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Some bishops reject pope's stance on blessings for same-sex unions

Many have fiercely criticized the new move, with one bishop describing the newly enacted policy as a hidden "evil."
Some bishops reject pope's stance on blessings for same-sex unions
Posted at 1:18 PM, Dec 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 14:18:06-05

In an extraordinary pushback against Pope Francis, some Catholic bishops in Africa, Poland and elsewhere say they will not implement the new Vatican policy allowing blessings for same-sex couples.

Others downplayed the policy approved this week by Francis as merely reaffirming the Vatican's long-standing teaching about marriage being only a union between a man and a woman.

The reactions show how polarizing the issue remains and how Francis' decade-long effort to make the church a more welcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community continues to spark resistance among traditionalist and conservative Catholic leaders.

Some of the strongest responses came from bishops in Africa, home to 265 million Catholics, or nearly a quarter of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics. Many of those Catholics live and their churches operate in societies where homosexuality is condemned and outlawed.

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Out of the continent's 54 countries, 31 have laws criminalizing homosexuality, more than any other continent, according to the Human Dignity Trust, which defends LGBTQ+ rights.

Zambia's bishops conference said same-sex couple blessings were "not for implementation in Zambia." The bishops conference of Malawi said "blessings of any kind" for "same-sex unions of any kind" would not be permitted.

In Zambia, gay sex is punishable by between 15 years and life in prison and the law puts it in the same section as bestiality. Malawi’s laws call for up to 14 years in prison for homosexual sex, with the option of corporal punishment for those convicted.

Zambian bishops said there should be "further reflection" on the blessings and cited the country's laws against homosexuality and its "cultural heritage" that rejects same-sex relationships as reasons for its decision.

The Polish bishops conference — among the most conservative in Europe and a reference point beyond the continent given its ties to St. John Paul II — said it has no plans to give blessings to same-sex couples.

Marriage, the conference asserted, remains only the union between a man and a woman, and sexual acts outside of that are "always an offense against God's will," according to a statement by spokesperson Rev. Leszek Gęsiak.

It is unusual for an entire national bishops conference to publicly voice dissent of a Vatican policy, though the declaration from the Vatican doctrine office did not instruct bishops to allow blessings of same-sex couples but merely provided guidance on how they could be done if people requested them.

The document, entitled "Fiducia Supplicans," says that blessings can be offered to people in same-sex relationships if they are not confused with the ritual of marriage, and reaffirmed that marriage is a lifelong union only between a man and a woman.

The announcement Monday by the Vatican office reversed its 2021 statement that had ruled out blessings for same-sex couples because God "cannot bless sin."

The U.S. bishops conference, seeking to downplay any shift, stressed that the church's teachings on marriage have not changed and that the announcement "articulated a distinction between liturgical — or sacramental — blessings, and pastoral blessings, which may be given to persons who desire God's loving grace in their lives," according to a statement.

Some of the more piqued opposition came from Francis' usual critics.

German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who previously headed the Vatican doctrine office, said the declaration was “self-contradictory” as it still said same-sex relationships were contrary to God's law while allowing same-sex couples to receive a blessing.

"The church cannot celebrate one thing and teach another," Müller wrote in an essay published in religious media outlets.

Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who has long opposed Francis' progressive bent, called the new policy a "great deception." Priests should be aware of "the evil that resides in the very permission to bless couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples," he said.

He and Kazakh Archbishop Tomash Peta said in a statement on the Catholic Herald magazine's website that they had prohibited priests in their archdiocese from performing "any form of blessing whatsoever" for same-sex couples.

Bishop conferences and church leaders from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar and South Africa also released public statements, most of them moving to clarify what they said was confusion among their flock over whether the new policy was an official recognition and acceptance of same-sex relationships.

The predominant sentiment among many was a fear that the move was a step toward the Catholic Church accepting homosexuality.

Nigeria's bishops said there had been various interpretations of the policy in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and home to 20-30 million Catholics, and they needed to make clear that the Vatican document does not allow for a blessing and a formal acceptance of same-sex relationships.

"The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria assures the entire People of God that the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage remains the same," it said. "There is, therefore, no possibility in the Church of blessing same-sex unions and activities."

Abbé Jean-Marie Djibo, a priest in the Archdiocese of Bamako in the Muslim-majority West African nation of Mali, said the Catholic church in his country would not be following any new policy and wanted the Vatican to explain its decision.

"The church in Mali does not agree with the Vatican's decision concerning homosexual couples, and the bishops and priests here are calling the church faithful to reassure them that this decision will not be applied," he said. "This decision concerns only the Vatican, not us."

"In his message, the Pope used coded words that have been variously interpreted, so we want him to clarify this position for us," Djibo added.

In the United Kingdom, an organization representing some 500 Catholic priests in Britain released a signed letter reaffirming the Church’s teaching regarding marriage and same-sex unions after "widespread confusion."

In Zimbabwe, which also has anti-gay laws, LGBTQ+ rights activist Chesterfield Samba said he did not think the declaration would change anything for Zimbabwean same-sex couples shunned by the church. He said he had expected the pushback from some church branches.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, which is based in South Africa where a liberal constitution allows same-sex marriages, appeared to welcome the prospect of blessings for gay couples as confirmation that "nobody is outside God's grace."

But it added that its interpretation of the declaration was that "the blessing is done with the hope of conversion."


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