In Pope Francis’ nearly-eleven year tenure, perhaps nothing he has done has prompted so many responses in such a short time as approving blessings for same-gender couples. Within a day or two of the release of the Vatican declaration on blessings, entitled Fiducia Supplicans, scores, if not hundreds, of church leaders and other Catholics spoke out—and strongly.
Today and tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 provides summaries of some such responses. Today’s post highlights follow-up remarks by Vatican officials and some negative responses from bishops outside the United States. Tomorrow’s post will highlight positive remarks and responses from bishops in North America.
Head of the Doctrinal Office Defends Blessings
Two Vatican officials defended Fiducia Supplicans against criticism. Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the declaration, gave an interview to conservative outlet The Pillar in which the interviewers pressed the cardinal repeatedly on whether blessing a same-gender couple signals approval of their relationship or change in church teaching. To these questions, Fernández replied (via The Pillar’s translation):
“These kinds of blessings are simply simple pastoral channels that help to express people’s faith, even if those people are great sinners. Therefore, by giving this blessing to two people who spontaneously come forward to request it, one can legitimately ask God to grant them health, peace, prosperity—the things that we all ask for and that a sinner can also ask for.
“At the same time, since one can think that in the daily lives of these two persons, not everything is sin, one can therefore pray for them [to receive] a spirit of dialogue, patience, mutual help.
“But the declaration also mentions a request for help from the Holy Spirit so that this relationship, which is often unknown to the priest, may be purified of everything that does not respond to the Gospel and the will of God, and may mature along the lines of God’s plan.”
Fernández was also asked about how bishops and priests were to understand the authority of the text. He responded, in part:
“Obviously, when there is a text signed by the pope, in order to interpret it broadly, the bishops must first study it in depth and without haste, and allow themselves to be enlightened and enriched by that text. Therefore, prudence and attention to local culture could admit different ways of application, but not a total denial of this step being asked of priests. . .
“I well understand the concern of the bishops in some African or Asian countries, in places where being gay might put you in prison. It is an affront to human dignity that certainly distresses the bishops, and challenges them in their fatherhood. It is likely that the bishops do not want to expose homosexual persons to violence. They themselves refer to the ‘legislation’ of their countries.
“What is important is that these bishops’ conferences are not holding a doctrine different from that of the declaration signed by the pope, because it is the same doctrine as always, but rather they state the need for study and discernment, in order to act with pastoral prudence in this context.”
A secondary, notable thread in the interview is Fernández’s engagement with national bishops’ conferences which had already proceeded with more formalized blessings, such as in Germany and Belgium. The cardinal said such steps are “inadmissible” and the bishops “should reformulate their proposal in that regard.” He also indicated he would be traveling to Germany in 2024 for a dialogue with the bishops.
Fernández’s interview appears to be an attempt to resist the almost-knee-jerk statements from a number of episcopal conferences criticizing or even rejecting Fiducia Supplicans. The cardinal explained that “the reception of these documents requires time, and a serene and prolonged reflection.” Yet, the pushback was almost immediate last week, particularly from church leaders in Africa and Eastern Europe.
Negative Reactions from Bishops
The following are some examples of bishops who are resisting the Vatican’s declaration and the often harsh language used to do so:
Cameroon: The National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon issued a statement forbidding any blessings for “homosexual couples,” arguing (incorrectly) that “homosexuality falsifies and corrupts human anthropology” and is “a clear sign of the imploding decadence of civilizations.”
Ghana: The Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement saying the Vatican declaration “does not give Catholic priests the permission to bless same-sex marriages.”
Kazakhstan: Archbishop Thomash Peta of Saint Mary in Astana, and his auxiliary, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, said Pope Francis had made a “great deception” by approving the declaration. Priests were forbidden from blessing same-gender couples, for doing so would have “far-reaching and destructive consequences.”
Kenya: The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement criticizing “the confusion existing in the more developed countries” and their “new unchristian models” of family life. The bishops continue that any blessings of same-gender couples are not possible. Bishop Joseph Obanyi of Kakamega barred priests from blessing such couples, warning the church would “chase away” those who seek them.
Malawi: The Episcopal Conference of Malawi issued a statement of “clarification” that banned any blessings for same-gender couples. The bishops claim the Vatican’s declaration is “NOT on the blessing of same sex unions,” which is not possible, but about blessings generally and is actually more so about reaffirming church teaching on marriage.
Nigeria: The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria issued a statement through Archbishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of Owerri and Bishop Donatus Ogun of Uromi, respectively president and secretary of the conference, prohibiting same-gender blessings. The bishops claim “the Church does not have the power to impart a blessing on irregular unions.” Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of Oyo added in his own remarks that no LGBTQ+ rights are possible.
Ukraine: The Ukrainian Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops issued a statement criticizing the Vatican declaration for being ambiguous, which may allow some to see it as a “permission to sin,” even though the DDF declaration itself rejects that such permission is given. The bishops note the church does not reject “persons with homosexual tendencies,” but “we see the danger in ambiguous wording, which causes differences of opinion among the faithful.” Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi of Kyiv–Zhytomyr added in an interview that the church should focus on blessing soldiers, not LGBTQ+ people.
Zambia: The Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying the Vatican’s declaration would only “be taken as for further reflection and not for implementation in Zambia,” concluding with an appeal to “those involved in same-sex unions to embark on the path of conversion” instead.
Vatican Leader on Marriage and Family Lauds Blessings
Fr. Philippe Bordeyne, president of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, wrote in La Croix International that Fiducia Supplicans could and would outlast critics. Bordeyne, who previously expressed support for blessing same-gender couples, is focused on the pastoral possibilities that offering blessings to people in relationships the church considers ‘irregular’ could have. He writes, in part:
“The last point in the Declaration is the most stimulating, both for pastoral work and for the deepening of doctrine. It is drawn from the ecclesial experience of popular piety, which was the subject of a Roman Directory in 2002. Here we join the dynamics of a synodal Church: before blessing, the minister is urged to listen to what the couple expects from God through their desire for blessing. He can then invite them to bless God for the fruits of their union, and to ask for God’s help in overcoming the limitations and lack of love in their lives.
“From his heart as a priest or deacon, an appropriate prayer and gesture may ‘spontaneously’ spring forth to bless this couple. Thanks to this discerning and personalized blessing, couples having a complicated history will be able to acknowledge before God, supported by an ordained minister of the Church, their dignity as baptized people and the value of their shared history, despite its objective limitations. They can then be re-launched in their life of faith.”
Tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 will highlight positive reactions from church leaders, as well as an overview of the diverse responses of U.S. bishops.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2023
Religion News Service, “On same-sex blessings, some Catholics celebrate change while others point to limits“