Pope Francis made headlines this week, as media outlets around the world reported that the pope had opened the door for blessings of same-sex couples in the Church.
The pope’s comments have sparked heated debate within the Church, with some observers arguing that Francis has walked back a previous Vatican statement on the subject.
But what exactly is a blessing? Who can perform them? Who can receive them?
What is a blessing?
A blessing is a type of sacramental - in fact, the preeminent type of sacramental in the Catholic Church.
Through blessings, Catholics praise God for the gifts he has given, while also invoking his goodness and grace upon the different events and circumstances of their lives.
Scripture regularly depicts blessings both in the Old and New Testaments.
In the Gospels, Christ blesses the people he interacts with, as well as objects — among them the bread at the multiplication of the loaves and at the Last Supper.
Wait. Back up one second. What’s a sacramental?
The Catechism says that sacramentals are sacred signs, instituted by the Church, “which bear a resemblance to the sacraments.”
Sacramentals don’t bring grace in the same way that seven sacraments do, but the Church says they dispose people to receive and cooperate with the grace of the sacraments more fully. They inspire devotion and assist in prayer.
The Second Vatican Council taught that “for well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in their lives; they are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”
Examples of other sacramentals include holy water, rosaries, the Stations of the Cross, and blessed candles.
Who - or what - can be blessed?
All kinds of things. The Catechism specifically references persons, meals, objects, and places. But blessings can sanctify the various objects and circumstances of daily life.
In fact, the Church actually has a Book of Blessings, which includes special prayers to bless all kinds of people and things - rosaries, Christmas trees, church doors, sick individuals, seeds, animals, fishing gear, victims of crime, and athletic fields, just to name a few.
There’s also a book of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, which contains blessings for different seasons, family events, and stages of life.
But blessings don’t have to be formal. While the Church does offer official prayers of blessing to be used in certain circumstances, blessings can also be a simple prayer from the heart.
Are priests the only ones who can bless things?
No! The Catechism teaches, “Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless.”
Lay people can - and should - bless things — like blessing a meal before eating it. Some Catholics have the custom of blessing their children, or tracing a cross with holy water in their homes.
Scripture tells believers to bless those who persecute them.
And most laity have the habit of blessing people after they sneeze or cough: the phrase ‘God Bless You’ can be offered intentionally, as an actual blessing, instead of just a polite response.
But some blessings are reserved for clerics. The Catechism says that “the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons).”
The Church’s Book of Blessings gives guidance on specific blessings that are intended for clergy.
Does that mean some blessings are more efficacious than others?
Well, God is the origin of grace, and he’s the one who makes any blessing efficacious.
But it’s true that certain blessings - called constitutive blessings - have the effect of imparting a sacred character upon the person or thing being blessed — as opposed to invocative blessings which invoke God’s goodness upon a person or thing.
In the words of the Catechism, constitutive blessings “have a lasting importance because they consecrate persons to God, or reserve objects and places for liturgical use.”
The blessing of an abbot at a monastery, rites of religious profession, and the dedication of an altar are examples of constitutive blessings.
Right now, there's talk in the Church about blessing gay couples. Is that possible?
The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) addressed this question back in 2021.
The dicastery, responding to a dubium, clarified - with the approval of Pope Francis - that it is not possible for the Church to bless same-sex unions, because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
But the DDF statement also affirmed that the impossibility of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples did not preclude the possibility of “blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
The question has drawn renewed attention this week, after the Vatican released Pope Francis’ answers to a more recent dubium asking, among other things, for clarification on this point of blessing same-sex couples.
In his response, the pope said that “the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could contradict” its doctrine regarding marriage, or “give the impression that something that is not marriage is recognized.”
But he also urged for pastoral discernment in offering blessings “requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage. Because when a blessing is requested, one 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.”
Some observers have suggested that the pope's recent responses constitute a softening of the DDF’s previous statement. The topic has become a matter of significant attention ahead of the synod of synodality gathering in Rome this month.