A blessing is more than a blessing
Monday, April 12th, 2021
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) Responsum concerning the blessing of same-sex unions brings into focus the important theological question of how homosexuality is to be understood within the order of creation and within Scripture.
On the basis of its understanding, the CDF concluded that the Church cannot officially bless people in same-gender unions that approximate marriage.
The Magisterium teaches that homosexuality is a ‘disordered nature’ and classifies homosexual lovemaking as ‘intrinsically disordered’ [CCC:2357].
In the Catechism, ordered nature reflects God’s creation of male and female human beings who are made for each other.
This principle could be described as exclusively heterosexual.
The magisterial understanding of sexuality is derived from this principle. Sexuality ‘concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate’, creating the ‘aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others’ [CCC:2332] and is ‘ordered to the conjugal love of a man and a woman’ [CCC:2360].
The Magisterium’s understanding of creation and sexuality is heavily criticised for being binary and considered outdated.
Many suggest that sexuality differentiates itself between sexual attraction, physical attraction, and emotional attraction and is not essentially related to procreation or the capacity to love.
The strongest critics of the Responsum accuse the CDF of ignoring the last 100 -plus years of research into human sexuality. They argue that maintaining the theology of ‘disordered nature’ on the assumption that the ‘psychological genesis [of homosexuality] remains largely unexplained’ [CCC: 2357] is incorrect.
Critics argue that a necessary distinction between sexual orientations and sexualities is required and that one should see sexuality as given, diverse and personal.
The desire to bless same-sex unions challenges the Magisterium’s binary view of creation and sexuality and reveals the essential question; on what basis can one say that a person’s nature is ‘intrinsically disordered’, their lovemaking a ‘grave depravity’, and still bring them into union with Christ?
Asking if the Church can bless same-sex unions puts into question the CDF’s use of the primary sources on which the magisterial teaching is built; its interpretation of scripture and the presumption that the “natural law” is fully known and not itself subject to growth in understanding.
This starting point is critical for how we understand a blessing given to a couple sharing the same gender.
It brings us back to the larger perspective:
- what is the nature and place of homosexuality and homosexual lovemaking in the order of creation?
- how does homosexuality and lovemaking participate in the “blessing of God? and
- if sexuality a blessing of God, then how it is defined, and by whom it is defined is critical.
The debate concerning the blessing is, by comparison, a sidebar.
It is important only because the theological pathway from blessing to ecclesial act and sacramental—that resembles a sacrament—is full of potholes.
To make this clearer I will distinguish between a blessing and a benediction.
A blessing (noun) is a request to God to care for someone or something, it is also an act to make someone, or oneself, happy.
A benediction (noun) combines the Latin words bene meaning well and dicere to say Benedicere: to wish well and is to say something good to another as a prayer, invocation, or dedication.
According to the Catechism [1078ff], blessing is in the nature of God; the whole of God’s work is blessing and while everything and everyone who exists is also a blessing of God, the whole of the created order needs salvation because it is fallen.
The Catechism states that the dignity of each individual person is rooted in his, or her creation in the image and likeness of God (1700, 1702).
Blessing, as we commonly use it, is a prayer for God’s favour or the dedication of an individual or object and parents bless their heterosexual and homosexual children all the time, long before any heterosexual or homosexual tendencies become manifest, and priests bless water, oil, and wedding rings.
However, there has to be more to a blessing to turn it from natural water into holy water.
That “more” is the power of the ordained who makes the benediction; this is the basis of resemblance.
The additional “power” of the priest’s benediction is seen where parishioners ask Father to bless their candles, dogs, and cars, because his benediction is recognised as qualitatively different from their own.
What makes one a blessing and other a benediction is
- the nature of reciprocity—who has the capacity to give and receive a blessing;
- the priest acting with the power of ordination in the name of the Church; and
- the intention of the blessing and its resemblance to a sacrament.
Some suggest parents blessing their homosexual child on their child’s wedding day is possible.
