▶ Watch Video: Pope Francis suggests Catholic church could bless some same-sex unions

When Sister Anna Koop blessed a same-sex couple 15 years ago, it seemed natural to do so. The couple — one a friend of Koop’s — were very much in love, and “Jesus did not say love was confined,” said Koop, now 85. The Roman Catholic nun knew she might face consequences from the church, but went ahead with the private blessing — not a sacramental marriage, she noted — regardless. She just “blessed the love they celebrate.”

With Pope Francis’s statement earlier this month there could be ways to bless same-sex couples, she feels her decision 15 years ago has been affirmed.

His remarks were published in a letter in July in response to five retired cardinals who published “dubia,” or doubts, about what would happen at the synod, a three-week meeting that draws bishops, cardinals, priests, religious and lay people, from around the world attend to discuss hot-button issues. Topics include whether priests should get married, women should be able to become deacons and how the church will handle LGBTQ matters. 

A general view shows St. Peter’s Square during the Holy Mass with the College of Cardinals for the Opening of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on October 04, 2023 in Vatican City, Vatican. 

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The five conservative cardinals feared that Pope Francis would change doctrine or discipline in the church. Pope Francis released his response more broadly at the beginning of the synod at the Vatican, in Rome. 

The pope’s remarks came with caveats: Same-sex blessings shouldn’t be seen as elevating same-sex unions to the sacred place of heterosexual marriage, he said. While Pope Francis has previously endorsed same-sex civil unions, but same-sex couples can’t undergo the sacrament of marriage, which is reserved for heterosexual couples.  

The landscape for LGBTQ members of the Catholic church is confusing, said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a nonprofit that advocates for Catholics in the LGBTQ community. She told CBS News that much depends on where the congregation is located and the bishop’s interpretation of Catholic doctrine. 

The pope’s comments seem to be the start of a process, Duddy-Burke said, and many LGBTQ Catholics and their supporters are excited for further advancement. The church has to go through a huge culture change to survive in the modern world and “we have to decide as a church how to move forward,” she said.

Pope Francis during the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican City

Grzegorz Galazka via Getty Images

Some priests and nuns are moving forward on their own. Last month, several Catholic priests in Germany held a ceremony blessing around 30 same-sex couples, reported the Associated Press.

In America, the landscape is complicated. In the 2023 National Survey of Religious Leaders, 40% of U.S. Catholic priests answered “yes” to the question: “Would you perform the wedding of a same-sex couple if your religious group allowed it?” 

And that “suggests that a large minority of U.S. Catholic priests personally support same-sex marriages,” said Marc Chaves, a professor at Duke University specializing in the sociology of religion. 

However, there are few public blessings of same-sex couples by priests and pastoral workers. More than 200 priests and pastoral workers were contacted by New Ways Ministry, which ministers to the LGBTQ Catholic community, about performing same-sex blessings, but most wouldn’t talk publicly to CBS News. The pope met with the organization’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramnick, on Tuesday. 

The pope met with New Ways Ministry co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramnick.

New Ways Ministry

And while the pope “opened the possibility of priests blessing one or more persons when asked” and “priests and pastoral workers will feel more comfortable responding to requests,” Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, told CBS News, the pope “has not actually given that permission yet but rather is encouraging its study and discussion at the synod which is underway.” As it stands, priests can still be excommunicated from the church for performing these blessings – the worst possible punishment – or can be barred from performing the sacraments. 

The pope has been consistently open to the LGBTQ community to show them “they are loved by the church and not rejected outright, Stowe said. The pope “wants to keep the lines of communication open and he encourages their participation in the life of the church,” said Stowe. 

Some conservative bishops have not supported the pope’s outreach or positions. In a pastoral letter issued on September 26 Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas said while ” such a blessing would not be licit” it “would undoubtedly cause confusion”  and “cannot honor God who is truth by attempting to offer blessings which run counter to His truth.”

Koop, who became a nun in the late ’60s, spent almost her entire career in Denver focusing on housing and homelessness issues while ministering to the poor. She keeps in touch with the same-sex couple, who are still together and have two children. Koop said she never experienced consequences from the church for her actions.

Sister Anna Koop in 1983 after she returned from European peace marches.

Lyn Alweis from Getty Images

She said she doesn’t regret performing the secret blessing.

“I did it once and I would do it again,” said Koop.