Following a Fall of Significant Announcements, What’s Next for the Church?

Pope Francis waves to the faithful.
Pope Francis greets the faithfuls at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall. (Photo by Alessia Pierdomenico)

From the blessing of same-sex couples to the role of women and laity, experts say more discernment and debate lie ahead. 

Announcements from Rome in relation to two hot-button issues within the Catholic Church made for an eventful end to 2023, setting the stage for 2024 to be a year to focus on the diversity of the church and create a more inclusive environment for discernment and debate.

"There are real fault lines that do bode for the conflict in the future, but this also means that we’re actually talking about things that we’ve been previously forbidden to discuss. This can be positive," said the Rev. William Clark, S.J., professor of religious studies.

In December, with Pope Francis’s approval, the Vatican issued a declaration on the pastoral meaning of blessings, Fiducia Supplicans, which clarified that there is a “possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

Fr. Clark and Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies, agree that by allowing parish priests to give blessings to couples who are not considered married according to Church teaching they are encouraging a greater level of engagement with the lives of ordinary Catholics.

"This brings the Catholic Church into direct engagement with those who have been marginalized," Schmalz said. "Blessings are requests for God’s mercy, for love and care, so [they] can be applied in a variety of different circumstances that go beyond simply marriage or romantic couplings."

The decision equips priests with the necessary pastoral tools to meet people where they are, to respond to parishioners and create a warm, inclusive and welcoming environment, which shows God’s mercy, Schmalz said.

The speed at which some may want a full acceptance of same-sex couples to come from the Church is unrealistic, though, according to Fr. Clark, who said there is significant global diversity of culture and opinion within the church: "Although this step may seem small to some people, it is a real move forward because what [Francis] is pushing against is enormous."

Fr. Clark cited a 2020 Pew Research Center survey that reported how Catholics worldwide view same-sex marriage and homosexuality; the results showed a diversity of opinion. For example, roughly 95% of those in the Netherlands said homosexuality should be accepted by society, while only 6% in Nigeria shared that view.

"With that gap, unless you’re out to have a Church made up of representatives from the West only, it’s not wise to move too quickly. Francis would see and understand that his mission is to provide a point of unity within the Church and provide that unity around the truth," Fr. Clark said.

People should also remember that the kinds of blessings referenced in the declaration have always existed, Fr. Clark noted. What has been removed is the concern that priests must question whether they are doing something wrong when they offer them, if given within the guidelines shared.

"The significant advance is that now there is no longer a fear when you pray for them, for their happiness, and success for all their endeavors, their love for each other and their openness to God," he said.

While some guidance is offered about how blessings may be shared — they cannot be part of or similar to a marriage ceremony — the declaration does not clearly define couples in "irregular situations."

For this reason, Schmalz speculated that such action, if more widely applied, "could truly become something that will transform the Catholic church in ways that now, I would say, are even difficult to foresee."

If we emerge from all of this with the recognition that flexibility is missing and unity can be found in something other than a literal agreement on every word, we will have made a huge step forward."

the Rev. William Clark, S.J., professor of religious studies

The role of women and laity

While the guidance related to same-sex blessings produced headlines at the end of 2023, the Church’s month-long October meeting of 400 bishops and lay Catholics also drew media attention to Rome.

Called "The Synod on Synodality," the three-year process is a time for reflection, listening and discussion in which the worldwide Church examines how to live its missions and meet the needs of its people and the world. While the synod process harkens back to the ancient Church, the October meeting made news as women and lay people were for the first time invited to participate in the synod meeting.

"Though the process has provoked a lot of opposition, particularly in the U.S. — a focal point for the resistance to Francis’ reforms — I think synodality is something that is here to stay," Schmalz said.

Fr. Clark noted that the United States represents roughly 6% of the Catholic population worldwide. "When you put that against 1.2 billion, it’s not a very large representation," he said. "The conflict on specific issues, that split between traditionalists and progressives, is something that exists around the world. Even if the U.S. bishops you have been strongly opposed to some of the Pope's views were to stop sharing their opinions, the tensions on this issues would still exist."

Schmalz notes that the open and sincere debate over issues raised in 2023 stands in contrast to the conventional perception of the church as monolithic: "It doesn’t mean there aren’t commonalities, but it does mean that sacraments are sometimes performed quite differently depending on where you are in the world. Catholicism is more like a mosaic as opposed to an institution that has no difference of opinion or diversity."

Pope Francis is expected to present a list of topics in early 2024 that require further study during the second and final session of the synod, scheduled for October. In the meantime, Schmalz said there will be more jockeying in the media to promote certain issues, including elevating women in the Church and greater consideration of divorced and remarried Catholics being admitted to communion: "Francis has begun a process in the Church that is close to revolutionary, but we’re not going to be able to see the effects of that for a while and whether the reforms he’s initiated will hold or be pulled back."

"If we emerge from all of this with the recognition that flexibility is necessary and unity can be found in something other than a literal agreement on every word, we will have made a huge step forward," Fr. Clark said. "I hope that unity can be found and can be a principle for governing the church without shattering it into more pieces."