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A letter by the pope, published by the Vatican on Monday, suggests the church will review if same-sex marriages could be blessed in the church, breaking a longstanding opposition to such unions. In July, Francis wrote an initial response to questions posed to him by five cardinals from the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe asking him to affirm the church's teaching on same-sex marriage, the role of women, the authority of the pope and other issues.
The cardinals' questions came ahead of a major three-week meeting at the Vatican, called a synod, where LGBTQ+ Catholics and their place in the church are on the agenda.
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Already, LGBTQ+ rights groups are applauding the pope's unprecedented move.
"The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God," Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry – a Catholic LGBTQ+ advocacy group – said in a statement. “Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.”
What is the Catholic Church's stance on same-sex marriage?
Francis, who became head of the Catholic Church in 2013, has supported same-sex couples receiving the legal benefits of marriage. Since his papal inauguration, over a dozen countries including the U.S. legalized gay marriage.
Some Catholic priests in Europe also have blessed same-sex couples without censure from the Vatican. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a body responsible for promoting and defending Catholic beliefs, has said "God cannot bless sin" in response to same-sex marriages.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said the five cardinals' letter spoke to their hope for a return to a stricter church many Catholics saw under Pope Saint John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed the five cardinals.
"It seemed to express a lot of fear that the synod would lead to profound changes in the church," Duddy-Burke said.
The five cardinals are Cardinal Walter Brandmueller of Germany, a former Vatican historian; Raymond Burke of the U.S., who was reassigned from his post on the Vatican's court on canon law; Juan Sandoval of Mexico, the retired archbishop of Guadalajara; Robert Sarah of Guinea, the retired head of the Vatican’s liturgy office; and Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong.
The possible movement within the church came to a head after the five priests initially sent the pope a letter in the summer, to which he replied in July. They then revised their questions and requested a yes or no answer from Francis. Without Francis' definite stance, the cardinals published their questions with a warning to other Catholics about the possible shift in the religion on Cardinal Burke's website.
Francis' reply, hours later, urged the cardinals to not be afraid of the synod. In it, he said pastoral charity requires patience and understanding, but priests cannot become judges "who only dent, reject and exclude."
“For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of benediction, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” Francis wrote. “Because when a benediction is requested, it is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us to live better.”
LGBTQ+ Catholics eager to learn Pope Francis' stance
Duddy-Burke is one of many Catholics globally who married in the church and had the ceremony blessed by a priest. She and her wife will celebrate their 20-year anniversary this month and being able to hold their wedding in a church meant the world to them and their families.
Not all LGBTQ+ Catholics can celebrate that.
Duddy-Burke said Catholics consider marriage blessings to be major and critical to their lives.
"I've been to so many ceremonies where one member is Catholic and the joy their family members have is so palpable, but there's often regret it can't be held in a Catholic church and the priest can't sign the marriage licenses," Duddy-Burke said.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement the pope's response urges Catholics to accept LGBTQ+ people.
Francis, meanwhile, has pushed leaders to not deny or punish LGBTQ+ people as anti-gay laws get passed across the globe.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association found that 64 of the 193 countries in the United Nations criminalize same-sex acts through imprisonment, whippings and even death.
"Pope Francis’ leadership recognizes the lived reality that LGBTQ people exist, that we form partnerships and families, and that we need the support of our communities, including our churches," she said. "This is not full marriage recognition, but it will make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQ families and create a Catholic Church open to all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity."
Duddy-Burke said the Catholic Church today is more progressive than before because of grassroots efforts by local churches.
Church leaders in the U.S., Germany and Belgium are some of many who've blessed same-sex marriages without penalty from the Vatican.
The decision to bless same-sex unions could help the church become more engaged with the world, advocates say.
"It has the protentional of opening a door that has long been shut to same-sex couples," Duddy-Burke said.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Javier Zarracina, USA TODAY; Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pope Francis could open door for same-sex, LGBTQ Catholic couples