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The Pope's Stance on LGBTQ+ Blessings Is Nothing More Than Sleight-of-Hand

Pope Francis
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Pope Francis' recent declaration is just another example of him getting a lot of headlines for making cautious incremental change at the margins.

Editor's note: Celia Wexler is a journalist and the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope.” She writes frequently on Catholicism, feminism and politics. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) — When the Vatican officially announced its approval of the blessing of same-sex couples this week, the media went into overdrive. The news was termed a “shocking reversal on same-sex relationships,” a “landmark ruling,” and a “radical shift in church policy.”

You’d think the hyperventilating reaction signaled a major reform. Instead, all the attention concerned a change that was much more modest and not even new.

Back in October, Pope Francis, responding to questions from ultra-conservative cardinals, wrote that he was open to permitting the blessing of same-sex couples, provided they were done by priests on a case-by-case basis, and were not confused with Catholic marriage, which is defined by the church as a union between a man and woman open to procreation.

A declaration released Monday, approved by Francis and issued by his newly appointed doctrinal czar, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, said much the same thing. It does not do anything dramatic, like convening a group of moral theologians to consider revising the church’s teaching on sexual ethics.

Instead, the formal policy makes clear that the Vatican is not approving the blessing of a same-sex union, which remains sinful in the church’s eyes, but blessing the couples in those unions.

And while it reflects a definite change in the church’s approach to LGBTQ Catholics, and will bring hope to those who still search for some acceptance in the church, it does nothing to revise Catholic doctrine.

Indeed, the Vatican’s extensive policy is also clamping down on what some reform-minded bishops in Europe had already begun to do – creating rituals and prayers to bless same-sex unions.

This narrowly tailored Vatican ruling won’t prevent one gay Catholic teacher from getting fired from a parochial school, open any church for gay Catholics to meet, require Catholic social service agencies to permit gay couples to adopt, or persuade many conservative Catholics across the globe that LGBTQ people should not face discrimination.

It’s another example of the Pope getting a lot of headlines for making cautious incremental change at the margins.

When I asked feminist theologian Mary Hunt what she thought of the Vatican’s new blessing policy, she replied that it “does nothing to change the fundamental rejection of same-sex love as healthy, good, natural, and holy.” She termed it “ecclesiastical sleight of hand.”

Even those LGBTQ activists who are encouraged, are aware of its limitations. As Marianne Duddy-Burke, the head of DignityUSA, told The New York Times, “It feels like another window in the church has been opened, while we’re still waiting for the doors to be thrown wide.”

Indeed, the declaration is actually more prescriptive in its conditions than Francis was last fall. A blessing can’t be held “in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them.” It can’t look like a wedding. No tuxes or flowers or anything fancy. Bishops must not create any special rituals or prayers for it. Instead, these should happen spontaneously, during a meeting with a priest, or in the context of some group encounter, like a pilgrimage or visit to a shrine.

In short, if a blessing can be casual, the ones that same-sex partners may receive will be that. Maybe something short and sweet in the rectory? It’s not clear whether the Vatican anticipates any blessings actually occurring in a church.

The document states that the church still holds that “only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit,” and defines marriage as an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.” So when a priest blesses a same-sex couple, what does the church intend for the blessing to do? Break them up so they find heterosexual partners? Hope they all turn celibate?

That’s the problem with not being willing to confront a controversial issue in Catholicism head-on. The Pope has had more than a decade to bring the church into the 21st century. He’s hinted and waffled and played with words. He’s made the church more welcoming, and the papacy more popular. But many of those changes could evaporate on his death, leaving behind some confusion, a lot of disappointment, and very few substantive reforms.

Written by Celia Wexler

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