(RNS) — A day after the Vatican’s doctrinal office declared on Monday (Dec. 18) that priests were free to bless same-sex couples, Jason Steidl Jack and his husband, Damian, appeared on The New York Times website receiving a blessing from the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent advocate for LGBTQ Catholics. An avalanche of well-wishes followed.
“The social media reactions have been just as big if not bigger than our actual wedding,” Jason, a Catholic theologian and LGBTQ advocate, told Religion News Service, making sure to note that the blessing he and his husband received from Martin was not tantamount to a same-sex wedding, which the church’s declaration on the blessings clearly ruled out.
But as he fielded a wave of jubilant social media comments, phone calls and texts, few couples who contacted Jason expressed immediate interest in getting a blessing themselves.
“It feels like it’s just us for right now,” he said, adding, “I have a feeling we won’t see a lot of public blessings like ours was public.”
The reaction differs starkly from past landmark moments for LGBTQ Christians in the U.S. When states legalized marriage for same-sex couples or when their denominations voted to allow their clergy to officiate their weddings, there was a rush on churches in many places, with couples lining up to tie the knot.
By contrast, LGBTQ Catholics and theologians say the new declaration, while welcomed by many, highlights a complicated relationship with the church hierarchy, one that can sometimes vary from parish to parish.
Part of the hesitancy about the blessings may be practical concerns about how to perform them. The new Vatican declaration, issued last week at the urging of Pope Francis, allows priests to bless same-sex and other so-called “irregular” couples, but only under certain circumstances. The document, “Fiducia supplicans,” features a host of caveats: Blessings must be performed “spontaneously,” for example, and cannot be done “with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”
Multiple priests who oversee parishes deemed to be “LGBTQ friendly” by New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Catholics in the U.S., told RNS they are waiting until after the holidays to begin offering the blessings.
“Since Christmas is upon us, we are not offering the blessing until after the first of the year so that the staff can find appropriate ways to do so according to the guideline,” the Rev. Kenneth Boller, a Jesuit priest at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan, said in an email.
But Craig Ford, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College, expressed skepticism at the need for more preparation.
“From my vantage point, it’s a pretty straightforward document,” said Ford, who often writes about queer theology and theory. “The Vatican is saying, ‘If people come up for a blessing, priests should be willing to do it.’”
“It’s really not that hard to figure out what the Vatican is saying,” he added.
Instead, Ford said, individual priests may still be conflicted about the blessings themselves. “The people who are going to struggle with how to do this are going to be priests who are living or serving in communities where they know that they have same-sex couples,” he said. “They know, from the Vatican, that they should, but it’s not clear that they will.”
Indeed, some parishes and priests have already announced they will not offer the blessings. As first reported by the Black Catholic Messenger, Msgr. Charles Pope, who leads Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, informed his parish this week that he will not be offering “informal blessings” for “couples in irregular unions” because he believes doing so will “lead to confusion and scandal among the faithful.”
In addition, Ford pointed to bishops who have issued “minimizing” statements that emphasize that the declaration did not change church teaching on marriage and “homosexual tendencies” — which the catechism describes as “objectively disordered.”
That includes a nearby archdiocese: On Thursday, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee sent a letter to area Catholics pointing out that the Vatican declaration “is not a sanctioning of irregular relationships (those married outside the church or in same-sex unions).”
The letter goes on to remind priests, “You are not blessing a ‘union.’ You are blessing two individuals as you would bless anyone.”
Ford argued these clarifications show that some church leaders feel “threatened.” “They know this is the beginning of a shift in the Catholic Church’s mentality, at least from an official level, around how same-sex couples are engaged,” Ford said.
Besides the willingness of priests to bless couples, there is the desire of couples to be blessed. Some theologians say couples may be concerned about how a priest might react or may not put much value in a practice that falls short of full acceptance.
“I think there’s definitely a lot of barriers for queer Catholic couples in terms of whether they feel comfortable approaching a priest for a blessing, knowing how much homophobia there is in Catholic spaces,” said Flora X. Tang, a queer Catholic working on a Ph.D. in theology at Notre Dame. She noted that, the new blessing directive aside, “the rules on the books” stipulate that married gay Catholics officially cannot receive Communion at Mass.
And there may be another dynamic at play: Priests in more liberal parishes have offered blessings for LGBTQ couples for years, irrespective of whether the Vatican approved them. “It’s something that isn’t always public,” said Jason Steidl Jack, adding that his relationship with Damian had been blessed by a priest before this week.
Tang said that while she and others are grateful for the new declaration, it in some ways simply formally acknowledges a dynamic that has operated in parish pews for years — whether or not the Vatican acknowledged it.
And blessings, she added, take many forms. “In Catholic spaces, we receive blessings every Sunday at Mass,” she said. “Queer Catholics and priests have been blessing each other through ministry, through presence, through accompaniment for a very long time.”