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'A solid step forward' — LGBTQ+ Catholics react to same-sex blessing declaration

Pope Francis leads a mass in memory of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI and the Cardinals and Bishops who died over the course of the year at St Peter's basilica in The Vatican, on November 3, 2023.
Filippo Monteforte
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AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis leads a mass in memory of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI and the Cardinals and Bishops who died over the course of the year at St Peter's basilica in The Vatican, on November 3, 2023.

Updated December 22, 2023 at 11:58 AM ET

Samuel Smith didn't think he'd see this day in his lifetime.

A document released by the Vatican and approved by Pope Francis now allows priests to bless same-gender couples.

As a gay, transgender Catholic, Smith wasn't sure he'd be able to include any elements of his faith in his wedding.

"Now that we have the option of having a blessing, getting our relationship blessed, even outside of a marriage, even outside of matrimony, which is the sacred sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church," Smith told NPR's Morning Edition. "It's still a big deal to be able to get blessed and to be able to incorporate that Catholic tradition in our relationship."

Smith, 23, and his fiancé, Micah Percy, 22, from Towson, Maryland, hope to get married in 2025.

Before the news broke, Percy, a recent convert to Catholicism, was thinking about workarounds with the couple's priest, Father Matt Buening.

"Maybe he can bless the rings," Percy thought.

But now, "the fact that we can actually have our union blessed... I would say is a solid step forward," Percy said. "It's big for me because it's a way we can incorporate God and our religion into our marriage."

The move is one step on the road to weddings in the Church for same-gender couples, according to Smith, who co-chairs an advocacy group for LGBT+ Catholics in the Baltimore area.

"I could very much see LGBT matrimony being a thing in the Catholic Church because the fact that Pope Francis went and said that God loves us all in this document... it's still a big step from when I was a kid, going to go into Sunday school and hearing that marriage is between one man and one woman and that gay people shouldn't be allowed to even have positions in the Catholic churches or the ability to minister or to be Sunday school teachers or even sit in the pews," Smith added.

For Marianne Duddy-Burke and her wife Becky Duddy-Burke in Boston, the news is a chance to bless their 25 years of marriage.

"It's incredibly significant that the leaders of our Church are finally recognizing that the love and commitment between two women, two men, two people of the same gender, can carry that same holiness and sacredness that any other relationship can have," Marianne Duddy-Burke said.

She is the executive director of DignityUSA, a group that promotes equality and respect for LGBTQIA+ Catholics.

While Becky Duddy-Burke welcomed the Vatican move, she was also disappointed that it didn't go further.

"Hopefully at some point same sex couples can [experience] marriage in their parishes," she said.

That is still explicitly banned by the Church.

The declaration allowing same-sex blessings reiterates the view that marriage is between one man and one woman, and any priests granting a blessing to a same-sex couple must "avoid any form of confusion or scandal" that could suggest otherwise.

Priests aren't allowed to give the blessing at the same time as a wedding or civil union, or use any "clothing, gestures or words" that are associated with weddings.

A conservative backlash

The news hasn't been universally welcomed.

"It's a disaster because the Church is changing the way it approaches mortal sin," Father Gerald Murray told NPR.

Murray is the pastor at the Church of the Holy Family in New York City.

"The church teaches that the law of God has been laid down by Christ. And that does not include the approval of homosexual activity," Murray added.

He was unhappy at Pope Francis' role in approving the new document.

"The Pope is supposed to lead us in the faith, not change the faith," said Murray.

This week's declaration is a reversal from a 2021 statement by the Vatican that priests could not bless same-sex marriages, saying that God "does not and cannot bless sin."

Gay weddings in churches unlikely

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest who founded a ministry for LGBT+ Catholics, doesn't believe the Vatican's latest teaching will lead to same-sex marriages in churches.

"I don't think so. It's an opening to seeing that these relationships are relationships of love and that they deserve God's help as much as anyone else does," Martin told Morning Edition.

Martin has met with Pope Francis to discuss LGBTQ+ issues on three separate occasions.

He wasn't surprised by the caveats in the document intended to avoid any confusion that a priest might be endorsing a same-sex marriage, but described it as "a dramatic turnaround" from the 2021 statement.

"It's really a historic step forward for LGBTQ Catholics," Martin added. "This is a response to a need of Catholics in the Church. And not just LGBTQ Catholics... but their friends and their families."

He's already been asked to bless same-sex couples and was preparing to do so, while following the document's guidance.

"I'll probably wear my collar, which is fine. I won't do it in a church, I won't be dressed in liturgical vestments," Martin explained. "We'll do it in the living room of my Jesuit community."

It's a great Christmas gift to LGBT+ Catholics, he agreed.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.