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What’s Going on in Rome? The Synod and Blessings for Same-Sex Unions Explained

October 6, 2023

Headlines right now are rife with variations of “Pope Francis opens door for blessing same-sex unions,” leading many — even devout Catholics — to wonder what’s going in Rome. The Catholic Church is beginning the final phase of its years-long project, the global Synod on Synodality. Delegates convened in Rome earlier this week to discuss, debate, and discern how the Church should respond to the ever-more-modern world and the exponential rise of liberal secularism in the West.

Ahead of the meeting, a handful of Catholic cardinals submitted a series of questions to the Pope, asking for clarity on questions the Synod will be addressing. One of those questions is that of blessings for same-sex unions, a practice the Catholic Church has long condemned and refused to condone.

First of all, what is the Synod on Synodality? From antiquity, Christians have convened “synods” to discuss matters of doctrine, administration, or denominational organization. The term comes from the Greek word for “meeting.” In the Catholic Church, synods are comprised predominantly of bishops, though sometimes priests, religious (like friars, monks, or nuns), and even lay theologians may be asked to participate. Synods are also different from councils in Catholicism, though both “synod” and “council” mean “meeting” — the former is derived from Greek, the latter from Latin.

A synod is typically convened in order to examine administrative, organizational, or “pastoral” matters, while the rarer event of a council usually focuses on matters of doctrine or Canon Law and is binding upon Catholics, meaning that those who deny or reject the declarations of a council are removing themselves from the Catholic Church. All that is to say that the Synod on Synodality is meant primarily to focus on pastoral matters, not doctrinal ones, and does not carry with it the same binding force as, for example, the Second Vatican Council.

In 2020, Pope Francis announced the global Synod on Synodality, a massive undertaking ostensibly designed to allow everyday Catholics to share their thoughts on how the Church can improve organizationally and pastorally. Catholic dioceses (smaller, local groupings of parishes) hosted “listening sessions” across the globe, inviting Catholics — and non-Catholics and ex-Catholics — to share their thoughts with their local bishop on how they think the Church can or should respond to the cataclysmic changes of the secular world. Diocesan representatives then met in national and, later, continental phases to share their findings and seek common themes. Now, the global phase has begun, with delegates from every continent convening in Rome to discuss not just what has been found at the local levels, but how the Catholic Church should address those findings.

Although the mechanics of the Synod on Synodality are in line with Catholic practice, faithful conservative Catholics have expressed concern over aspects of how the Synod is being managed, particularly citing fears that leftist (particularly LGBT) ideology may be injected into the process. For example, Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who acts as Relator General overseeing the Synod, quipped in a 2022 interview that the Catholic Church needs to change its moral doctrine on homosexuality, saying that declaring homosexual acts to be sinful “is false.” He explained that the Catholic Church condemned homosexual acts because of their close association with pagan cults, and now needs to reverse its teaching since homosexuality is no longer affiliated with pagan cultic rituals.

Speaking to Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on Thursday night’s episode of Washington Watch, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League explained, “There’s been pressure by gay Catholics and gays in general in our society to become more inclusive, and that means basically giving in to their agenda.” He continued, “It always seems to be the stuff on the agenda of the Left that seems to get out there. They’re so concerned about marginalizing LGBTQ people. … [T]hey should spend more time wondering about how orthodox Catholics feel about being marginalized by the left-wing Catholics in our Church today.”

On Monday, five theologically-conservative Cardinals announced that they had submitted a list of “dubia” to the Pope. “Dubia” comes from the Latin word for “doubts,” and is a mechanism whereby members of the College of Cardinals can ask the Pope to clarify his actions or statements to ensure that they are in accord with Catholic doctrine and do not, through ambiguity, inadvertently lead others into sin. Those “dubia” expressed concern over the potential for the Synod on Synodality to dilute or confuse Catholic moral teaching, especially where homosexuality is concerned. Among the many questions the Synod is to address is that of blessings for same-sex unions.