While laypeople may preside at some blessings ‘the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests or deacons)’ [CCC1669].
A benediction is a sacramental when it is received by a person who has the capacity to receive it—reciprocity—or when it is given to an object that will be used in sacred rites, such as a baptismal font.
When an ordained man gives a benediction, the benediction is implicitly reliant on the power of the priesthood.
The Responsum acknowledges that a benediction for an individual with homosexual inclinations remains licit as for example in a religious profession, which affirms a woman or man in their non-sacramental chosen lifestyle.
However, a benediction is not permitted for two people (hetero – or homosexual) entering a “marriage-like state” because the state resembles the sacrament of matrimony and the benediction would resemble the nuptial blessing.
According to the Responsum’s explanatory note, a benediction cannot be given to people whose relationship is not ‘objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace according to the designs of God inscribed in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord’.
To do this is to ‘bless sin’.
At this level there is no distinction between couples on the basis of their sexual preference; neither can be given a benediction.
The issue for the same-sex couple is not their singularity as gay people but the nature of their relationship, and within it, their lovemaking.
Because their loving making is considered ‘intrinsically disordered’ their relationship is seriously at fault.
At this point we return, again, to consider the theological reciprocity between nature, sexuality, and acts of lovemaking.
The CDF concludes that when a sacramental resembles a sacrament a benediction cannot be given by the Church’s minister because the blessing moves from being “just” a blessing to an ‘ecclesial liturgical action’, or an act of the Church, that invokes the priesthood of Christ, and God—in Christ—can not bless sin.
Sacramentals are ‘sacred signs that bear a resemblance to the sacraments [because] they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church’ for people who are ‘disposed to receive the chief effects of the sacraments’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium 60).
This definition draws together the connections between the recipient’s disposition, the church’s prayer, and the Church’s minister.
Together, these form a single unit that brings a sacramental into the orbit of a sacrament.
Critically, the Catechism  states: ‘sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do’ but through them, believers are prepared through the Church’s prayer ‘to received grace’ and disposed ‘to cooperate with’ grace.
It also states that sacramentals ‘derive from the baptismal priesthood’ and ‘every baptised person is called to be a blessing and bless’.
There are three points to note:
- that a benediction is not a sacrament,
- benedictions dispose; and
- benedictions are related to baptism.
What is not made explicit in the Responsum is the role of baptism in the reception of a benediction.
Some theologians argue that when two baptised individuals enter a same-sex union they already possess the theological capacity to receive a benediction just as baptised heterosexual couples receive the nuptial blessing.
Some suggest that because the Church’s minister is a witness to the matrimony, and not the minister of it, in a similar way he has the capacity to impart a benediction in the name of the Church on a same-sex couple. This is especially the case if the couple are not intending a sacramental union.
Christian sacraments are sacred signs instituted by Christ to give grace and to save, and the sacrament of baptism is a celebration of God’s sanctifying presence, transforming people and human experience.
Baptism is not reliant on, or referent to, a person’s sexuality—however, this is understood.
Every baptised person enjoys the purification from sin, new birth in the Holy Spirit and incorporation into the Body of Christ.
All baptised persons receive a sacramental character that consecrates them for Christian worship, enabling them to participate in the sacred liturgy, to serve God and ‘to exercise their baptismal priesthood by witness of holy lives and practical charity [Lumen Gentium 10].
Proponents of benedictions for same-gender couples argue that baptism is the legitimate basis for the blessing of baptised same-gender partners.
They point out that the nature, purpose, intention, and use of any benediction must correspond to the nature and effects of baptism.
They argue that because a person with homosexual tendencies, created in God’s image and likeness, can be baptised—receiving the effects and grace of the sacrament and incorporation into the Body of Christ—that person possesses the theological capacity to receive the Church’s benediction in virtue of their baptism, and not in virtue of the power of an ordained minister.
