Picture it: you are a normal priest, or you try to be, and you are a little less normal than usual because it is the week before Christmas: special liturgies, special confession times, family togetherness (yikes)! And then, your phone buzzes—and it buzzes again—and it buzzes again. Everybody is sending you images from CNN or MSNBC or Fox, and all the news tickers at the bottom of the screen say, “Pope approves blessing of same-sex couples.”
The doorbell at the rectory buzzes. You answer it. Two men in tuxes are standing there, with bouquets and big hopeful grins.
It is now weeks later. The candy canes are stale, you are starting to recall that the carol does not go, “God bless you, merry gentlemen, you fill us with dismay!” and you are wondering whether you handled that situation well. Maybe the men wanted to be married in your church, and you had to say no, and that you wish you had been able to say it so that it sounded like a door opening instead of closing. Maybe they just wanted a blessing, and you had to navigate the stringent prohibitions and vague positive suggestions of Fiducia Supplicans, the document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that started this whole mishegoss. The recent press release clarification has not helped much (all this drama is about blessings that are supposed to be “10–15 seconds” long?) and neither has the outraged thundering or bland support of your bishop. You want to be obedient to your superior and also to the Holy Father; you really do not want to risk rebuke, scandal, or punishment.
And yet you also feel the responsibilities of a shepherd. You know you need to offer both welcome and orthodoxy—neither, “Go away and come back when you’re chaste!” nor, “Do what you feel, it’s the new Catholic Church, baby!”
You do not know what you should have done. And you are pretty sure you are going to have to do it again.
As a lesbian seeking to live obediently to the Church, who writes frequently on gay people’s spiritual lives, I have had hundreds of formal interviews and informal conversations with LGBT+ and same-sex-attracted Catholics across the full spectrum of relationships to the Church. I have noticed patterns in what nourishes faith—and what damages someone’s trust in God. As Fiducia Supplicans itself reiterates, every soul’s journey and needs are unique. But there are questions that you as a priest can ask and possibilities you can look out for.
Each section below begins with a question or set of questions responding to the hopes and fears of real gay and same-sex attracted Catholics. They are intended to illuminate the reasons people come to you for a blessing, whether or not you are allowed to give that blessing. If you ask these questions with a spirit of curiosity, you will almost certainly hear something unexpected—and open a door to the Love that surpasses all our expectations.
What brings you to the Church today?
The January 4 press release gives an example of the kind of blessing that’s recommended: “[L]et us imagine that among a large number making a pilgrimage a couple of divorced people, now in a new union, say to the priest: “Please give us a blessing, we cannot find work, he is very ill, we do not have a home and life is becoming very difficult. May God help us!” Fiducia is, among other things, a response to a 2021 ban on blessing same-sex “unions,” which was itself a response to European churches’ mass public wedding-like blessings. In that context, the plain text of Fiducia, with its emphasis on distinguishing blessings from wedding-like rituals, seems to be an attempt to draw boundaries without subjecting people to moral interrogations before you bless them. Fiducia emphasizes blessing as an acknowledgment of our creaturely weakness, even our sinfulness. To ask for a blessing is to acknowledge that we are “beggars,” the Dicastery says. To bless God for his great mercies is also to place ourselves humbly before him as his creatures. And we do so in the hope that we will be, to quote the declaration’s final clauses, “despite everything, always loved.”
That is beautiful, and if nothing else, Fiducia and the questions it spurred may be prompting you to ask how you can show God’s love to creatures who may have doubted it. But as you, the priest who answered the rectory doorbell, already know, these relatively simple situations are not the only ones you will face. There will also be couples who want a blessing but have explicitly rejected certain teachings. These couples do not fully trust the Church, but still respect priests and intuit some kind of wisdom in the Church: some power to strengthen, guide, and heal. Fiducia notes that “a blessing offers people a means to increase their trust in God.” What might that look like?
A lot of people in your situation would never think of asking a Catholic priest for blessing. What makes you open to that?
What is one step you would like to make to deepen your faith, but you’ve been delaying or fearful? What would help you imagine making that step?
What is the greatest thing God has ever done for you?
What do you thank God for today?
Most people have never met an openly gay, orthodox Catholic. Before I became Catholic, I had never even heard of one. I did not let this dissuade me, because I am dumb. Headfirst, eyes closed, cannot lose! Because there are so few gay people openly, shamelessly practicing Catholic chastity, gay people who grow up in the Church often feel as though they have to choose between honesty about their experience of sexuality and obedience to their faith. This feeling of being forced into an ambivalent relationship with the Church against one’s will can cause anger or shame. It can prompt self-destructive attempts to “fix” one’s orientation through therapy or healing prayer; when it turns out that these methods do not provide integrity, and so anger and confusion deepen.
Every gay and same-sex-attracted Catholic has been taught a mix of truths and falsehoods under the name of “orthodoxy.” The process of winnowing truth from falsehood is painful and usually imperfect. Some gay Catholics make what might be called a “separate peace” with the Church: like most of their heterosexual brethren, they participate in Catholic life, but they ignore the aspects of the moral law that seem outdated, harmful, or flatly unlivable. They, too, harbor ambivalence; they are not dumb, they know what is in the Catechism, and their partial trust often requires far more courage and vulnerability than others may see.
A blessing in this context can be reparative (to use a word filled with pain for many LGBT+ Catholics). On a human, psychological level, when some aspect of Catholic doctrine has been misused to reject or harm us, focusing on that aspect is almost guaranteed to make trust harder. Old wounds can heal when a priest is willing to recognize aspects of your spiritual life other than your sexuality or the “irregularity” of your love.