The “dubia” cardinals asked “whether the Divine Revelation should be reinterpreted in the Church according to the cultural changes of our time, and the new anthropological vision promoted by these changes. Or if, on the contrary, the Divine Revelation is binding forever, immutable, and therefore not to be contradicted…” In other words, the cardinals asked Pope Francis if the Synod has the authority to change or adjust moral doctrine instituted by God and based on Sacred Scripture and the Church’s long-standing perennial Tradition. Pope Francis responded that Catholic doctrine cannot be “reinterpreted” in such a manner that its meaning changes, but may be “interpret[ed] better.” The Pope further explained:

“On the one hand, it is true that the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but it is also true that both the texts of the Scripture and the testimonies of Tradition require interpretation in order to distinguish their perennial substance from cultural conditioning. … It is important to emphasize that what cannot change is what has been revealed ‘for the salvation of all’ [Quoting from the Second Vatican Council]. Therefore, the Church must constantly discern between what is essential for salvation and what is secondary or less directly connected with this goal.”

What does this mean? In short, Pope Francis is reaffirming that Catholic doctrine cannot change, nor does the Synod have the authority to claim that it can be or has been changed. But the Synod does have the authority to seek new meaning in old texts — even texts such as Sacred Scripture — provided those new meanings are in accord with and deepen an understanding of Catholic doctrine and do not contradict it. As an example, Pope Franics cited a 15th century document from Pope Nicholas V which tolerated or permitted slavery, explaining that that pope’s declaration had to be reconsidered in light of the Church’s teachings on human dignity, which were clarified to such a point that Pope Nicholas V’s document was seen to be contradictory to the Church’s teaching.

Next, the “dubia” cardinals questioned the notion of blessing same-sex unions, asking if the Catholic Church can “accept as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from the revealed doctrine?” Pope Francis’s response is what has led to many claiming he has somehow permitted blessing same-sex unions. Despite seeming ambiguities in his direct response to the cardinals, the Pope’s answer actually upholds Catholic teaching on homosexuality:

“The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation. Only this union can be called ‘marriage.’ … It is not just a matter of names, but the reality we call marriage has a unique essential constitution that requires an exclusive name, not applicable to other realities. It is undoubtedly much more than a mere ‘ideal.’ For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”

However, he continues to state that Catholics cannot lose sight of “pastoral charity” and therefore “must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing … that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” This is where the claims originate that the Pope is, in fact, signaling an openness to blessings for same-sex unions. In order to make sense, these statements must be read in the context of Catholic teaching and the Pope’s own prior statements on the subject.

First of all, the Catholic Church has long declared homosexual acts to be gravely sinful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists homosexual acts as among the gravest of sins against the virtue of chastity and clarifies that homosexual desires are “disordered” and must not be acted upon. Countless Catholic Saints — many of them Doctors of the Church, an official title denoting a substantial contribution to clarifying and defending Catholic doctrine — have discussed the spiritual dangers of homosexual acts.

John Chrysostom, a fourth century bishop, wrote that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is evidence that homosexual acts are so sinful that they “forced Hell to appear even before its time!” Peter Damian, an 11th century Benedictine monk and Cardinal, wrote of homosexual sin, “Without fail it brings death to the body and destruction to the soul. It pollutes the flesh, extinguishes the light of the mind, expels the Holy Spirit from the temple of the human heart, and gives entrance to the devil, the stimulator of lust.” The great Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar widely considered the greatest Christian philosopher, wrote that heterosexual sins of lust degrade human nature by reducing the man to merely his animal components, but that homosexual acts degrade even the animal component of man.

Fast-forward to 2021, when Catholic bishops in Germany asked the Vatican if blessings could be allowed for same-sex unions. In fact, some priests had been offering some blessings even without the approval of their bishops or the Vatican. The Vatican’s doctrine office formulated a response, which was given the signature and full approval of Pope Francis, declaring that the Church “does not and cannot bless sin.” The document explained that blessings are what the Catholic Church calls “sacramentals,” which are meant to prepare souls to receive the graces conferred through sacraments. Since a homosexual union cannot be considered analogous to the sacrament of marriage, it cannot be blessed. The document further explained that the Church “does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching. Rather, it declares illicit any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge their unions as such.”

In light of long-standing Catholic teaching, reiterated throughout the centuries, and the declarations of Pope Francis himself, news headlines claiming that the Pope is changing Church teaching to allow blessings for same-sex unions can be clearly seen as mere hyperbole. The next big question is what effect that hyperbole will have on the ongoing Synod on Synodality, and whether Pope Francis will stand by his statements on same-sex unions.

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.