Visibility matters. What’s on the outside matters. As a queer theologian, this seems like a given. But in the cartesian duality that permeates our social consciousness and conscience, it sometimes needs to be stated again.
This week in religious news, the big headline is something like: The Pope Allows Same-sex blessings. The best reporting on this that I have come across is at the National Catholic Reporter. The historical context (at least the recent context) is that in 2021, the Vatican issued a statement regarding same-sex blessings. There, the Holy See office stated that God and thus the church “does not and cannot bless sin…the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.”
The new statement, however, offers a slight change in tone to this question, though the underlying theology remains the same. The Roman Catholic Church stands by its position that marriage can only be an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.” However, priests may, at their discretion, bless couples who are in same-sex unions.
This blessing, however, cannot look in any shape or form like a marriage. It cannot be a liturgical act. It cannot even be a semi-liturgical act. Whatever that means. It is worth noting the prohibited aesthetics that are not to accompany such a blessing:
In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.
(Dichiarazione “Fiducia supplicans” sul senso pastorale delle benedizioni del Dicastero per la Dottrina della Fede, 18.12.2023, 39)
In other words, the blessing cannot look like a wedding. It cannot use material that has been drafted by a conference of bishops (such as in Germany and Belgium). There can be no wedding dress or exchanging of wedding rings or handfasting (where the couples’ hands are bound together with a ribbon, cord, or stole).
This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. In 2018, after years of debate, the church passed a motion allowing for the blessing of same-sex marriages. (Notably, the Church of England has just authorised a similar blessing of same-sex unions, though I have not caught up on the intricacies of this new position.) The New Zealand Anglicans, like the Roman Catholics, maintain in their doctrines that marriage is still only between one man and one woman. But unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there are no aesthetic or liturgical prescriptions nor proscriptions. Earlier this year, two such blessings took place in the parish of Te Aro, Wellington. The Anglican blessings could look like a wedding, with rings, vestments, wedding dresses, the whole nine yards. In fact, according to the passed motion, the service must be in a form authorised by a bishop.
Whilst it has made substantially clear within the Anglican Church that these blessings are not marriages, there is a formal and aesthetic familiarity allowed within these ceremonies. Visibility matters. What’s on the outside matters.
On the one hand, I rejoice for the seeming softening towards queer folk by the church universal, the church catholic and Catholic. But on the other hand, we need to recognise that this is still scraps from the table. As we stumble together, whether forward or backward, I rest assured we stumble into the arms of a loving God.