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News / Churches & Religion

Pope’s approval of gay blessings could have impact where rights are restricted, LGBTQ+ advocates say

By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
Published: December 19, 2023, 12:32pm

ROME — Pope Francis’ green light for Catholic priests to offer blessings to same-sex couples is in many ways a recognition of what has been going on in some European parishes for years. But his decision to officially spell out his approval could send a message of tolerance to places where gay rights are far more restricted.

From Uganda to the United States, laws that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people or even criminalize homosexuality have increased in recent years, leaving communities feeling under attack. Pastors in some conservative Christian denominations in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, have sometimes supported such measures as consistent with biblical teaching about homosexuality.

In Zimbabwe, a country with a history of state harassment of LGBTQ+ people, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and general societal homophobia driven by religious and cultural beliefs, news of Francis’ approval was met with cautious optimism.

But Chesterfield Samba, director of Zimbabwe’s GALZ association, which represents LGBTQ+ people, said the issue was still divisive. With or without Francis’ pronouncement, same-sex unions continue to be met with public disapproval, including in church, Samba said.

“Christians here are of the view that they are devoid of sin and cannot be aligned with LGBTQ+ people,” Samba told The Associated Press.

The Vatican says gays should be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Francis hasn’t changed that teaching, but he has spent much of his 10-year pontificate trying to show a more welcoming attitude to LGBTQ+ Catholics.

The Vatican statement Monday marked a new step in Francis’ campaign, explicitly authorizing priests to offer non-sacramental blessings to same-sex couples. The conditions are that such blessings must in no way resemble marriage, which the church teaches can only exist between a man and woman.

The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, a German priest who participated in open worship services blessing same-sex couples in May 2021, said Tuesday that the approval essentially validated what he and other priests in Germany have been doing for years. But he said he thought it would make life easier for homosexual couples in more conservative societies.

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“In my church, such blessings always take place when anyone has the need,” Rothe said by phone from Munich.

However, he added that “in many countries around the world there are opposing moves to maintain homophobia in the church. For homosexual couples living there, the document will be a huge relief.”

In Nigeria, law enforcement authorities staged mass arrests of gay people in October in a crackdown that human rights groups said made use of the country’s same-sex prohibition law to target the LGBTQ+ community.

Nigeria is one of more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries where homosexuality is criminalized in laws that are broadly supported by the public, even though its constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination and the right to private and family life.

Uganda’s president earlier this year signed into law anti-gay legislation that prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people.

In the United States, the Human Rights Campaign has identified an “unprecedented and dangerous” spike in discriminatory laws sweeping statehouses this year, with more than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced.

“Given the homophobic and transphobic climate created by many bishops in the United States, the average same-sex couple likely still won’t feel comfortable presenting themselves to their local bishop or priest to ask for a blessing,” said Jamie L. Manson, a lesbian and president of Catholics for Choice, which advocates for greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church.

Starting from his famous “Who am I to judge” comment in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, Francis has evolved his position to increasingly make clear that everyone — “todos, todos, todos” — is a child of God, is loved by God and welcome in the church.

In a January interview with The Associated Press, Francis was asked specifically about countries that criminalize homosexuality and homosexual acts, and the bishops who support such laws.

“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said at the time.

Raul Pena, a spokesman for Crismhom, Madrid’s main Catholic LGBTQ+ association, noted countries in Africa that are passing anti-gay laws. But he also said small-town, conservative dioceses in rural Spain could also benefit from Francis’ message.

“Because if the priest from your town talks about gays being the devil in his sermons each Sunday, which some priests do, now you have the pope signing a document saying that homosexuals who live as a couple can be blessed,” he said. “It’s a fundamental step for those hierarchies and for those people who are in places where being LGBT is difficult.”

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