Paul Tuns

The Vatican has once again muddied the waters of Catholic moral teaching with the release of Fiducia Supplicans – On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings, which was widely reported on the front pages of newspaper and the leads of many news broadcasts as the Roman Catholic Church officially sanctioning the blessing of same-sex unions.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, under new prefect Cardinal Víctor Fernández released Fiducia Supplicans on Dec. 18. Cardinal Fernández is to Pope Francis what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was to Pope John Paul II.

The document states: “Within the horizon outlined here is the possibility of blessings of couples in irregular situations and of same-sex couples, the form of which should not find any ritual fixation on the part of ecclesial authorities, in order not to produce confusion with the blessing proper to the sacrament of marriage.”

Cardinal Fernández continues: “In these cases, a blessing is imparted that not only has ascending value but is also the invocation of a descending blessing from God Himself on those who, recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of His help, do not claim legitimacy of their own status, but beg that all that is true of good and humanly valid in their lives and relationships be invested, healed and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

LifeSiteNews Vatican reporter Michael Haynes explains that “blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex” is in contradiction to Catholic teaching that the “Church cannot bless sinful relationships.”

The Declaration does call marriage as an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” and maintains that “it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning.” It goes on to state: “The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.”

Perhaps so, but critics of the Vatican point to the ambiguity throughout the rest of the document that will provide openings for those who want to change Catholic moral teaching on marriage and sexual relations to either flout Catholic moral teaching or provide openings in which to demand further concessions.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and author of To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (2018), tweeted on Dec. 19, that Pope Francis “retreat(ed) to a strategy of ambiguous liberalization that avoided sharp doctrinal confrontation,” after the family synods in 2014-2015. “The core question raised by the document is what it asks/requires of priests,” Douthat continued. “Is this a permission to offer a blessing of the (ambiguous) kind envisioned, or a requirement?”

Douthat explained that if it were permission, “then the document essentially encourages the increasing separation of practice between different Catholic parishes, dioceses, and countries” – “again, in keeping with the larger pattern of (ambiguous) papal permissions for (partial) liberalization.” However, if it is a requirement for such blessings on the other hand, “the document sets up a situation where conservative practice becomes disobedience, where a form of liberalization can be effectively demanded and not just embraced where it’s desired.” The latter situation, Douthat argued, is “much more likely to lead to an explicit crisis of authority” which is unlikely to be quelled by the document’s statement that there would be “no further responses … expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type.”

Eric Sammons, editor of Crisis, said, “This declaration by the Vatican is another in a long line of shocking but sadly not surprising actions taken during the pontificate of Francis.” Sammons said that while it is possible to parse the text to say that technically the Catholic Church did not give permission to bless same-sex unions, it is too easily read that way – and was immediately by churchmen and laymen alike in hours after it was released.

Salzburg Archbishop Franz Lackner of Austria took a broad view of what the document permitted, saying of priests, “Basically, one can no longer say no” to blessing same-sex unions. Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny of Belgium said the document “helps us move forward” to accepting the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. LGBQT activist Fr. James Martin said the Vatican opened “the possibility for the blessing of same-sex couples in new declaration.” The British activist group LGBT+ Catholics Westminster called Fiducia Supplicans a “welcoming, Christmas gift from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis.” Fr. Joseph Loïc Mben, a Cameroonian teacher at the Jesuit Institute of Theology in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said the document is meant to be a starting point for a discussion within the church about pastoral care for people who identify as homosexual.

Archbishop Lackner and Bishop Bonny cherry-picked lines that endorsed their prior positions on homosexuality, ignoring that Cardinal Fernández also stated in Fiducia Supplicans that “from a strictly liturgical point of view, a blessing requires that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church,” adding that the Church condemns sexual activity outside of marriage. “The Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice.”

Cardinal Fernández said the document presents the ability to bless same-sex couples “without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.” He also stated uncategorically that such blessings should not be confused with marriage nor should there be any official liturgical rite tied to them: “One should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation.” At the same time he chastised those who would “prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing.”

The document concluded saying individual priests were free to act according to their own “discernment” in line with the text of the document.

Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley said in a statement that priests must ensure that any pastoral blessing does not resemble a liturgical act and stressed that Catholic teaching on marriage remains unchanged. He said the new document stresses “all Catholics, including those whose unions are not recognized by the Church, as equally in need of God’s grace and love.”

The document is meant to be a guide for priests about whether or not they can provide a “spontaneous” blessing to a person in a same-sex relationship. It unequivocally states that priests can do this. The document also states that the purpose of the blessing is to provide grace to all sinners seeking communion with God. All this is true, but the signal that this document sends is that being in a same-sex relationship – rather than being a person struggling to overcome same-sex attraction – is perfectly fine according to the Catholic Church.

The document clearly states that individuals are blessed, not couples – so there is no blessing of the actual relationship — and that priests are not to wear vestments during the blessing in order to avoid the appearance of ritual. But those who have called for changes in the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality, ignore those directions in their laser-focus on the “blessing” of people in same-sex relationships.

Cynics might look at Fiducia Supplicans and assume that Cardinal Fernández in all his vagueness is deliberately muddying the waters of Catholic teaching. Maybe, even probably. But at the very least, Pope Francis, Cardinal Fernández, and all other bishops must understand that generation upon generation of poorly catechized Catholics cannot be asked to use their own discernment or judgement and believe that they will come to the positions that natural law and Scripture tell us are the correct ones; many Catholics (and others) will read the headlines and chyrons, and erroneously believe that the Catholic Church has changed its moral teaching on same-sex relationships. Not many are likely to read the document in full and many who do may not comprehend the complexities of the instruction.

Campaign Life Coalition released a statement in response to Fiducia Supplicans saying it was “deeply concerned that efforts to restore a traditional understanding of marriage and family will be further undermined” by the confusion the document is likely to cause. “While the Declaration repeatedly insists that the intention is not to legitimize or validate same-sex relationships, nor produce confusion and scandal, the effect has been, and likely will continue to be, the opposite.” CLC’s director of education and advocacy (and Interim columnist) Josie Luetke said, “Already, misleading headlines and social media posts have proliferated, and dissident priests are using this opportunity to advance the LGBTQ agenda. We dread that ‘Catholic’ schools will reference this document to erroneously justify celebrations of Gay Pride.” The CLC statement said, “the document will cause much spiritual harm.” Indeed, as much as it leads people to active homosexual relationships, it will cause spiritual harm.

Douthat in his series of tweets about Fiducia Supplicans concluded that the document is in fact a “shift, insofar as the document legitimizes demands that, if answered, could push things closer to a breaking point.”

The last capital-D Declaration from the Holy Office of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith) was issued 23 years ago; Dominus Iesus was an important doctrinal statement on Jesus Christ as the source of salvation written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict. With any luck, Fiducia Supplicans, rather than becoming a seminal document in the Church or a door that opens to further changes, becomes a forgotten footnote. And speaking of footnotes, it is notable that 20 of the 31 footnotes cited in Fiducia Supplicans quotes not the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church but the statements of Pope Francis. This is not a doctrine that developed out of the tradition of the Church, but the meandering thoughts of the current pope.