ROME – After Pope Francis earlier this year opened the door in certain circumstances to giving blessings to same-sex couples, the Vatican’s doctrinal office has published a lengthy note explaining the pastoral grounds for these blessings, and spelling out the details of how and where they are to be given.

The new declaration, titled “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” was dated and published Dec. 18 by the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, and the dicastery’s secretary, Father Armando Matteo.

A lengthy note dedicated largely to the pastoral nature and benefit of blessings, the declaration comes after two previous Vatican interventions on the topic of same-sex blessings, one of which is a February 2021 ban on same-sex blessings given under the dicastery’s previous leader, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria.

The second was Pope Francis’s response to a set of dubia, or “doubts,” submitted by five conservative cardinals over the summer ahead of his October Synod of Bishops on Synodality, focusing on women’s ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions and the authority of the synod to issue binding teaching.

In his responses, Pope Francis upheld the Church’s ban on women priests, while suggesting the doctrine can still be studied, but signaled openness to giving blessings to same-sex couples on a case-by-case basis, provided that doing so is not confused with the sacrament of marriage.

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In a brief presentation at the beginning of the document, Fernández said Pope Francis’s responses to the dubia presented to him before the October synod came out while the declaration was being drafted.

The pope’s response, he said, provided “important clarifications” and was “a decisive element for the work of the dicastery.”

Since the curia is at the service of the pope, “our work must foster, along with an understanding of the Church’s perennial doctrine, the reception of the Holy Father’s teaching,” he said.

Fernández assured that the declaration upheld traditional Church doctrine on marriage, but still holds value in that it offers “a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings, which is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.”

“Such theological reflection, based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church,” he said.

This context, he said, allows one to better understand the possibility of giving blessings to couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without “validating” their status or changing Church teaching.

In the declaration, the DDF said it had “new clarifications” to offer to the February 2021 ban in light of Pope Francis’s “fatherly and pastoral approach.”

It upheld the sacrament of marriage as an “indissoluble union between a man and a woman,” insisting that, “the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion.”

In this sense, “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex,” the declaration said, saying a blessing “requires that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church.”

For this reason, the DDF said, the Church has always considered sexual relations within the context of marriage to be “morally licit,” but it is not able to give a 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.”

However, the DDF made a distinction between requirements for a simple blessing versus requirements for reception of the sacraments, which they said are different, and cautioned that a simple pastoral blessing risks being “subjected to too many moral prerequisites” that would overshadow the grace of the blessing itself.

This, the DDF said, is why Pope Francis in his response to the dubia insisted on the need for “pastoral charity.”

The declaration offered an overview of scriptural references to blessings as well as a theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of blessings, highlighting the benefit of “a more pastoral approach” to blessings being promoted by Pope Francis.

Simple blessings, the DDF said, are conducted outside of a liturgical context, as there is greater “spontaneity and freedom,” and that when requested, these blessings are “a pastoral resource to be valued rather than a risk or a problem.”

The Church, it said, “must shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes, especially when they lead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others.”

“Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection,” the declaration said.

Again referring to the DDF’s 2021 response denying blessings, the declaration said Pope Francis’s answers to the dubia this year expand the 2021 response and urge greater pastoral discernment.

Pointing to the Church’s Book of Blessings, the declaration noted that it offers provisions for various blessings of people, including the elderly, participants in catechesis or a prayer meeting, participants in a pilgrimage, members of volunteer groups and associations, and so on.

“Such blessings are meant for everyone; no one is to be excluded from them,” the declaration said. “No one can be prevented from this act of giving thanks, and each person – even if he or she lives in situations that are not ordered to the Creator’s plan – possesses positive elements for which we can praise the Lord.”

In terms of a formalized policy, the DDF clarified that it is not appropriate for a diocese, bishops’ conference or other ecclesial structure to continually and officially establish procedures on various rituals and practices.

Pastors are rather encouraged to exercise personal prudence and wisdom in joining in the prayer “of those persons who, although in a union that cannot be compared in any way to a marriage,” nonetheless wish to entrust themselves to God and to ask for his help.

In a section dedicated to “Blessings of Couples in Irregular Situations and of Couples of the Same Sex,” the declaration allowed for the possibility of giving blessings to couples in irregular situations and to same-sex couples.

However, the form of this blessing “should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage,” it said.

“God never turns away anyone who approaches him! Ultimately, a blessing offers people a means to increase their trust in God,” the declaration said, saying the “pastoral sensibility” of ordained ministers ought to allow for the giving of spontaneous blessings that are not contained in the Church’s Book of Blessings.

These blessings, the DDF said, must be intended to increase trust in God, but must not become “a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament.”

Yet the DDF also cautioned against creating any pastoral norm for the blessing of same-sex couples or those in irregular unions, saying such decisions must be left up to “pastoral prudence,” considering the circumstances of each case.

“One should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. At the same time, one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation,” the declaration said.

Offering an example of a blessing for a same-sex couple, the DDF said a pastor can pray for health, peace, patience, and mutual dialogue, while also praying for them to receive the strength to completely fulfill God’s will.

To avoid confusion or scandal, the DDF said that when blessings are requested by same-sex couples or those in irregular unions, these blessings should never be given “in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them.”

“Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple,” it said, saying such a blessing could be given in another context, such as “a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage.”

Attempting to cast any doubts aside, the DDF offered assurances, insisting that “through these blessings that are given not through the ritual forms proper to the liturgy but as an expression of the Church’s maternal heart…there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God.”

The DDF said that the content of the declaration was “sufficient” to guide the discernment of ordained ministers, and that no further responses from the dicastery should be expected about how to regulate the details or practice of these blessings.

“Any blessing will be an opportunity for a renewed proclamation of the kerygma, an invitation to draw ever closer to the love of Christ,” the DDF said, adding, “In this way, every brother and every sister will be able to feel that, in the Church, they are always pilgrims, always beggars, always loved, and, despite everything, always blessed.”

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