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Rick Garcia, the founder of Equality Illinois, stands inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Loop on Monday.

Rick Garcia, the founder of Equality Illinois, stands inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Loop on Monday. Garcia said that it’s a ‘new day’ after hearing news of Pope Francis formally approving allowing priests to bless same-sex couples.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Chicago Catholics praise pope’s approval of blessings for same-sex couples: ‘This is such a huge shift’

When Pope Francis announced he formally approved letting Catholic priests bless same-sex couples, Rick Garcia, a Chicago Catholic, was stunned.

“When I started work with the gay community, I never expected this to happen,” he said. Garcia, who directed Catholic Advocates for Lesbian and Gay Rights in the 1980s and ’90s, also co-founded Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

“This is significant because [Francis] is looking at the humanity of LGBTQ people and doesn’t reduce them to sexual objects,” Garcia said. “They see them as people who have relationships and family and are part of the church.

“This is such a huge shift,” he said.

A new Vatican statement explains a radical change in policy by insisting that people seeking God’s love and mercy shouldn’t be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” to receive it, according to the Associated Press.

Catholics around Chicago praised Pope Francis’ approval Monday of blessings for same-sex couples as a “significant” step toward recognizing the humanity of LGBTQ people.

According to the Archdiocese of Chicago, the city is home to 2.2 million Catholics.

The diocese welcomed the “declaration, which will help many more in our community feel the closeness and compassion of God,” Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, said in a statement Monday.

“The Declaration is a step forward, and in keeping not only with Pope Francis’s desire to accompany people pastorally but Jesus’s desire to be present to all people who desire grace and support,” Cupich said.

The document from the Vatican’s doctrine office elaborates on a letter Francis sent to two conservative cardinals that was published in October, the Associated Press reported. In that preliminary response, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if they didn’t confuse the ritual with the sacrament of marriage.

The new document repeats that condition and elaborates on it, reaffirming that marriage is a lifelong sacrament between a man and a woman. And it stresses that the blessings in question must be nonliturgical in nature and should not be conferred at the same time as a civil union, use the rituals or even the clothing and gestures that appear in weddings.

But it says requests for such blessings for same-sex couples should not be denied. It offers an extensive and broad definition of the term “blessing” in Scripture to insist that people seeking a transcendent relationship with God and looking for his love and mercy should not be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” as a precondition for receiving it.

The document was not without its critics. Ulrich Lehner, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, called the pope’s announcement “an invitation to schism.”

“The Vatican’s statement is, in my view, the most unfortunate public announcement in decades,” he said in a statement. “Its imprecise language invites misunderstanding and will sow confusion.”

Garcia said he expects conservative bishops to “have a fit” over the announcement. But he suspects there is political momentum behind Francis and his moves to open the church to the LGBTQ community. The pope appoints bishops who will elect the next pontiff.

“We have Francis cardinals who are very different than Ratzinger [Pope Benedict] cardinals and bishops. And they will probably keep the tradition of this Holy Father going,” Garcia said.

Despite Francis’ effort to open the church, the Vatican still holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. As a result, it has long opposed same-sex marriage.

And in 2021, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn’t bless the unions of two men or two women because “God cannot bless sin.”

That document created an outcry, one it appeared even Francis was blindsided by, even though he had technically approved its publication. Soon after it was published, he removed the official responsible for it and set about laying the groundwork for a reversal.

In the new document, the Vatican said the church must shy away from “doctrinal or disciplinary schemes, especially when they lead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.”

It stressed that people in “irregular” unions — gay or straight — are in a state of sin. But it said that shouldn’t deprive them of God’s love or mercy.

Katherine Abel, who co-founded Affirmed, a ministry based at St. Clement’s parish in Lincoln Park that welcomes LGBTQ Catholics, said she was surprised by the announcement.

“It was such a profound shift from words put out in Doctrine of the Faith in 2021,” she said.

“Francis, he’s always had more heart than that. I can tell by the way he talks about the LGBTQ community,” she said. The announcement Monday was more in line with the “loving approach” he’s always had, she said.

“I pray that it is a helpful step for the church in recognizing the full dignity in marriages between couples of the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.

Hyunmin Park, a founding member of Affirmed who is in a same-sex marriage, said Francis’ announcement “is good news for people like me” but “it’s not enough.”

The announcement also gives hope to allies of the LGBTQ community and “people who felt hurt by the church in other ways,” said Park, who has since moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C.

Park said she’d consider receiving the blessing.

“I’m open to it. Who doesn’t want to be blessed?” she said.

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