VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has suggested there could be ways to bless same-sex unions, responding to five conservative cardinals who challenged him to affirm church teaching on homosexuality ahead of a big meeting where LGBTQ+ Catholics are on the agenda.
The Vatican on Monday published a letter Francis wrote to the cardinals on July 11 after receiving a list of five questions, or "dubia," from them a day earlier. In it, Francis suggests such blessings could be studied if they didn't confuse the blessing with sacramental marriage.
New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics, said the letter "significantly advances" efforts to make LGBTQ+ Catholics welcomed in the church and "one big straw towards breaking the camel's back" in their marginalization.
The Vatican holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman. As a result, it has long opposed gay marriage. But even Francis has voiced support for civil laws extending legal benefits to same-sex spouses, and Catholic priests in parts of Europe have been blessing same-sex unions without Vatican censure.
Francis' response to the cardinals, however, marks a reversal from the Vatican's current official position. In an explanatory note in 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn't bless gay unions because "God cannot bless sin."
In his new letter, Francis reiterated that matrimony is a union between a man and a woman. But responding to the cardinals' question about homosexual unions and blessings, he said "pastoral charity" requires patience and understanding and that regardless, priests cannot become judges "who only deny, reject and exclude."
"For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of benediction, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage," he wrote. "Because when a benediction is requested, it is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us to live better."
He noted that there are situations that are objectively "not morally acceptable." But he said the same "pastoral charity" requires that people be treated as sinners who might not be fully at fault for their situations.
Francis added that there is no need for dioceses or bishops conferences to turn such pastoral charity into fixed norms or protocols, saying the issue could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis "because the life of the church runs on channels beyond norms."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, welcomed the pope's openness.
""The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God," he said in a statement. "Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality."