St. Paul was wrong! His first Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle not hiding his anger and frustration, is loaded with corrections to the neophyte Christian community. And here is Paul’s first complaint against them:
It actually is reported that there is lewd conduct among you of a kind not even found among the pagans—a man living with his father’s wife. Still you continue to be satisfied, instead of grieving and getting rid of the offender! As for me, though absent in body I am present in spirit and have already passed sentence in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ on the man who did this deed. …I hand him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. …Expel the wicked man from your midst.
Two thousand years later, according to a peculiar “development of doctrine,” the man expelled by Paul, and his mistress/stepmother, far from being excommunicated, may actually receive a priestly blessing as a couple in an “irregular union” according to the arguments and logic of Fiducia Supplicans (FS)—the formal declaration issued from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith by Cardinal Victor Fernández with the approval of Pope Francis. If you think the reference to St. Paul’s discipline is hyperbolic—let us closely examine how the new declaration makes it possible, for the first time in the history of the Church, for priests to bless couples in objectively sinful relationships—including same-sex unions.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In October of this year, Cardinal Fernández granted LifeSiteNews an interview which may be considered a prelude to the DDF’s December 18th declaration. In that interview, Fernández already defended the blessing of same-sex couples—and with language that nearly word for word is found in the declaration itself, namely:
Blessing is a sign of the “opera pastorale” [pastoral work], to every people in every situation, and we [need to] know nothing [about] the people with how is his Christian life, the morals and other things [in order] to give the blessing.
The declaration is very clear that “couples in irregular situations and same sex couples” may now receive a blessing. In 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as it was then called, issued a completely opposite statement! That year the CDF, under prefect Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, S.J., responded to a dubium. To the question proposed: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The response was: “Negative,” and Pope Francis approved of the response. “[I]t is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage…as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.”
And the ultimate reason why the Church cannot bless same-sex unions, according to the CDF, is because: “[God] does not and cannot bless sin.”
How does FS justify a complete reversal of the 2021 CDF’s Responsum? First of all, FS states that it actually is “offering new clarifications” on the Responsum ad dubium published on February 22, 2021. However, this is Fernández’s sleight of hand, giving the impression that somehow the conclusions of the Responsum are respected, when in fact FS represents a radical departure—even a repudiation. In order to achieve its conclusion, FS doesn’t hide the fact, nor could it really hide the fact, that it is “a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church,” with “new clarifications,” a “broadening …of the classical understanding of blessings”; and FS doesn’t shy away from even characterizing its “contribution” as “innovative.”
FS is consistent with the 2021 Responsum in that FS bends over backward to ensure that in no way may the blessing of same-sex couples give the impression: “…that something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage.” 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”—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.
This is also the understanding of marriage that is offered by the Gospel. For this reason, when it comes to blessings, the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion. Such is also the meaning of the Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states that “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.”
FS claims the reason the 2021 Responsum forbade blessing same-sex couples is because “the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict [the Church’s teaching on marriage] or lead to confusion.” In other words, FS makes it appear that the 2021 CDF statement banning such blessings was ultimately, if not solely, due to the danger of confusion. Thus, if that danger is removed, the way is open to permitting the blessing of “irregular unions.”
The innovation comes next. The danger is removed by developing a “broader understanding of blessings” according to “Pope Francis’ fatherly and pastoral approach.” FS justifies blessings for those in “irregular situations and same-sex couples” by arguing that there is a distinction between formal liturgical blessings and simple, pious, spontaneous blessings—noting that the 2021 Responsum indicated that “when a blessing is invoked on certain human relationships by a special liturgical rite, it is necessary that what is blessed corresponds with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.”
Thus, such formal “liturgical blessings” may not be given to those whose lives do not correspond “with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.” It is article 12 that finalizes the argument:
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.
In a strained and tortured argument, Fernández and the pope have created a new category of blessings by which couples living in situations that are objectively sinful may receive a priestly blessing. Retired Professor of Theology Larry Chapp explains that all blessings bestowed by a priest have:
…an inherent orientation to the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Indeed, is this not why people want a priest to bless them, their houses, and their devotional objects in the first place? I could ask any random lay person to bless those things “in the name of Christ Jesus.” But we seek out instead priests to make such blessings because of his sacramental character as one possessing Holy Orders, which in turn is what links him to Christ and all of the other sacraments in a preeminent way. In other words, we seek out priestly blessings because we rightly sense the full weight of the Church, in all of her sacramental glory, behind those blessings. Thus, all priestly blessings are inherently sacramental and liturgical in a real way.
