The Vatican’s Same-Sex Blessings: Latter-day Saint Translations and Lessons

Catholic priest giving a blessing to Latter-day Saint/Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o (Source: Juvenile Instructor, who got it from the WSJ)

The Catholic world has been abuzz about a recent directive from the Vatican condoning blessings (but not marriages, and not liturgical blessings, kind of) of same-sex couples. The document has engendered a lot of confusion, hair splitting, and myriad interpretations by people who are much more knowledgeable about Catholic thought than I, so I will refrain from claiming to know the One True interpretation of it, but a few high-level thoughts from a Latter-day Saint perspective. 

  1. The African bishops’ very negative responses to the Vatican, in clear defiance of the Pope, is another data point (the revolt against the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion and the tensions between United Methodist Church and its African contingent over gay ordination being others) for the argument that, erstwhile conventional wisdom to the contrary, moving in a more liberal direction in regards to LGBTQ issues comes at a significant cost, especially in regards to affiliated congregations in the Global South. In the Latter-day Saint context, any move towards same-sex sealings would almost certainly be very costly in terms of Church growth in Africa, which in all likelihood will become the primary engine of Church growth this century. I’ve made this point before, but when people talk about how a certain change in Church policy would make the Church more popular, they are typically actually claiming that it would make it more popular among certain people whose opinions they value more highly, typically sociocultural elites, which is ironically an elitist position. 
  2. Some Latter-day Saints have wondered if this is akin to allowing a priesthood blessing for a gay person as opposed to blessing the couple. That’s not the case. Blessings for gay individuals are already allowed. Sometimes Catholics who don’t take the Eucharist because of their personal relational situations will stand in line and receive a blessing from the priest instead. A kind of, sort of comparison would be like asking for a priesthood blessing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Even people who can’t take the sacrament for whatever reason can receive priesthood blessings, and I have a hard time seeing even the most conservative bishop denying somebody in a same-sex relationship a priesthood blessing if they asked for one, and I get the sense this is the case in Catholicism as well. This has already been a thing, so claiming that the Vatican’s directive opened up the door to this is a misreading. The Vatican’s directive is about the couple, not the individual. 
  3. Per my earlier post on this, Pope Francis has a tendency to say one thing to placate conservatives, but not actually back the words up. In that same spirit, the actual document clearly indicated that the blessing was supposed to be done informally and without public fanfare. Papal confidante Father James Martin flargrantly contradicted this by calling up journalists, a photographer, and a gay couple and got his picture on the front page of media around the world. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was to ever move somewhat ambiguously in this direction some individual local leaders would most likely do something similar and push the interpretive limits of what it was allowing (we probably already saw a version of this with the BYU honor code hullabaloo). 
  4. One question I haven’t seen brought up in Catholic circles is how the directive towards irregular relationships would affect the possible blessings of polygamous couples. That is probably a much more common situation in some parts of the world than gay relationships, but I wonder if local clergy could run in that direction with their particular interpretation of this Vatican directive. 
  5. I believe it was an Episcopalian blessing and not a Catholic one, but still, there was a poignant episode in President McKay’s tenure when he exchanged blessings with a priest. Just another example of how blessings, both for us and other denominations, are considered more broadly available than other sacraments and ordinances (but again those are for the people involved, whereas the crux of the issue with the Vatican directive is the blessings of the couple as a unit).

5 comments for “The Vatican’s Same-Sex Blessings: Latter-day Saint Translations and Lessons

  1. Very good points, especially 1 & 3. On point 1 though, I will point out that, given our political segregation today, a liberal who wants the Church to move in a more liberal direction on LGBTQ issues probably has good reason to believe it would make the Church more popular with all the non-members they know (their fellow members being, quite likely, the only conservatives they know).

    LDS observers should bear in mind that while we only give blessings to people (and Mary Fielding Smith’s ox), Catholic priests routinely bless *things*: boats, fields, farm animals, etc. With this change, same-sex unions have been added to the list of things that can be blessed. The previous ruling was “God cannot bless sin” so this is a significant change, but nowhere near recognition of those unions as equivalent to heterosexual marriage.

  2. Occasionally I’ll land on the local Catholic talk radio station, and the discussion the other day was about #2, with the host saying that the document was ambiguous as to whether the blessing was on the people or the relationship.

    I agree that #1 is an important point that too often gets overlooked when it comes to just about any topic. There are costs to any change. Sometimes the benefits really do outweigh the costs, but you always have to take the costs into account.

  3. we only give blessings to people (and Mary Fielding Smith’s ox)

    and Eugene England’s Chevrolet.

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