ROME — The Vatican said Monday that priests could not bless same-sex unions, calling any such blessing “not licit.”

The ruling said that the church should be welcoming toward gay people, “with respect and sensitivity,” but not endorse their unions.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, issued the judgment in response to questions raised by some pastors and parishes that sought to be more welcoming and inclusive of gay couples.

The issue of inclusiveness came to the fore in recent years after the pope asked bishops to develop projects and proposals “so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” Blessings for same-sex unions had emerged as one possibility, requiring official clarification.

The decision did not imply a judgment on people involved nor a form of “unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of the sacrament of matrimony, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, the prefect of the congregation, said in an explanatory note. Ladaria wrote that Pope Francis, who has staunchly opposed same-sex marriage in the church, had given “his assent to the publication.”

In the United States, where more than 6 out of 10 Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew survey, many gay Catholics and their advocates mourned the announcement, and said it would inevitably lead to more gay people and those who support them leaving the church.

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“The Vatican does what the Vatican does, and sometimes the Vatican really hurts people whose lives they are unfamiliar with,” said Jason Steidl, a theologian at St. Joseph’s College who is gay. “Pastorally, it’s a devastating pronouncement for LGBTQ people.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry who has been an advocate for gay Catholics for four decades, noted that “priests in parishes” were already celebrating such blessings. He said that Catholics would “continue to find creative ways to bless the couples they love and support,” and that “Catholic laity will step in and perform their own rituals, gestures and words of support.”

Francis has repeatedly expressed support for gay people. Only a few months after his election in 2013, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked during a papal flight from Brazil about priests who might be gay. The pope also made headlines in October when he appeared to endorse same-sex civil unions. The Vatican later clarified that the pope believed that gay couples deserved civil protections, including legal rights and health care benefits, but that his comments had not marked a change in church doctrine.

The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered.”

In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the church’s “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” That document, which was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the prefect of the congregation and who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, sought to sway Catholic lawmakers as an increasing number of countries were ratifying legal rights for same-sex couples.

In the ruling made public Monday, the Vatican said that Catholic teaching held that marriage between a man and woman was part of God’s plan, and that since same-sex unions were not intended to be part of that plan, they could not be blessed by the church.

In explaining the ruling Monday, the Vatican said that relationships involving “sexual activity outside of marriage,” which the Vatican described as an “indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life” did not follow the “Creator’s plans,” even if those relationships had “positive elements.” The Vatican also said that the risk existed that same-sex unions could be misconstrued as constituting “a certain imitation” of the nuptial blessing that is invoked in matrimony, which is a sacrament in the Catholic Church. In fact, “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 wrote, citing Francis’ landmark 2016 document on the theme of family, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”

Though few were surprised by the Vatican’s decision, critics said the statement’s tone was notably harsh. A line saying that God “does not and cannot bless sin” stood out in its reduction of loving relationships to moral offenses.

“That line in particular is going to cause tremendous pain and anger,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national advocacy group for gay Catholics. “The fact that our church still denies people a sense of sacredness about their relationships is deeply painful to those of who hold fast to our faith.”