Distinguishing between blessings with a liturgical/sacramental orientation and those without one might seem to make a useful pastoral distinction, but it is a distinction that smacks of a clever theological parlor room trick rather than of a genuine theological development. Cardinal Fernández calls it a development of doctrine, but it is not evident how this constitutes a true and organic development of the doctrines concerning blessings instead of just some slight-of-hand [sic] in order to achieve a predetermined result.
The need to distinguish between formal liturgical blessings and simple, spontaneous blessing causes FS to insist that these “pious practices”…“should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage,” as if that was the only issue to be considered. In a strained and tortured argument, Fernández and the pope have created a new category of blessings by which couples living in situations that are objectively sinful may receive a priestly blessing. Tweet This
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say on the nature of blessings, teachings that so far have not been subject to innovation. The pertinent articles are:
Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy. (1667)
Sacramentals are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. …They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism). (1668)
Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. “For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. (1670)
Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father “with every spiritual blessing.” This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ. (1671)
It is clear that priestly blessings are a form of liturgical action and the Catechism makes no distinction between what is liturgical and the so-called pious, simple blessings. In fact, the CCC is clear that blessings as sacramentals may be given “For well-disposed members of the faithful,” as “the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.”
It is important to note that the issue for the 2021 Responsum was not simply that blessing same-sex couples would lead to equating such unions with marriage. Even if this danger didn’t exist, such blessings cannot be given because ultimately: “[God] does not and cannot bless sin.” FS, art. 31 states that couples in “irregular situations and same-sex couples…do not claim a legitimation of their own status.” And according to FS, art. 34 a “pastor’s simple blessing…does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything.”
However, if a priest were to bless the couple as a couple it simply isn’t possible to not at the same time bless their union as the priest is blessing them and not simply blessing each one individually, which would be licit. And if the couple in an “irregular situation” or a “same sex-couple” have no repentance and affirm their objectively sinful union, such couples are not “well-disposed” to receive a blessing. Neither can they receive the sanctifying effect of the sacramental.
If the DDF had stated that individuals involved in a same-sex union may receive a blessing—but not the couple per se—much controversy would have been avoided. Any person with a same-sex attraction may ask for a blessing when he or she is sincerely open to the grace of God to live the Christian life, desiring to overcome difficult personal struggles. Indeed, blessings can be given to those who are not in a state of grace but truly wish to draw closer to God. Contrary to the pope’s admonishment, no one is requiring “moral perfection” before a blessing may be bestowed, as many persons seek God’s grace to be delivered from sin—say, for example, a drug addict who sincerely wants to be delivered from this destructive habit, or someone in the throes of an adulterous relationship who knows it’s sinful and seeks to find a way out.
While FS distinguishes between liturgical blessings and simple pious blessings to justify bestowing blessings on couples in “irregular situations,” it further asserts that there is no moral requirement for these latter blessings, existing as they do in the “realm of greater spontaneity and freedom.” As an admonition, article 25 states:
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.” 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.
According to article 27, blessings may be given without “requiring anything” from those upon whom the blessings are bestowed!
This may be the epitome of what the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized as “cheap grace.” That the Catholic Church under Francis would actually teach that blessings may be bestowed and thus the grace of Christ dispensed—“without requiring anything”—it’s grace dispensed like candy tossed out to children at a Fourth of July parade.
The DDF’s Declaration represents the epitome of the peculiar ideology that dominates the Francis pontificate—something I explained in my commentary on Amoris Laetitia (AL); namely, that for Francis:
the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church are subordinated to the primary value of mercy—and to insist on the practice of the demands of the Gospel (the rules) as a requirement for ecclesial membership opposes this primary value. Rather than mercy and the demands of the Gospel existing in a Christian paradox, for Francis they exist in conflict. Mercy is such a value for him that Francis states “the name of God is mercy.” I would argue that God’s name is not “mercy.” God’s name is “love.” It is love, and not mercy that is the essence of God out of which he exercises mercy toward sinners.
This emphasis on mercy first, the ethical requirements of discipleship second, explains why Francis consistently refers to moral absolutes in AL as the “ideal” with the emphasis placed on understanding the mitigating circumstances that prevent many from reaching that “ideal.” By placing mercy first in the hierarchy of spiritual values, and by subordinating to it the call to discipleship—a call which Christ himself taught involved the carrying of the cross, there is the possibility that the call to follow Christ will be muted and taken less seriously than Our Lord would wish. One may fairly conclude that in the spirituality of Francis, mercy trumps justice, love trumps truth.