On a spiritual level, asking for God’s blessing is a way to receive a gift that strengthens us. Fiducia implicitly compares such blessings to a blessing in prison, another context where blessing can be especially powerful because the people who receive it may doubt, in Fiducia’s poignant phrasing, “that they are still blessed.” The Dicastery even notes that prisoners may have been abandoned by their families, an experience still all too common among LGBT+ Catholics.
Tell me about the love you share. Where has your love proven strong? Where do you feel you need help?
You’ve asked me to marry you two, and I’ve said I can’t do that, but I don’t want to leave it there and I don’t think God wants you to leave it there. What is most important to you in your relationship? Can we pray together that God will help you grow in [that quality], always seeking the other person’s good? What questions do you have about the Catholic idea of love?
A friend said that despite her concerns about Fiducia, she was moved by its willingness to ask, “What’s the smallest thing a person in turmoil can pose as a question to the Church and hear a ‘Yes’ to? Not a ‘yes’ to their actions or inclinations, but the big ‘yes’ that they are beloved.” The example the press release gives, of a couple asking for God’s help in times of unemployment and illness, may suggest some of these “small yeses” help people experience the big “yes” of their belovedness.
One of the most beautiful—and yet also the most confusing—aspects of Fiducia is its willingness to see goodness, truth, and beauty in “irregular situations.” On the one hand, it is humble and immensely moving for the Catholic Church to acknowledge the goods that people are pursuing even when they act outside of the moral law. The only thing I can compare it to is Nostra Aetate’s description of what is “true and holy” in non-Christian faiths.
On the other hand, a priest can bless the “couple,” but not their “union”? What exactly is the good being perceived or blessed here? What are you really asking God to do for these people? What might be the “yes” here?
One of the biggest barriers to trust in the Catholic Church is an unwillingness to see goodness, truth, and beauty in gay couples’ love. It typically takes several years before someone who has begun to acknowledge a non-straight orientation will share that self-understanding with another person; during these silent years, young people try to understand their longings on their own. The internet offers more porn than wisdom. A politicized Church seems to divide between orthodox people who can’t recognize love or self-gift in a gay relationship, and dissenters who offer guidance without obedience. Many gay people have heard self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy argue that homosexual relationships are inherently narcissistic. When they discover, through their own experience or someone else’s, that gay love can be a site of selflessness and care, they also confront the fact that virtually no public voices in the Church suggest that this love is both real and capable of chaste expression.
Fiducia offers little guidance for gay couples who do become curious about how the Church might guide their love. This may be frustrating. Could they not give a few hints? But there is also some wisdom here, for two reasons. One is that the couples in “irregular situations” who come to you for a blessing—especially those who have vanishingly few models of how to order their love—may remain in an ambivalent relationship with the Church. They still face hardship, acknowledge weakness, beg for God’s help, and cherish one another according to their own best understanding. There is much there that the Church can say “yes” to, even while the couple is ambivalent.
And the second reason is that “what happens next” will be different for every couple. Gay Catholics often say that the priests and mentors who helped them most did not tell them what to do, but opened new possibilities and encouraged them to forge new paths.
The gay people I know who are seeking to live within Catholic chastity have found many ways to give and receive love: in friendship, in prayer, in chosen family, and in intentional community; as artists, as mentors, as hospital volunteers; as priests and religious.
And some have found paths of chaste, devoted same-sex love, drawing on Scriptural and historical models including the promises of Ruth to Naomi and the love shared by Jesus and John the Beloved. Not everyone defines or labels their relationship, but some terms and structures for these relationships include “spiritual brotherhood,” “celibate partnership,” and “covenant friendship.” They draw on different traditions, from paired hermits to shared households. The Church does have wisdom for those who have been called to share their lives with someone of the same sex. Such love is not unprecedented.
Fiducia’s mention of blessings on pilgrimage and at shrines made me recall a same-sex love that opened the door to renewed faith.
Midway through the dark wood of the twentieth century, two men in an “irregular situation” made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The American poet Dunstan Thompson had been raised Catholic, but shed his faith at Harvard; he became famous for daring, confessional poetry of gay longing and sexual torment. During World War II he met his partner, the English journalist Philip Trower. Domestic happiness with Trower gentled his poetry—and, perhaps, allowed him to reopen the doorway of faith. The two men, still your basic sexually active gay couple, traveled to Rome in 1950 for the proclamation of the doctrine of the Assumption. At Walsingham, they were more than tourists: Thompson knelt before a Eucharistic procession as the Host passed by. But he was still ambivalent. He feared that if he returned to his faith, he would be told to separate from Trower—from the man who had loved him into peace.
At last he took the leap of faith. He made his confession, and explained to Trower that they would have to live chastely; could Trower accept this? Trower, who himself would later become Catholic, records simply: “I said Yes.” Thompson’s priest encouraged him to continue living with his partner, discerning that their love offered not primarily sexual temptation but support in following God.
Tell me your story.
Jesus shocked St. Photini, the “woman at the well” in John 4, when he told her whole life’s story. He gained her trust through his knowledge. But most gay people have been told a false or reductive “story of their life” by Christians. When they ask for blessing, meeting that vulnerability with an invitation to tell their story in their own words can show that you do understand something of their past life—and they will likely give you the words by which you may bless or pray over them.
Dunstan Thompson wrote his own kind of house blessing, in a prayer/poem called “Fragment for Christmas.” The Child born in a stable will never demand stability before he comes to us:
Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn —
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.