The Vatican’s declaration that same-sex unions are a sin the Catholic Church cannot bless was no surprise for LGBTQ Catholics in the United States — yet it stung deeply nonetheless.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said her organization’s membership includes same-sex couples who have been together for decades, persevering in their love for one another in the face of bias and family rejection.

“The fact that our church at its highest levels cannot recognize the grace in that and cannot extend any sort of blessing to these couples is just tragic,” she said.

She was responding to a formal statement Monday from the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, saying Catholic clergy may not bless such unions since God “cannot bless sin.” It was approved by Pope Francis.

“Having sin be explicitly included in this statement kind of brings us back to zero,” said Ross Murray, who oversees religious issues for the LGBTQ rights group GLAAD.

He expressed dismay that “the ability for us to live out our lives fully and freely is still seen as an affront to the church or, worse yet, an affront to God, who created us and knows us and loves us.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for greater LGBTQ acceptance in the church, said that if those priests who have already been blessing same-sex unions now stop doing so, lay Catholics could be moved take their place.

“If priests and pastoral ministers no longer feel they can perform such a blessing, the Catholic laity will step in and perform their own rituals,” DeBernardo said. “The toothpaste is out of the tube, and it can’t be put back inside.”

Father Bryan Massingale, an openly gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table … than it was before.”

For Catholics in same-sex relationships, he said, the Vatican’s new message will hurt.

“Every human being is born with this innate desire to love,” he said. “For those who are oriented toward members of the same sex … to have it being described as inherently or innately sinful without any qualification, that is crushing.”

Jesuit Father James Martin, another priest who advocates for greater LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic church, said in a post on Twitter that he received dozens of messages from LGBTQ people on Monday saying they were discouraged by the Vatican’s pronouncement. He urged them not to despair.

“Besides, what is the alternative?” he asked. “To live in fear of the future that God has in store for us?… To doubt that Jesus is on the side of those who feel in any way marginalized?”

Vatican doctrine holds that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and respect, but that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” and that same-sex unions are sinful.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said those teachings, put together, are problematic.

“It boggles the mind that the hierarchy can affirm that LGBTQ+ persons are made in the image of God but that their unions are a sin,” she said via email. “Are they made in God’s image with the exception of their hearts? With the exception of their abilities and inclinations to love?”

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the U.S.-based NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, said she was relieved the Vatican statement wasn’t harsher.

She interpreted it as saying, “You can bless the individuals (in a same-sex union), you just can’t bless the contract.”

“So it’s possible you could have a ritual where the individuals get blessed to be their committed selves.”

The Vatican’s pronouncement was welcomed by some church conservatives, however, such as Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League.

“There will be no recognition of homosexual unions or marriage by the Catholic Church. It is non-negotiable. End of story,” he said.

“Pope Francis has been under considerable pressure by gay activists, in and out of the church, to give the green light to gay marriage,” Donohue added, calling Monday’s statement “the most decisive rejection of those efforts ever written.”

Francis has endorsed providing legal protections for same-sex couples, but that is in the civil sphere and not the church.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean advocate for sex-abuse victims who is gay, reported in 2018 that when he met with Francis, the pope had told him, “God made you like this, and he loves you.”

On Monday, Cruz said the Vatican officials who issued the new statement “are completely in a world of their own, away from people and trying to defend the indefensible.”

He called for a change in the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, saying it was undermining efforts by Francis to create a more inclusive church.

“If the church and the CDF do not advance with the world … Catholics will continue to flee.” he said.

In Francis’s homeland of Argentina, LGBTQ activist Esteban Paulon said earlier statements by the pontiff conveying empathy and understanding for gays and lesbians were mere gestures, lacking any official weight.

“They were not institutional pronouncements,” said Paulon, executive director of the Institute of Public Policies LGBT+. “Saying that homosexual practice is a sin takes us back 200 years and promotes hate speech that unfortunately in Latin America and Europe is on the rise.”

Chile’s largest LGBTQ rights group, the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, condemned the decree as a “homophobic and anti-Christian action” from the Catholic hierarchy.

Spokesman Oscar Rementería contrasted the Vatican’s stern rhetoric against same-sex marriage with the many documented cases of Catholic leaders covering up child sex abuse committed by clergy.

Associated Press writers Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Nicole Winfield in Rome and Mariam Fam in Cairo contributed to this report.