Pope Francis has suggested same-sex unions could be blessed, in response to a challenge from five conservative cardinals to affirm the church’s stances on homosexuality.

On Monday (2 October), the Vatican published a new letter from Francis outlining that blessings could be given if they were not confused with sacramental marriage and that a same-sex union is not deemed as equivalent to a heterosexual marriage. He further reiterated that matrimony is a union between a singular man and a woman.

Priests are to have the autonomy to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether a “situation” is “morally acceptable”. Francis stated that priests could not become judges “who only deny, reject and exclude,” rather priests are encouraged to use “pastoral charity”.

Francis added: “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.”

Despite the softening of the stance on blessing gay marriages, the Vatican still holds that marriage is union between a singular man and woman and therefore opposed gay marriage.

The letter from Francis suggests an overall reversal on the stance of the Vatican doctrinal department, which outlined in 2021 that the church could not bless gay unions because “God cannot bless sin” and subsequently banned blessings for same-sex couples.

Since his appointment as Pope in 2013, Francis has held a complex stance on LGBTQIA+ rights. He has claimed that “homosexual acts” are sinful, though forcefully rejects the idea that homosexuality is a crime.

Though he “upholds Catholic teachings on LGBTQ+ rights”, he has demonstrated some progress in the Church’s outreach to queer people.

The timing of the release of the letter, written in July, is significant. It comes as the five conservative cardinals re-submitted their original questions that challenged Francis to affirm teaching on gay people and women’s ordination, amongst other themes. They allegedly found Francis’s original response unsatisfactory and required a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.

The cardinals made their re-structured questions public two days prior to a three week synod at the Vatican, where a discussion point is LGBTQIA+ Christians and their place in the church. The Vatican retorted and released the original letter from Francis sent to the five cardinals.

The announcement of the possibility of a blessing of the unions has been met with tentative praise and suggests “significant advances” for the relationship of LGBTQIA+ people and the Vatican by New Ways Ministry executive director Francis DeBernardo, whose work advocates for LGBTQIA+ Catholics.

In a statement he said: “Though the Vatican’s latest statement about same-gender couples does not provide a full-fledged, ringing endorsement of blessing their unions, the document significantly advances Pope Francis’ work to include and affirm LGBTQ+ people.

“The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognise that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God,” DeBernardo said in a statement. “Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.

“This statement is one big straw towards breaking the camel’s back of the marginalised treatment LGBTQ+ people experience in the Church.”