This conflict between doctrine and mercy is evident in Francis’ mandate to Fernández when he chose him to head the DDF. In Francis’ letter of appointment, the pope made this curious statement: “It will always be true that reality is superior to the idea.” Consistent with Francis’ pontificate, the statement may be interpreted to mean that the “idea” is synonymous with the cold, unfeeling application of doctrine, opposed to the lived reality—synonymous with the actual lived experience of the faithful. Fernández must first be attentive to the latter, must treat that lived experience with mercy, rather than imposition of doctrine.
The Francis aversion to the insistence on the doctrines of the Church was even very recently articulated. On December 21st, many headlines reported as did this one from Reuters: “After same-sex blessing ruling, pope decries inflexible ideologies.” In his Christmas address to Vatican employees, he stated:
The Christian faith—let us remember—is not meant to confirm our sense of security, to let us settle into comfortable religious certitudes, and to offer us quick answers to life’s complex problems. When God calls he sends us on a journey, draws us out of our comfort zones, our complacency about what we have already done, and in this way he sets us free.
For Francis, those “comfortable religious certitudes” certainly would include, if not be an exclusive reference to, settled Church teachings—teachings that spring from God’s own Revelation—and thus are teachings about which the faithful may indeed be certain. But to justify the blessings of “irregular” unions, we must be willing to leave behind “what we have already done.”
Yes, FS very clearly teaches that in no way may same-sex unions be equated with marriage, and it piles up many restrictions on the blessings of such unions to safeguard the truth about marriage. And, it is even possible to say that FS has closed the door to the Church ever altering her doctrine on marriage to accommodate same-sex unions. As has already been the case, Francis’ pontificate says Church teaching has not changed, what is changed however is pastoral practice. In other words, same-sex unions are legitimized not by altering doctrines but by changing ecclesial practice—what cannot be accomplished coming through the front door is accomplished by coming through the side door!
While FS approves of blessing same-sex couples, it is very important to note that any and all couples in “irregular situations” may also be blessed. Headlines could just as well have stated: “Pope approves blessings for incestuous couples” or “Pope approves blessings for adulterous couples.” Had there been such headlines, the declaration would have clearly been seen as bizarre, absurd, shocking, and the “new development” a sacrilege.
Certainly, the declaration was lauded by Fr. James Martin, S.J., who instantly “Tweeted”: “This is a major step forward in the church’s ministry to LGBTQ people and recognizes the desire for same-sex couples for God’s presence and help in their committed and loving relationships.” He also stated: “I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same sex-unions”; and he didn’t waste any time in doing so.
And while many in the LGBTQ+ community celebrate the pastoral change, there are some suffering from same-sex attraction who feel the Church has betrayed them—those who accept the Church’s teaching and seek to live a Christian life. Consider this lament emailed to a radio talk show host:
This directive is the polar opposite of clarity, polar opposite of pastoral concern because it leaves the flock confused, unguided, and open to the wolves.
It pushes credulity that our Holy Father and the princes of the Church are ignorant of the confusion this kind of directive causes. Note that the document uses the term “innovation” (but not repentance). When they refer to this praxis as “development,” it is an abuse of Newman’s scholarship. It, in fact, bears more resemblance to Orwellian News Speak than anything like continuity in the Deposit of Faith.
Even though the document is not the revolution that secular media makes it out to be, it is a grave spiritual abuse on the part of the pillars of our Church. A person wishing to remain in a same-sex sexual or romantic union cannot be in union with Christ’s teaching or practice.
By referencing blessings of “couples,” this directive is suggesting something substantially different from an individual asking for a personal blessing.
By suggesting that the blessing may be upon the blasphemous relationship itself it is more than insult upon injury. It is revolution cloaked as “adaptation,” pastoral abuse called pastoral care. Call it Marxist, progressive, liberating theology, it is scandalous and rebellious.
It should be recognized that the Holy Father and the DDF does injustice to me and people like me who struggle with SSA. I ask for the Spirit to lead them (and me) in all truth. If they neglect their duty, I ask you to speak truth in love, even if like St. Paul we have to state the obvious that the pope himself from time to time may be a hypocrite and bad shepherd.
This author is not suggesting that those in “irregular unions” be formally disciplined according to St. Paul’s action two thousand years ago. But it is one thing to “hand [the sinner] over to Satan”—and quite another to actually bless what sinners do. But we know this confusion and hurt will be righted—because Jesus promised His Bride: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.”