ROME – A new ruling from the Vatican’s doctrinal office says that transsexual individuals can be baptized, and also opens a cautious door to allowing transgender and homosexual couples to serve as godparents, while indicating that the “homosexual lifestyle” remains sinful and that more suitable options ought to be considered.
The decision, which came in response to a set of dubia, or “doubts,” submitted by a Brazilian bishop, has been welcomed by advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, who nevertheless also argues it doesn’t go far enough.
The dubia were submitted to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) by Bishop Giuseppe (José) Negri of Santo Amaro in Brazil, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, on July 14.
The six dubia Negri issued focused on whether transsexuals can be baptized, whether they can serve as godparents, whether actively homosexual couples could serve as parents to a baptized child, and whether a cohabitating homosexual could be godparent to a child or witnesses to a marriage.
In a letter of response, signed Oct. 31 by both Pope Francis and DDF prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the dicastery indicated that an active homosexual lifestyle was still sinful and a potential source of scandal, and that while baptism was possible, prudence is necessary.
“A transsexual – who has undergone hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery – can receive baptism, under the same conditions as other believers, if there are no situations in which there is a risk of generating public scandal or disorientation among the faithful,” the response said.
In the case of a child or adolescent who is transgender, they are also able to receive baptism, “if well prepared and willing,” the response said.
However, the response also cautioned that special considerations ought to be considered when it comes to transsexuals receiving baptism, “especially when there are doubts about the objective moral situation the person is in, or about his or her subjective dispositions toward grace.”
The response quoted Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), clarifying that when a person is baptized without repenting of “grave sins,” they do not receive the “sanctifying grace” of the sacrament, although they do receive the “sacramental character,” meaning, theologically speaking, that the person is still baptized and therefore inclined to grace.
The response quoted St. Thomas Aquinas saying that when “the impediment to grace” is removed in someone who has been baptized “without the right dispositions,” the person is still disposed to grace. St. Augustine was quoted to the effect that “even if a man falls into sin, Christ does not destroy the character received by him in baptism and seeks the sinner, in whom this character is imprinted.”
The response also quoted Pope Francis, who in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium said “the doors of the sacraments should [not] be closed for any reason,” especially baptism, as the Church “is not a customs house, it is a paternal home where there is room for each person with his or her labored life.”
“Even when doubts remain about a person’s objective moral situation or about his or her subjective dispositions toward grace, one should never forget this aspect of the faithfulness of God’s unconditional love, which is capable of generating even with the sinner an irrevocable covenant, always open to development, and also unpredictable,” the response said.
The response said this holds true even when a person does not clearly change their behavior, as the predictability of a “new fall” in the person does not erase the “authenticity of the purpose” in obtaining baptism.
“In any case, the Church should always call to live out fully all the implications of baptism received, which must always be understood and deployed within the entire journey of Christian initiation,” it said.
On whether a transsexual person could serve as a godparent, the responses indicated cautious openness, saying that under certain conditions, a transsexual person “may be admitted to the task of godfather or godmother.”
However, given that the role of godparent “is not a right,” the response said, “pastoral prudence demands that it should not be allowed if there is a danger of scandal, undue legitimization or disorientation in the educational sphere of the church community.”
In terms of being witnesses at a wedding ceremony, the responses said that “there is nothing in current canon law that prohibits” a homosexual or transsexual person from being a witness to a marriage.
On whether a homosexual couple could serve as parents to a child obtained through adoption or surrogacy whom they wish to baptize, the responses said that “for the child to be baptized there must be a well-founded hope that he or she will be educated in the Catholic religion.”
The responses also addressed whether a person leading an active homosexual lifestyle was able to be a godparent. Quoting canon law, the response also indicated cautious openness, while stating that more suitable candidates should be considered first.
Anyone who “possesses the aptitude and leads a life in conformity with the faith and with the office he or she assumes can be a godparent,” the response said, distinguishing between two homosexual persons cohabiting, and a homosexual couple openly living a romantic relationship that is well known to their community.
“In any case, due pastoral prudence demands that every situation be wisely weighed, in order to safeguard the sacrament of baptism and especially its reception, which is a precious good to be protected, since it is necessary for salvation,” the response said.
It underlined the “real value” the church community places on the duties of godparents, their role in their Church communities, and “the consideration they show toward the teaching of the church.”
“The possibility that there may be another person from the family circle to act as guarantor of the proper transmission of the Catholic faith to the baptized person should also be taken into account, knowing that one can still assist the baptized person, during the rite, not only as godfather or godmother, but, also, as witnesses to the baptismal act,” it said.
While the response has been opposed by some who argue that it opens the door to a change in Church teaching on homosexuality and LGBTQ+ issues, advocates have welcomed the decision as a significant step forward, even if it doesn’t go far enough.
In a statement reacting to the DDF’s responses, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of LGBTQ+ advocacy group New Ways Ministry said the responses are proof that “Pope Francis’s desire for a pastorally-focused approach to LGBTQ+ issues is taking hold.”
They said the DDF’s responses are in contrast with both previous Vatican positions and restrictions imposed by some American bishops on LGBTQ+ individuals.
“Though the document appears to caution that people in same-gender relationships may not be suitable godparents, the new decision’s emphasis that ‘pastoral prudence’ be used on a case-by-case basis opens the possibilities for married gay people to serve in such roles,” DeBernardo said.
Allowing transgender people to be baptized and serve as godparents and witnesses at Catholic weddings is a confirmation “that the pope and high-ranking Church leaders to not perceive gender identity as de facto a barrier for participating in Catholic sacraments,” he said, calling this a “180-degree reversal” of a previous stance taken by the DDF in 2015 preventing a transgender man in Spain from serving as a godparent.
Not only do the dubia responses “remove barriers” for transgender people’s participation in the church’s sacramental life, “it proves that the Catholic Church can – and does – change its mind about certain practices and policies,” DeBernardo said.
However, he said the response also reveals that the Church “must continue to do more for LGBTQ+ equality.”
While the children of homosexual couples can be baptized, “possibly barring someone in a public and committed relationship to serve as a godparent shows that the Vatican remains bound by a narrow definition of marriage used as a litmus test for Catholics’ participation in the Church,” he said.
“If Church leaders do not employ pastoral prudence with this guideline, it could be used by other officials to establish other policies which would exclude such people from other areas of Church life,” DeBernardo said.
He took issue with the DDF’s insistence on the ineligibility of homosexual couples in stable, well-known relationships from being godparents, saying this “suggests that the DDF remains more concerned about ‘causing scandal’ than about integrating LGBTQ+ Catholics in the lives of the Church and of their families.”
“We hope that church leaders will apply these guidelines by following Pope Francis’ example of extravagant welcome, rather than using them to continue old restrictions,” he said.
DeBernardo called for the policies of US bishops to be reconsidered in light of the DDF’s response, “given that Pope Francis and the Vatican are leading the church on a different path.”
Although the synthesis document for last month’s Synod of Bishops irked LGBTQ+ advocates for largely side-stepping these issues, DeBernardo insisted that the dubia response indicates a desire to advance “LGBTQ+ equality” in the church, “even if the synodal process takes more time to do so.”
“Welcoming transgender people more fully to the sacraments is a good step; that welcome needs to be expanded even more now, including to Catholics in same-gender marriages who want to support their family members and friends in the practice of their faith,” he said.
During last month’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Pope Francis met with American Sister Jeannine Gramick, founder of the New Ways Ministry and a longtime LGBTQ+ advocate.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen