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Michael Coren is an Anglican priest. His latest book is The Rebel Christ.

Last Sunday, the Church of England performed officially sanctioned blessings of same-sex partnerships for the first time. It was far too little for many people but much too much for conservatives, especially Roman Catholic conservatives, who condemned the move and comforted themselves that such an event could never be accepted by the Vatican.

Fast forward 24 hours, though, and there was Pope Francis, announcing that Catholic priests would be allowed to do something rather similar.

In a move that is genuinely transformative, the 87-year-old pontiff specified that these blessings weren’t to be within a church ritual or liturgy and that the decision is left to “the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers.” But make no mistake: this is a radical departure for a church that has long been perceived as constituting arguably the largest and most powerful opposition in the world to LGBTQ equality.

As recently as 2021, Rome said that God “cannot bless sin,” and its catechism states that homosexual acts are of “grave depravity,” “contrary to natural law,” and “intrinsically disordered.” But something magnificent seems to have happened to Pope Francis, perhaps a result of his advancing years and inevitable self-awareness of mortality. There has been a sparkling, exponential element to his statements over the past few months, creating a quite breathtaking legacy.

Pope’s ruling on same-sex blessings marks small step toward more inclusive church, advocates say

There’s context here, of course. In his 2000 book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Father Donald Cozzens writes that as many as 58 per cent of Roman Catholic priests are gay and argues that many aren’t celibate. As for scripture itself, the Bible is usually ambiguous or silent. The Old Testament mentions the issue only a handful of times, mostly concerning procreation and tribal preservation. It never refers to lesbianism. Nor are its codes supposed to apply literally to the modern world. Consider, for example, some of the text’s statements about slavery and ethnic cleansing. Jesus never speaks of the subject, and St. Paul’s criticisms are of men using boys for sex in pagan ceremonies, and have nothing at all to do with loving same-sex relationships.

But Catholic teaching is about more than scripture, and interpretation is profoundly significant. Papal infallibility is often misunderstood, hardly ever occurs and doesn’t apply in this case. That, however, isn’t the point. The church’s culture around issues of sexuality has been changing for some time, and this new declaration only legitimizes what has long been held as self-evident by perhaps the majority of the world’s Catholics. In fact, in North America and Europe, it’s likely that most churchgoers would like their leadership to go further.

What matters now is the nature and philosophy of the papal successor. Pope Francis has worked to fill the college of cardinals, those who elect the Pope, with people who are generally sympathetic to his political, economic and social beliefs. Yet papal elections don’t always go to plan, and if, as Catholics believe, the Holy Spirit has the final say, nobody can be absolutely sure what will happen.

But if the next Pope, as is likely, is relatively progressive, and has 15 or 20 years in office, the door that has now been opened is almost certain to be pushed wider. Full, sacramental marriage between people of the same sex would necessitate a fundamental change in church teaching and it’s difficult to see how that would happen. Mind you, few of us predicted the statement that came from Rome this week. What does seem certain is that there is no going back.

And that hasn’t been lost on Catholic traditionalists and conservatives, who are already in shock. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of them genuinely hate Pope Francis, and their roaring defence of papal supremacy when John Paul II and Benedict XVI were in office now seems bitingly inconsistent. Their numbers are relatively few, but they have money, magazines and think tanks, and their actions now and under the next pope remain to be seen. They may stay and fight, or move to eastern Orthodoxy or perhaps to one of the right-wing breakaway Catholic groups.

In the long run, it won’t matter. The central theme here is that large numbers of LGBTQ Catholics, and their friends and families, have at last been offered tangible hope. There’s a great deal yet to do, but this is one Christmas miracle that should be treated with the respect it deserves.

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