Breaking Down Fiducia Supplicans

The Vatican’s approval of blessings for same-sex couples and couples in “irregular situations” reflects a divorce between morality & pastoral practice, liturgy & life, and orthodoxy & orthopraxy.

Yesterday the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Víctor Fernández, and with the approval of Pope Francis, released Fiducia Supplicans, which gives explicit approval for priests to impart a blessing on same-sex couples and couples in “irregular situations.” This declaration by the Vatican is another in a long line of shocking but sadly not surprising actions taken during the pontificate of Francis. 

As commonly happens with such controversial documents, many Catholics are trying to blame the media for misrepresentations of the text. “The pope didn’t approve of blessings for same-sex relationships!” “This doesn’t change anything!” and other such nonsense. In an effort to determine what the document actually says, I’ve excerpted a number of paragraphs below with an explanation of its underlying meaning. The full text can be found at the link above.

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1. The supplicating trust of the faithful People of God receives the gift of blessing that flows from the Heart of Christ through his Church. Pope Francis offers this timely reminder: “The great blessing of God is Jesus Christ. He is the great gift of God, his own Son. He is a blessing for all humanity, a blessing that has saved us all. He is the Eternal Word, with whom the Father blessed us ‘while we were still sinners’ (Rom. 5:8), as St. Paul says. He is the Word made flesh, offered for us on the cross.”[1]

The guiding principle of this document is that it is a teaching of Pope Francis, and Pope Francis alone. Of the 31 footnotes found at the end of the text, 20 of them (65%) reference the current pope. There is absolutely no attempt to situate this novel practice within the Catholic tradition; in fact, we’ll see later that Fernández presents this as a “broadening” of the theology of blessings. 

4. Pope Francis’ recent response to the second of the five questions posed by two Cardinals[4] offers an opportunity to explore this issue further, especially in its pastoral implications. It is a matter of avoiding that “something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage.”[5] Therefore, rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage—which is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children”[6]—and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.

The most insidious aspect of modern heresy is that it loudly proclaims itself to be orthodox. But it divorces orthodoxy from orthopraxy. So while Fernández affirms “the Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm,” the reality is that blessing sinful romantic relationships undermines that very doctrine. 

Progressive Catholics like Fernández (and Francis) strictly compartmentalize human behavior. There is what we believe, and completely separate from that belief is how we act. So on the one hand we can vocally proclaim that we affirm the Church’s teaching on marriage, while on the other hand we take actions to attack the very foundations of that teaching.

Contrast this with the perennial Catholic principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: “the law of what is prayed [is] what is believed [is] the law of what is lived.” Man is a unified composite of body and soul, and the soul is a unified composite of intellect, will, and the passions. It is anti-human to seek to separate these elements. Any physical action taken, including a blessing, imparts real meaning. If one takes an action that means one thing but then professes an opposing view, then one is either a schizophrenic or a liar.   

7. The Holy Father’s above-mentioned response invites us to broaden and enrich the meaning of blessings.

This line, in a nutshell, represents the problematic nature of Francis’s entire pontificate. What is the role of a pope? Is it to “broaden and enrich” our theology? Or is it to profess and guard what has been handed down to us since the time of the apostles? If you are Catholic, there is only one correct answer to this question.

Pope Francis reminds me of those popular Protestant pastors who become too enamored with their own importance. Over time, they begin to believe that God has chosen them—and only them—for a special role of leading God’s people where no one ever did before. They cannot be questioned, even when their new teachings are clearly inconsistent with a plain reading of Scripture or even any basic understanding of Christianity. 

A pope, on the other hand, does his job best when he “disappears,” when he allows the tradition to be his guide and simply points to it. He is to be like John the Baptist, pointing the way to the savior.

9. 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.

Note the language used to constrict and even vilify the traditional Catholic meaning of blessings: “From a strictly liturgical point of view.” There should be no separation between liturgy and life. When a priest “spontaneously” blesses someone or something, it is a liturgical action, even if it’s not strictly defined in Church rubrics. This is because liturgy is our public worship of God, and the act of a priest imparting a blessing on a person, a thing, or a couple, is necessarily included in that public act. Fernández (and the pope) seek to separate that union of liturgy and life, making liturgy just something we do in Church and under specific guidelines. Liturgy becomes a dead letter instead of what gives us life.

