Minnesota LGBTQ leaders are greeting Pope Francis's formal statement approving the blessing of same-sex couples by Catholic priests as an important step forward, while noting that it stops short of recognizing the legitimacy of LGBTQ unions.

The statement, issued Monday by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approves priests' blessing same-sex couples "without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church's perennial teaching" about marriage as a "union between a man and a woman."

Brian McNeill, president of Dignity Twin Cities, called it a "substantial and meaningful" decision.

"In the Catholic church they bless everything; they bless dogs, they bless cats, they bless houses, they bless buildings, they bless cars — but they didn't bless same-sex couples until today," McNeill said. Dignity Twin Cities is the local chapter of a national organization that works to change Roman Catholic teaching in favor of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics.

Pope Francis' approval "reminds us that all of us are loved by God, and that we all are in need of God's mercy and would benefit from his blessing as we strive to live out his call more perfectly," Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese said in a statement.

The pope's statement "addresses the particular situation of couples who are living together outside the bond of a marriage recognized by the Church — whether they be heterosexual or homosexual — who come to the Church asking for a blessing even when their state in life might prevent them from participating in the sacraments. In particular, today's Declaration indicates that an ordained minister may privately impart informal, non-liturgical blessings on these persons in these situations," Hebda wrote.

The pope's statement "was intended to offer nuance to the Church's teaching on blessings without in any way changing the Church's perennial teaching on marriage or on sexual morality" or imply that the church is "officially validating the status of the couple," particularly regarding marriage, the archbishop wrote.

Despite the qualifications, Monday's statement is "a huge step from where the church was," McNeill said. A similar statement in 1986 called homosexuality "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." In 2021, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explicitly said the church couldn't bless the unions of two men or two women because ''God cannot bless sin.''

As recently as October, the summary of a synod involving 300 bishops and some lay people omitted mention of LGBT issues, despite discussion beforehand that the synod might call on the church to be more welcoming to the LGBT community.

McNeill objected to some of the wording in one paragraph of Monday's statement, referring to "the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who — recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help — do not claim a legitimation of their own status." LGBTQ people do not consider themselves "destitute" or less than legitimate, he said.

But the organization appreciated other parts of the statement, which McNeill said could make a difference in LGBTQ people's lives. Among other things, it could potentially improve relationships within families.

"This is conjecture, but I am certain that same-sex couples will seek out blessings for their relationships, especially in conservative Catholic families where a same-sex relationship is an anathema," he said. The blessings could help LGBTQ couples "make the case to their conservative Catholic parents that this is OK."

Kat Rohn, executive director of Out Front Minnesota, which works on behalf of LGBTQ equity, also expressed limited approval, calling it "a really important step forward" in which the pope is "signaling an openness to change and to evaluate people on their humanity and not just an identity."

The pope's position could make LGBTQ Catholics more comfortable expressing their identity within their churches, Rohn said.

"I think particularly for folks who are members of the Catholic church, every time the pope makes a statement, it allows them to bring more of themselves and their stories into these spaces," she said.

McNeill said the document seems phrased to placate conservatives within the church. "The document is eight pages long and it's clearly trying to thread the needle, walk the fence," he said. "It's a dialogue between conservatives and progressives and trying to allay the concerns of the conservatives."

He and Rohn also pointed out that future popes could reverse these advances. Popes tend to alternate between conservative and progressive stances, McNeill said, "just like Democrats and Republicans" in presidential elections.

Beth Hentges and her wife, Catherine McAuley Hentges, who live in Champlin, grew up in the Catholic church and still attend Catholic services. They see the statement as signaling that LBGTQ people should not be excluded.

"For me, the major step forward that's happening here is that Pope Francis is trying to move discussion of LGBTQ+ people in the church away from exclusion," Beth Hentges said. "I think there's an openness that this document calls for that will allow people within parishes to be more open and welcoming, and I think it will perhaps foster mutual trust and move away from judgment and toward friendship and love."

Together since 1989 and married since 2014, the couple has experienced different degrees of acceptance from different churches and different priests. Their two children, ages 21 and 28, were both baptized in Catholic churches.

Individual Catholics are "much more welcoming and accepting" than official church statements would suggest, McAuley Hentges said. She plans to stay in the church regardless.

"How do I leave the church that taught me that God's love is unconditional?" McAuley Hentges said. "I may step back from time to time for my own sanity's sake, but my commitment to the church is lifelong."