Pope Francis, who has made reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics a hallmark of his papacy, has made clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings, furthering his vision of a more inclusive church.
The pope’s embrace of transgender people’s participation in the church was revealed in a Vatican document that he approved on Oct. 31 and that was posted online Wednesday. It struck some advocates of a more inclusive church as an “important” and encouraging step on a path that Francis has charted toward a Roman Catholic Church that is more focused on opening its doors than keeping people out.
“Welcoming transgender people more fully to the sacraments is a good step,” Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for gay Catholics, said in a statement. The decision “signals Pope Francis’ desire for a pastorally focused approach to L.G.B.T.Q.+ issues is taking hold,” he added.
The immediate public response from American bishops, who have taken more restrictive stances on transgender issues, was generally muted. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized that the question of a transgender person’s participation in the sacrament of baptism and other spiritual rituals was separate from questions of medical interventions for transgender people. “These are different, distinct issues,” she said.
Last spring, the American bishops’ conference issued its own doctrinal document stating that chemical and surgical interventions for the purpose of gender transitions were “not morally justified,” and instructed Catholic hospitals not to perform them.
In his 10-year papacy, though, Pope Francis has made clear his opposition to same-sex marriage, he has spoken frequently about making the Catholic Church more welcoming to L.G.B.T.Q. people. This year, Francis condemned “unjust” laws that criminalize being gay, urging bishops to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people into the church, especially in countries where those draconian laws exist. L.G.B.T.Q. advocates called that statement “historic.”
And while Francis has repeatedly said that the church should reach out to everyone, including L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, he has not changed church teaching, which says “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”
In the United States, individual parishes and even dioceses vary widely in their approach to transgender people in the pews. The archdiocese of Omaha, for example, requires students at Catholic schools to “conduct themselves in accord with their God-given biological sex.”
The Vatican said the document Francis approved last month simply clarified church teaching and did not constitute new policy or a change in policy.
“There are no doctrinal changes here — the importance of the document is typical of Francis’s whole papacy — namely, it takes a very pastoral approach to some very thorny issues of the church today,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer in Pennsylvania.
The document, he said, focuses on the good of the entire church community.
The document was written in direct response to questions posed by a Brazilian bishop about church teachings on the participation of transgender and gay people in some sacrament. Consistent with Francis’ papacy, full of fits and starts on issues where progressives are hungry for change, it included various considerations and caveats.
It was signed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the newly appointed head of the Vatican’s office on church doctrine, who is loathed by church conservatives for his perceived progressive bent.
The document — posted in Portuguese and Italian translations — says that under certain circumstances, transgender people — whether they had undergone hormonal treatment or surgical intervention — can be godparents at Catholic baptisms, serve as witnesses at religious weddings and receive baptism themselves.
Transgender people can be baptized “if there are no situations where there is a risk of causing a public scandal or disorientation among the faithful,” it says. The document did not elaborate on what would be considered a scandal. And children and adolescents who question their assigned gender may be baptized “if well prepared and willing,” the document says.
Transgender people can also be godparents at a baptism, although a local priest should exercise “pastoral prudence” and ensure that there is no risk of scandal or “educational disorientation” among the church community.
The document says that nothing in current church law prohibits L.G.B.T.Q. people from acting as witnesses for a marriage ceremony. It also says that a same-sex couple could baptize an adopted child, or one born of a surrogate mother, as long as there is “a well-founded hope that it would be educated in the Catholic religion.”
On allowing people in same-sex relationships to be godparents, the Vatican suggested that the situation was more complicated. A godparent could be anyone, including a gay person, who “leads a life that conforms to the faith,” the document says. (A godparent presents a baby at baptism and then is expected be a sort of spiritual guarantor for the child, aiding the child to live a Christian life.)
But people in same-sex relationships similar to marriage, which the church opposes, were not conforming to the faith and should not become godparents, it says. If same-sex couples live together openly and with “stable, marriage-like relations,” the document says, they are in a “different situation.”
Adding to the nuances, and possible wiggle room, the document says those people could be invited to witness the baptism and left some discretion to the local priest, calling on pastors to “wisely ponder every case to safeguard the sacrament of baptism.”
Despite its nuances and questions of theology, the document was greeted by advocates as a clear sign of progress.
Madeline Marlett, a transgender Catholic in Massachusetts, said the document was a welcome step appearing in a reassuringly official format, unlike some of Francis’ more off-the-cuff statements in interviews and other casual settings.
“It’s an actual document, not just a passing comment,” said Ms. Marlett, 26, who leads the young adult group for DignityUSA, an organization supporting L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics. “That gave me a little bit of joy and a little bit of hope.”
Still, she noted that it is not a sweeping change to the church’s approach, and seemed aimed more at affirming leaders who were already welcoming to transgender people, rather than instructing hard-liners to change.
The Rev. James Martin, an advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. outreach who is based in New York, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, “This is an important step forward in the church seeing transgender people not only as people (in a church where some say they don’t really exist) but as Catholics.”
Mr. DeBernardo noted that in 2015, another bishop had sought guidance from the Vatican’s office on church doctrine, asking whether a transgender person in Spain could be a godfather. Mr. DeBernardo’s organization wrote that the bishop had at first rejected the transgender person’s request, but then asked the Vatican for clarification.
The Vatican’s office on church teaching, which was then run by an archconservative theologian, said the transgender person did not conform to the faith and the position of godfather.
Bishop Rafael Zornoza Boy of the Spanish Diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta said the Vatican’s office of doctrine wrote him at the time, “The transsexual behavior itself reveals in a public way an attitude opposed to the moral requirement to solve one’s own sexual identity problem according to the truth of one’s own sex.” It added, “In fact, Pope Francis has affirmed on several occasions, in continuity with church teaching, that such conduct is contrary to human nature.”
But the Vatican has cautioned against reading that case as precedent, saying it was a previous interpretation of a specific case. .
How the policy on transgender people will be applied on a local level “can be scattershot,” Mr. DeBernardo said in a telephone interview on Thursday, especially because “there still is a lot of opposition to including transgender people in Catholic settings.”
Now that the church’s position has been clarified, transgender people can appeal to a bishop should they be denied these rights, “but it does take a lot of determination,” he added.
Because the decision has been entrenched by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, however, “it’s going to be harder for local bishops not to enforce it,” he said.
The document, Mr. DeBernardo said in a statement, “proves that the Catholic Church can — and does — change its mind about certain practices and policies.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, Elisabetta Povoledo from Verbania, Italy, and Ruth Graham from Dallas.