12. One must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone, for it would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments. Such a risk requires that we broaden this perspective further. Indeed, there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing.

A recurring theme of the Francis pontificate is that somehow rules restrict God’s love and mercy. They are rigid and controlling. Yet the reality is that these rules are made to help us better follow Him. A father who did not set any rules for his children is not just a bad father, he is an abuser. Yet Fernández blanches at the idea of “too many moral prerequisites,” thus undermining any prerequisites at all. 

Is a father controlling when he tells his 5yo son he can’t play with a knife? Is it rigid for a parent to restrict how many desserts a child can have after dinner? The reason that the Church has always placed restrictions on the use of blessings is that she know that God does not bless all of human activity, and, in fact, some of that human activity is condemned because it separates us from His loving embrace. 

20. One who asks for a blessing show himself to be in need of God’s saving presence in his life and one who asks for a blessing from the Church recognizes the latter as a sacrament of the salvation that God offers. To seek a blessing in the Church is to acknowledge that the life of the Church springs from the womb of God’s mercy and helps us to move forward, to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will.

How does Fernández know the inner thoughts and feelings of someone asking for a blessing? Is he gifted with some type of universal telepathy? People can ask for blessings for a whole host of reasons: asking for God’s presence, asking for His approval, validating oneself to the Church and the world, cultural customs, etc. 

It’s not hard at all to imagine that many people ask for a blessing because they are asking for approval. After all, if a priest blesses something, it must be okay, right? And that’s the common understanding, not the exception. So, despite Fernández’s lofty description of why people ask for a blessing, many people (likely most people) see it as a form of official approval on their relationship.

23. When considered outside of a liturgical framework, these expressions of faith are found in a realm of greater spontaneity and freedom. Nevertheless, “the optional nature of pious exercises should in no way be taken to imply an under-estimation or even disrespect for such practices. The way forward in this area requires a correct and wise appreciation of the many riches of popular piety, [and] of the potentiality of these same riches.”[14] In this way, blessings become a pastoral resource to be valued rather than a risk or a problem.

Again, we need to note the divorce between liturgy and life in the thought of Fernández (and the pope). Strictly speaking, there is nothing “outside of a liturgical framework.” But even if we want to restrict the meaning of liturgy, it still encompasses the prayers of priests in a public setting, even if those prayers are “spontaneous.” 

In my experience, the best priests always are careful to stick as close as possible to official rubrics when “spontaneously” asked for a blessing. Many even carry the book of Blessings with them so they don’t have to create their own blessings. They understand that their blessing, while not strictly part of the Church’s official liturgy, is still a liturgical act (and instinctively perceived as one by those being blessed).  

25. The Church, moreover, must shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes, especially when they lead to “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.”[16] Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.

In the history of the Church, I would guess that not one person—not a single one—has ever argued that “those seeking a blessing should…be required to have prior moral perfection.” This is a strawman, constructed to make it appear as if any restrictions on who or what can be blessed is an unnecessary burden being placed on the faithful. 

26. In this perspective, the Holy Father’s Respuestas aid in expanding the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2021 pronouncement from a pastoral point of view. For, the Respuestas invite discernment concerning the possibility of “forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey an erroneous conception of marriage”[17] and, in situations that are morally unacceptable from an objective point of view, account for the fact that “pastoral charity requires us not to treat simply as ‘sinners’ those whose guilt or responsibility may be attenuated by various factors affecting subjective imputability.”[18]

The divorce of liturgy and life occurred earlier in the text; now we see the divorce of morality and “pastoral” practices. If a situation is “morally unacceptable from an objective point of view,” then it’s morally unacceptable, period. There is no “pastoral” justification to make it appear morally acceptable, or to ignore its unacceptability.

The purpose of Catholic morality is not to create a set of rules we must follow. It is to guide us to God, to put us on the straight and narrow path to Him. Anything that undermines that morality—by giving a wink and a nod at violations—by definition leads people off the path and away from God.   

