Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Popesplaining and New Ways Ministry

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 18, 2023

No, Pope Francis has not actually said that the Church can offer blessings for same-sex unions. He has not said that. But at this late date, can anyone still doubt that’s what he thinks—and that it is only a matter of time until he makes it official?

After meeting with the Pope on October 17, Sister Jeannine Gramick, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry, thanked him for “his openness to blessing same-sex unions.” Either she is deceived about the Pope’s intentions, or she is deceiving us, or… she is properly recognizing the Pontiff as an ally.

Early this month, when the Vatican made public the Pope’s responses to the latest dubia from a group of concerned cardinals, some loyal Catholic commentators—including several for whom I have a good deal of respect—took issue with reports that the Pope was opening the door to blessings of same-sex unions. They pointed to his clear affirmation that “the Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation. Only this union can be called ‘marriage.’”

Yes, but that is not an answer to the question posed by the dubia cardinals. They had asked: “Whether the Church can offer blessings for objectively sinful situations, such as same-sex unions.” Read through the Pope’s responses, and look for a Yes/No answer to that question. You won’t find it.

You could find a very clear answer in the statement released by what was then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in March 2021, declaring that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” That statement, signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, had the approval of Pope Francis.

But then when Pope Francis replaced Cardinal Ladaria with his old friend Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, the new prefect promptly opened the subject for discussion once again. In his his first interview after taking on his new role as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, Cardinal Fernandez reaffirmed that a same-sex union cannot be regarded as a marriage, but suggested nevertheless that “if a blessing can be given in such a way that it does not cause that confusion, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed.”

(At this point it is relevant to point out that while Pope Francis signed the response to the dubia cardinals, the style of the prose in that response looks very much like the work of Cardinal Fernandez, who has been a papal ghost-writer in the past. Moreover, rumors around Rome suggest that the Pope was unhappy with the 2021 statement that Cardinal Ladaria had issued. So it is not unreasonable to believe that the Pope’s thinking is closer to that of Cardinal Fernandez, who wants to analyze and confirm the nature of a blessing for same-sex couples.)

The pattern is clear enough: the unwillingness to reaffirm the 2021 Vatican statement; the string of equivocal statements; the encouragement for a discussion of the question at the Synod; the failure to rebuke Church leaders who question the traditional Catholic stand. And now the friendly meeting with the leaders of New Ways Ministry, a group that has been repeatedly chastised for undermining Catholic orthodoxy.

For more than twenty years now, Church leaders have been warning that New Ways Ministry may be harmful to the faith:

  • In 1999, after a series of exchanges with the group’s co-founders, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found their statements “doctrinally unacceptable”, “in fact erroneous and dangerous.”
  • In 2009 Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, cancelled a workshop by New Ways Ministry, citing the same concerns.
  • In 2010 the late Cardinal Francis George, acting in his capacity as president of the US bishops’ conference, a statement that “in no manner is the position proposed by New Ways Ministry in conformity with Catholic teaching.”
  • In 2014 Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit refused to allow a talk by Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry.
  • In 2015 Bishop Peter Jurgis of Charlotte did likewise, blocking an appearance by Sister Gramick.

All these bishops—successor to the Apostles—determined that the public positions taken by New Ways Ministry were incompatible with the true Catholic faith. Yet now Pope Francis meets with the group’s leaders and they emerged from the meeting encouraged.

Years ago our old friend Diogenes put his finger on the problem, commenting on a statement by the group’s executive director:

DeBernardo’s statement inadvertently drives home the message that New Ways Ministry takes its position outside the Catholic Church:
New Ways Ministry will continue its bridge-building work between lesbian/gay Catholics and the Church because that work is needed now more than ever.
You don’t need a bridge to get to where you are.

Why does Pope Francis take time to meet with representatives of this organization—which so many Church leaders have found to be outside the Catholic tradition—when he has not found the time to give a clear answer to the dubia cardinals? Why has the undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops given the keynote address to a conference sponsored by this group? The only reasonable conclusion is that Pope Francis sympathizes with the group that has, from its inception, questioned Catholic orthodoxy, in its campaign to change the perennial Church teaching.

I understand and respect the motives of my loyal Catholic friends who are still “popesplaining”—doing their utmost to show how the Pope’s actions and utterances can be interpreted in conformity with orthodox Catholic teaching. I did my share of popesplaining myself, until finally the effort became more than I could manage, as I explained more than 5 years ago, on the very first page of The Lost Shepherd. I cannot help thinking of a few lines from a poem by Hillaire Belloc:

Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had Kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her…

Yes, I admit it can be done. With prodigious effort—with a gymnast’s agility, with a willingness to overlook the appointments and the endorsements, the nods and the winks and the body language—one can—barely—still defend the position that the Pope supports the traditional Catholic teaching. But is it really worth the effort—when the Pope does not defend that position himself?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Oct. 21, 2023 1:00 AM ET USA

    “This boils down to admitting homosexual men to Holy Orders.“ As soon as I read this comment from “feedback,” things feel into place for me. Ordaining homosexual priests, part of the fallout from “the spirit of Vatican II,” led in large part to the sex abuse scandal. Many people, especially among non-Catholics, still think the scandal is about priests preying on children, but the majority of victims were young men. Seminaries are now supposed to screen out men with same-sex attraction.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 20, 2023 8:02 PM ET USA

    The problem for Catholics who have to work for a living is that once the Vatican goes full-bore public to the dark side in the matter of unnatural vice, no Catholic's job will be safe. For once the Vatican goes, then the entire edifice of "religious exemption" and 1st-Amendment protection goes as well. Why? Because the new religion will not allow a Catholic to claim support from the Vatican for his rational position. We saw it during the "vaccine" religious exemption collapse. Hell on earth soon

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 19, 2023 3:27 PM ET USA

    Sadly, I have to agree with you Mr. Lawler. There are many good Catholics who are still in denial and who have their heads buried in the sand. I don't know what it will take to wake them up to reality. What is currently happening in the Church will not end well. But if God permits the current evil, it is because God will eventually draw good out of it.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Oct. 19, 2023 11:26 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Mr. Lawler, for struggling to maintain respect for the office of the papacy, in spite of the decisions and behavior of the current occupant and for describing clearly why all faithful Catholics should do likewise

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 19, 2023 2:32 AM ET USA

    This boils down to admitting homosexual men to Holy Orders. Many faithful bishops may still not realize a long-term harmful effect for the Church with such ordinations. It was only a matter of time that some gay priests would become gay bishops who would become gay cardinals. And then, it would be only a matter of time for one of them to become pope who'd keep appointing gay or gay-friendly cardinals. The sex scandals suddenly revealed overwhelming numbers of gays in priesthood. This must stop.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Oct. 18, 2023 7:05 PM ET USA

    Even if this pope made blessing same-sex unions official it would be a nullity in the Catholic world because it would be approving blasphemy claiming the blessing of God for serious sin, for sodomy. He has no such power. No Catholic could obey it. It would be mocking God rejecting Him and the order of creation. The same is true for bishops, clerics, and laity who think they can overrule Scripture. At what point do you ask that in doing such things the pope would be endangering his salvation?