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Sonoma County diocese, Catholics respond to Vatican decree barring blessing of gay unions

In response to a growing movement at some Catholic parishes to allow blessings of same-sex unions, the Vatican issued a decree Monday forbidding such ceremonies, stating that “God cannot bless sin.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the arbiter of doctrinal law within the Vatican, said the church cannot bless “relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage,” defined as the union of a man and woman.

The congregation acknowledged the idea that blessings of same-sex unions are often “motivated by a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons.” However, the Vatican said its rules banning such ceremonies are “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite.”

The move was a painful blow to gay, lesbian and other non-heterosexual Catholics in Sonoma County and other parts of the world who have been hoping that Pope Francis might lead the church into a more inclusive direction.

DignityUSA, a national organization advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Catholic church and society, called the Vatican’s statement “harmful” and said it would “widen the wedge” between Catholics and the church leadership.

“This statement is hurtful to same-sex couples, and dismissive of the grace demonstrated by same-sex couples who live deeply loving and committed relationships,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the group’s executive director.

The announcement will not change any practices within the Diocese of Santa Rosa overseen by Bishop Robert Vasa, which includes about 40 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border, officials said.

“The Church does not have the practice of blessing relationships apart from marriage,” the diocese said in a statement Monday issued in response to a reporter’s questions.

“In essence the Church understands itself to be the custodian of a body of knowledge, teachings, and practices,” the diocese said. “We are not to be inventive or creative, rather to be protective and nurturing of the deposit of faith so that we can hand it on to the next generation.”

Santa Rosa resident Bill Baird, a lifelong Catholic who met his husband, John Kennedy, about 40 years ago, said the decree “shows the lack of understanding of certain authorities in the Vatican of what a loving relationship means.”

Baird and his husband, who married 13 years ago, belong to Resurrection Church on Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa. Baird said they feel welcome there and he believes in the teachings of Christ and the long tradition of service in the Catholic church. But Baird said the institution’s hierarchy sometimes fails to reflect the “essence of what I believe the Catholic church is.”

“Anyone holding their breath waiting for some magic change in doctrine coming out would be naive,” Baird said. “In that sense, (the decree) was probably predictable. Unfortunate, but predictable.”

Vatican doctrine holds that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and respect. Francis has endorsed providing legal protections for same-sex couples, but that is in the civil sphere and not the church. Church doctrine states gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” and that same-sex unions are sinful.

The Vatican’s announcement came in response to a formal request for clarification, called a dubium for the Latin word doubt: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?”

The response was one word — “negative” — followed by a lengthy explanation.

A priest can bless a homosexual person but “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” the Vatican stated.

Guerneville resident Mario Torrigino said the Pope’s teachings released earlier this year providing more opportunities for women in the church had given him hope it was prepared to be more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

That made Monday’s decree even more disappointing, said Torrigino, who has served as a local chapter president of DignityUSA and as a board member of the national organization.

Torrigino, 66, described himself as “a San Francisco Catholic,” raised in an Italian family in the city with strong cultural roots to the church. The Catholic church is going through a highly contentious period with progressive and conservative factions pulling the church in opposing directions, according to Torrigino. He chooses to take a longer, more hopeful view that people like him will one day be fully accepted.

“I’ve been following Francis’ papal administration quite closely — I think this is just a temporary setback,” Torrigino said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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