30. The popular understanding of blessings, however, also values the importance of descending blessings. While “it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially establish procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters,”[21] pastoral prudence and wisdom—avoiding all serious forms of scandal and confusion among the faithful—may suggest that the ordained minister join in the prayer of those persons who, although in a union that cannot be compared in any way to a marriage, desire to entrust themselves to the Lord and his mercy, to invoke his help, and to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and of truth.

“Avoiding all serious forms of scandal and confusion among the faithful”—this, ladies and gentlemen, is gaslighting at its finest. One only has to see the response to this document to see “all serious forms of scandal and confusion among the faithful.” This document creates scandal and confusion, and, if I’m being honest, I think it does it on purpose. 

31. Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex, the form of which should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage. In such cases, a blessing may be imparted that not only has an ascending value but also involves 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, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. These forms of blessing express a supplication that God may grant those aids that come from the impulses of his Spirit—what classical theology calls “actual grace”—so that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel, that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties, and that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love.

Immediately after the document was released, I saw a number of Catholics online try to argue that this document “doesn’t change anything,” because it supposedly doesn’t approve of blessings for relationships, only for individuals. However, this paragraph makes clear that this interpretation is incorrect. It explicitly speaks of “the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex” (emphasis added). What is a “couple” other than a relationship? It does not speak of blessing individuals who are in an irregular or same-sex relationship—it speaks of blessing the couple itself.

And again Fernández engages in mental telepathy, stating that such couples who ask for a blessing “do not claim a legitimation of their own status.” How does he know this? More importantly, how could any priest know this before imparting a blessing? Does Fernández really think we are dumb enough to believe that a same-sex couple who comes to a priest to bless their relationship doesn’t claim a certain legitimation? Of course that’s what they are claiming.

Further, the use of the term “irregular situations” is telling. On the surface, it makes it appear that the relationship is just lacking some unimportant factor. Perhaps the groom forgot to sign his name on the marriage certificate? But “irregular” in this context is much more serious.

An “irregular” relationship, in this context, is not one that is irregular due to some violation of a man-made rule. Instead, it reflects a violation of divine law when it comes to marriage. God has made very clear what marriage is, and therefore also what it is not. Any violation of that standard is therefore a violation of God’s clear moral norms. In other words, any “irregular” relationship is an immoral relationship. Fernández doesn’t want to use that term, for it reveals clearly that what he is endorsing is in fact the approval of that of which God does not approve.    

43. The Church is thus the sacrament of God’s infinite love. Therefore, even when a person’s relationship with God is clouded by sin, he can always ask for a blessing, stretching out his hand to God, as Peter did in the storm when he cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” (Mt. 14:30). Indeed, desiring and receiving a blessing can be the possible good in some situations. Pope Francis reminds us that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”[28] In this way, “what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead.[29]

The most fundamental problem with this document and the theology underlying it is its radical reconstruction of what is meant by “God’s love.” It applies modern notions of “love,” which is reduced to emotional feelings and meaningless affirmations, to the Almighty God. God’s love is not the affirmation of sin; it is the defeat of sin. We see God’s love most fully on the Cross, which is the path of suffering and denial of self. Yet when people choose to be in irregular or same-sex relationships, they are in fact choosing a path of self over the denial of self. To bless that disordered path is to pretend to give God’s blessing on a path away from Him. This the Church has never done, and the Church cannot do, no matter what Cardinal Fernández or even Pope Francis might say.

For Catholics who are wondering, “how can I give religious submission of mind and will” to this document, as Lumen Gentium 25 suggests I do? I would recommend reading On non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium and the meaning of “obsequium religiosum” by Dr. Jeremy Holmes. In a nutshell, he explains that this religious submission does not necessitate absolute agreement with non-infallible texts such as Fiducia Supplicans, especially in situations like this one where the text clearly contradicts what has been taught previously.

Some Catholics might feel compelled to defend yesterday’s DDF document out of some misguided sense of defending the Church or the papacy. However, to do so actually undermines the very Church and papacy you seek to defend. Instead defend the perennial teachings of the Church regarding marriage, which Fiducia Supplicans gives lip service to, but ultimately rejects.

Author

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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