many theological circles, much of the Church still operates within a classicist point of view. In moral theology in particular the classicist view still strongly influences questions of sexuality.

Openness to change in such matters is disorientating – and a source of fear. Could it be that behind much of the reaction is Fear – fear that reforms in the Church in general, and in questions of same sex unions in particular, could open the floodgates to relativism and the collapse of the Church? This is of particular concern since, while large parts of the Church are in crisis faced with declining numbers and ever decreasing participation, the Catholic Church in Africa apparently not.

Another dimension I notice in the posts is the appeal to African Culture. The claim is repeated that homosexuality is contrary to and does not exist African culture. The question is: is it? The majority of respondents say yes, a few note exceptional cases often limited to certain areas.

The latter position has been defended by a number of African scholars who have not been part of the above conversations. Busangokwakhe Dlamini, drawing on anthropological resources, argues that homosexual relations were part of pre-colonial African culture – and the ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ was a myth invented by Europeans in the colonial period.[2] Further evidence across the continent is provided by Chrysogonus M. Okwenna[3].  Philosopher Martin Odei Ajei[4] sees homophobia as deeply linked to

the moral weight assigned to having children, and emphasis on heterosexual intercourse as a way to achieving this. Procreation ensures continuation of biological heritage, through which the history of society unfolds.

He also notes that a survey[5] shows that ‘homosexual relationships constitute “a consistent and logical feature of African societies and belief systems”’, and argues that a moderate communitarian philosophy can make the case that homosexuals and straight families create better communities.

The empirical evidence seems to undermine broad claims of un-Africanness. But the hostility persists, spurred on I suspect by longstanding official Church disapproval. Until Fiducia came along and, despite its extreme caution, threw a theological spanner in the works. The question on everyone’s minds, no matter where one stands, is: Is this the beginning of change?

Now, in fairness, I must point out that I write as a South African. A South African whose culture is as rooted in my English and Irish ancestry as in Africa. Moreover South Africa legalized same sex civil marriage in 2006, the fifth[6] country in the world to do so.

Although such legislation did not end homophobia in South Africa, with many South Africans still holding these views, and while the Catholic Church in the country did not change its position, the new situation challenged many of us in the church to adopt a more pastoral approach, even before Amoris laetitia. For many years I served in a parish where – with the approval of the Archbishop – we ran a small group for LGBTI+ Catholics, more than 80% being from other countries in Africa.

That experience and a long engagement with the Church’s teaching on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular affects my way of seeing Fiducia. I have explored the Scriptural sources sometimes used in the debate – and find them wanting. They are too few (six texts, if I recall aright, between the Two Testaments), and their meanings are at best highly context dependent (and the details of which are sometimes unclear) or may even be open to misinterpretation or to a variety of meanings, some obscured by time (as in the case of porneia in Paul[7]).  Similarly, natural law arguments are, in the light of modern scientific knowledge (notably biology and psychology), hard to reconcile scientifically. On the Church’s view on the purpose of sexuality in marriage, once again there are problems. First, the assumption that there is a natural link between sexual acts and procreation is an oversimplification of the human sexual drive. Second, that the purpose of marriage must always include procreation is contradicted by the fact that the Church recognizes, and its ministers officiate at, marriages where procreation is impossible for reason of age. And this is implicitly recognized by official teaching on marriage that sees it as a permanent union of love and mutual support as well as for procreation.[8]

In short, much as many would like to think that the question of same sex relationships is cut and dried, this does not seem to me the case. And, though the text of Fiducia explicitly rules out any change in church doctrine, it gives me at least the hope that some parts of the Church are ready to ask a few critical questions.  At very least, let us hope that our conversations remain civil.

[1] . https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_ddf_doc_20231218_fiducia-supplicans_en.html. Last accessed: 21 December 2023.

[2] . Busangokwakhe Dlamini, “Homosexuality in the African Context” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, No. 67, Volume 2,3 (2006): 128-136.

[3] . Chrysogonus M. Okwenna, “Homosexuality in Traditional Africa”, In: Sunday Layi Oladipupo (ed.), African Philosophy: Whose Past and which Modernity. Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press, 2021, 277-292.

[4] . Martin Odei Ajei, “Homosexuality and Africa: a philosopher’s perspective” The Conversation  June 26, 2022, at: https://theconversation.com/homosexuality-and-africa-a-philosophers-perspective-185536.

[5] . Stephen O. Murray, Will Roscoe, Marc Epprecht, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities Albany: SUNY Press, 2021.

[6] . Sixth. If we count some states in the United States.

[7] . See: L William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.

[8] . This all too brief summary is based on a growing literature that challenges official presumptions. See, for example: James Alison, Broken hearts and new creations: intimations of a great reversal. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 2010; Ibid., Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a Break-In. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 2006; Ibid., On being liked. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 2004. Ibid., Faith beyond resentment: fragments Catholic and gay. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 2001; Gareth Moore OP, The Body in Context: Sex and Catholicism London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1992; Ibid. A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality London: A&C Black,2003; Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics New York: Continuum, 2006; Patricia Beattie Jung & Joseph Andrew Coray (eds.), Sexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001.