The Vatican’s doctrinal office has issued a clarification that bishops may not bar priests from blessing couples in “irregular” situations, including same-gender couples, blessings that it allowed in its recent declaration, Fiducia supplicans.
The clarification, issued as a press release from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a response to the many and intense reactions from bishops that have been seemingly constant since Fiducia supplicans was released in mid-December.
Signed by the dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, the new press release, which is composed of six sections, urges a “full calm reading” of the declaration, responding directly to bishops’ conferences that have challenged, sometimes in stark terms, the declaration.
The most notable aspect of the press release is found in section two entitled “Practical reception,” which states in clear terms that bishops may not prohibit priests altogether from providing blessings, including to same-gender couples and others in “irregular situations.” The press release explains:
“Documents of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith such as Fiducia supplicans, in their practical aspects, may require more or less time for their application depending on local contexts and the discernment of each diocesan Bishop with his Diocese. In some places no difficulties arise for their immediate application, while in others it will be necessary not to introduce them, while taking the time necessary for reading and interpretation. . .
“Each local Bishop, by virtue of his own ministry, always has the power of discernment in loco, that is, in that concrete place that he knows better than others precisely because it is his own flock. Prudence and attention to the ecclesial context and to the local culture could allow for different methods of application, but not a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests.”
The dicastery also responds to bishops who have challenged Fiducia supplicans as breaking with church teaching. In section one, titled “Doctrine,” the press release states there can be no real concerns about doctrinal issues because “several indisputable phrases” in Fiducia supplicans “leave this in no doubt,” namely that church teaching on marriage remains unchanged, that any blessings should avoid confusion with marriage, and that the church can indeed not bless same-gender unions, which are differentiated from couples in both the original declaration and the new press released. Based on this, the dicastery concludes, “there is no room to distance ourselves doctrinally from this Declaration or to consider it heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous.”
The dicastery’s press release pays particular attention to resistance from bishops’ conferences in nations where LGBTQ+ rights are limited, described in section three’s heading, “The delicate situation of some countries.” Some of the most strident opposition to Fiducia supplicans has come from African bishops, and though the press release does not name them directly, it does respond to them—and seemingly encourages a defense of LGBTQ+ people’s rights. The press release states:
“In several countries there are strong cultural and even legal issues that require time and pastoral strategies that go beyond the short term.
“If there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself as a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent. It is clear that the Bishops do not wish to expose homosexual persons to violence. It remains vital that these Episcopal Conferences do not support a doctrine different from that of the Declaration signed by the Pope, given that it is perennial doctrine, but rather that they recommend the need for study and discernment so as to act with pastoral prudence in such a context.
“In truth, there are not a few countries that, to varying degrees, condemn, prohibit and criminalize homosexuality. In these cases, apart from the question of blessings, there exists a great and wide-ranging pastoral responsibility that includes training, the defense of human dignity, the teaching of the Social Doctrine of the Church and various strategies that do not admit of a rushed response.”
Section four, entitled “The real novelty of the document,” seeks to re-emphasize that Fiducia supplicans is not primarily about blessings for couples in “irregular” situations. Rather, it is about developing the church’s understanding of blessings in general, which, as Cardinal Fernández stated in the original declaration, “implies a real development” in magisterial teaching. In this section, the press release explains that while some bishops may act differently in implementing blessings, the declaration’s goal is in the end a wider welcome:
“Although some Bishops consider it prudent not to impart these blessings for the moment, we all need to grow equally in the conviction that: non-ritualized blessings are not a consecration of the person nor of the couple who receives them, they are not a justification of all their actions, and they are not an endorsement of the life that they lead. When the Pope asked us to grow in a broader understanding of pastoral blessings, he proposed that we think of a way of blessing that does not require the placing of so many conditions to carry out this simple gesture of pastoral closeness, which is a means of promoting openness to God in the midst of the most diverse circumstances.”
Section five answers the question of its title, “How do these “pastoral blessings” present themselves in concrete terms? The text addresses practical issues in administering pastoral blessings, which are clearly differentiated from “liturgical or ritualized blessings.” Rather than any type of “approval,” a blessing “is solely the response of a pastor towards two persons who ask for God’s help. Therefore, in this case, the pastor does not impose conditions and does not enquire about the intimate lives of these people.” The press release clarifies further [bolded text in the original]:
“Since some have raised the question of what these blessings might look like, let us look at a concrete example: let us imagine that among a large number making a pilgrimage a couple of divorced people, now in a new union, say to the priest: ‘Please give us a blessing, we cannot find work, he is very ill, we do not have a home and life is becoming very difficult: may God help us!’.
“In this case, the priest can recite a simple prayer like this: “Lord, look at these children of yours, grant them health, work, peace and mutual help. Free them from everything that contradicts your Gospel and allow them to live according to your will. Amen”. Then it concludes with the sign of the cross on each of the two persons.
“We are talking about something that lasts about 10 or 15 seconds. Does it make sense to deny these kinds of blessings to these two people who ask for them? Is it not more appropriate to support their faith, whether it be small or great, to assist them in their weaknesses with a divine blessing, and to channel that openness to transcendence which could lead them to be more faithful to the Gospel?”
Section five concludes with a warning to bishops, however, that “in no way is he authorized to propose or make blessings available that may resemble a liturgical rite.”
The press release ends with a sixth section on catechesis which at times will be needed to “help everyone to understand that these types of blessings are not an endorsement of the life led by those who request them.” The press release continues:
“[Blessings] are simple expressions of pastoral closeness that do not impose the same requirements as a sacrament or a formal rite. We will all have to become accustomed to accepting the fact that, if a priest gives this type of simple blessings, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything nor is he denying Catholic doctrine. . .
” For this reason, in giving a blessing to two people who come together to ask for it spontaneously, we are not consecrating them nor are we congratulating them nor indeed are we approving that type of union. In reality the same happens when individuals are blessed, as the individual who asks for a blessing – not absolution – could be a great sinner, but this does not mean we deny him this paternal gesture in the midst of his struggle to survive.”
“If this is clarified as a result of good catechesis, we can free ourselves from the fear that these blessings of ours may express something inadequate. We can be freer and perhaps closer and more fruitful ministers, with a ministry that is full of gestures of fatherhood and hospitality, without fear of being misunderstood.”
Preceding the doctrinal office’s press release yesterday, Cardinal Fernández had given a series of interviews to explain Fiducia supplicans, including its possibilities and limitations. Speaking to the Spanish outlet ABC at Christmas, the cardinal chastised Catholics claiming the declaration allowed same-gender marriages, saying, “Those who say so either have not read the text or have ‘bad blood,’ if you will pardon the expression. The statement clearly and ad nauseam states that these blessings are non-ritualized so that they are not interpreted as a marriage.”
In an interview with the German outlet Die Tagespost, Fernández acknowledged that Fiducia supplicans was a “clear answer” to German Catholics’ proposals to bless same-gender couples in formalized ways. The cardinal, who will visit Germany this spring, criticized German leaders as feeling “particularly ‘enlightened'” in contrast to those they consider “medieval” for opposing pro-LGBTQ+ stances. Fernández also suggested that “Some German bishops do not seem to understand that a liberal or enlightened pope could not guarantee communion among Germans, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Russians, and so on.” But, “a ‘pastoral’ pope is able to do this.”
In related news, La Croix International reported that Fiducia supplicans “caught just about everyone in the Vatican off guard,” and that the declaration’s translation into five languages “did not go through the Secretariat of State, as is customary.” La Croix’s report suggested that Fernández is facing intense opposition within the Roman Curia about his many efforts to promote pastoral welcome and a less judgmental approach to church teaching, consistent with Pope Francis.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 5, 2024
Bondings 2.0 will continue to provide updates about the reception of Fiducia supplicans and further developments in the coming days. If you do not already subscribe to receive daily posts on the latest Catholic LGBTQ+ news, opinion, and spirituality delivered to your inbox, you can do so by clicking here.
National Catholic Reporter, “Vatican doubles down: Catholic bishops shouldn’t stop blessings for gay couples”