Where this argument is accepted, refusing two baptised people of the same-sex, who live lives of faith, a benediction when they are choosing and intending a life-long relationship, that is not intended to be sacramental matrimony, is not possible, it is required.
At this point the argument for a benediction of same-sex union moves in a pastoral direction, suggesting that if the Church were to bless same-sex unions then it would remove the pain and suffering from the lives of some of its own members.
It is argued that the Church, by openly acknowledging and blessing such unions, would be seen to affirm the baptismal call of its members to live—in public—stable relationships of mutual and lasting fidelity.
Those who disagree see here the first step towards extending the sacrament of matrimony to same-sex couples. This concern cannot be avoided.
The sacramental character of matrimony and the resemblance of a civil union to it is an inaccurate use of resemblance.
The resemblance of a sacramental benediction to a sacrament seems to imply a resemblance to either the character of the sacrament or to its Eucharistic Prayer, however, this is not outlined in the Responsum but is, nonetheless, critical to the debate.
Relying on the theological character of matrimony as the basis for denying benedictions to same-gender couples is risky given this sacrament’s history and unique sacramental character.
In matrimony, the couple are both the ministers and the recipients of the sacrament—based on their baptism—and the church’s minister is the witnesses.
Similarly, the concern with ‘a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing’ is also problematic given that blessing’s history and liturgical purpose.
The nuptial blessing’s context is the Mass, coming after the Our Father and before the couple receives communion together.
The structure of the blessing is clearly a benediction and not a Eucharist Prayer—it does not confer the sacrament—because ‘it is ordinarily understood that the spouses, as ministers of Christ’s grace, mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church’ [CCC:1623].
The Church’s minister ‘assists’ at the marriage and receives the spousal consent and blesses in the name of the Church, thus making it (matrimony) an ecclesial act.
On the basis of this understanding, many conclude that the denial of a benediction for a baptised couple who share the same gender, based on the benediction’s resemblance to the nuptial benediction in the liturgy of matrimony, is unwarranted.
Lastly, the Responsum states that ‘the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended’ but, Sacrosanctum Concilium 79—a higher teaching authority—suggests this might not be the whole story.
“The sacramentals are to undergo a revision which takes into account the primary principle of enabling the faithful to participate intelligently, actively, and easily; the circumstances of our own days must also be considered.
“When rituals are revised, as laid down in Art. 63, new sacramentals may also be added as the need for these becomes apparent.
“Reserved blessings shall be very few; reservations shall be in favour of bishops or ordinaries.
“Let provision be made that some sacramentals, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, may be administered by qualified laypersons.”
- Dr Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is titled: Catholics. Prayer, Belief and Diversity in a Secular Context (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).
In what may seem like a bit of casuistic argumentation,the New Zealand Roman Catholic priest/theologian, Dr.Joe Grayland, here puts forward the case for a denial of any Blessing of a Same-Sex Union – as ennunciated in the recent Vatican Statement on the inadmissability of such a Blessing – together with his discussion of arguments against the ban; which are being suggested by Catholics who disagree with the Statement and the ban.
The Catholic distinction between a ‘Blessing’ and a ‘Benediction’ may to the average Catholic, seem somewhat academic – which, looking at the explanation here, would seem to be the case.
However, Pope Francis has yet publicly to officially distance himself from the official Statement – even though it is now well-known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that he approves of Same-Sex Civil Unions, but without actually offering the official Blessing of the Church. Herein lies the anomaly: The Pope approves of Same-Sex Unions, while the Vatican continues to pronounce such unions as ‘disordered’ and unable to receive he Blessing of the Church!
There are other instances where the Catholic Church’s official doctrine differs from the ‘pastoral accommodations’ that are often dispensed – albeit quietly – by certain Catholic officials – the dispensation of a supposed ‘annulment of a Marriage being one such – so that the refusal of the Church to offer a Bl;essing to a faithful Catholic Same-Sex Couple may seem contrary to the new pastoral outlook of a Pope who wants to bring the Church into the 21st century.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand