Mercy and Truth in Fiducia Supplicans

The aspiration of Fiducia Supplicans is for the truth about marriage to be united with mercy toward sinners. Was it successful in achieving that goal?

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The aspiration of Fiducia Supplicans (FS) is well summed up in a beautiful verse in the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed” (85:11, Vulgate). At one and the same time, it seeks to proclaim the Gospel truth about marriage and to reach out in mercy—through the offering of blessings—to couples whose sexual relationships place them in a state of alienation from it. The many analyses of FS, positive and negative, can be understood as judgments, implicit or explicit, on the question of whether or not FS succeeds in this fundamental aspiration.

Cardinal Fernández says repeatedly that the document is meant as an extension of the pope’s pastoral approach. Certainly, one can easily see the blessing of homosexual couples and couples living in a state of objective adultery as an example of the pope’s desire to reach out to those who feel (and are) alienated from the Church, to help them understand that they are not bereft of the love of God or the solicitude of the Church, and that there is hope of reconciliation and communion.

The pope wishes the Church to be the instrument of God’s mercy. He has repeatedly challenged us to love more intensely. And Cardinal Fernández repeatedly asserts the Church’s and Pope Francis’ teaching on marriage as “an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” (FS 4).

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The crucial question with FS, then, is whether it successfully brings together mercy and truth. Are the blessings that it now permits steps toward the fullness of communion, or are they steps in the wrong direction? Are they helps toward living the truth, or impediments to it? Are the blessings that it now permits steps toward the fullness of communion, or are they steps in the wrong direction? Are they helps toward living the truth, or impediments to it? Tweet This

The answer to this turns on what the blessing of a couple, precisely as a couple, means. One can see a profound tension in FS. On the one hand, we have the repeated affirmations of the Gospel on marriage and the immorality of sexual relations outside of marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual). On the other hand, the text seems to imply that the aforementioned sinful relationships, as such, are good, even while confessing that, as such, they are not. 

The key section is in paragraph 31, wherein FS asserts that blessings may be imparted upon 

couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex…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.  

And the next sentence implies that these very relationships (nonmarital sexual relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual) are among the “human relationships [that] 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.”  

It is not quite clear how to read this. Take the example of a homosexual couple in whom the Lord begins to work a conversion. Let’s say we’re post-Obergefell, and they’re civilly married. They’re in the process of recognizing the truth of the Gospel and the fact that their relationship does not conform to it. They begin meeting with a priest to get help and to better understand the teaching of the Church. At the end of one of these meetings, they ask the priest to pray for them and to bless them. The priest blesses them, in his gestures and in his words communicating nothing false. He invokes the power of God upon each of them, that He may continue to grace them and that they each may continue to be open to what He is calling them to. 

The mercy and truth that God offered through the priest brings them to the next meeting and the next. Eventually, He brings them to the realization that their sexual relationship must end and to the liberty of chastity. If this is what FS is calling for, then, in fact, mercy and truth have met. But, if we change the example slightly, something very different is happening. If they ask the priest to bless their (civil) marriage, they’re asking him to call good what is not. If FS calls for this when it speaks of the blessing of a couple, it opens itself to this difficulty and the interpretation that it has set truth against mercy with the loss of both.

For mercy and truth to meet, one need not communicate the whole truth all at once—in fact, oftentimes one must not do so. But it is one thing not to tell a truth because it is the wrong time or the wrong place to be well-received; it is another thing to tell a falsehood or to withhold the truth altogether. The former honors truth and mercy; the latter undermines both. To be the instruments of God’s mercy and truth, we must know when to speak and when not to—when to fast, when to pray, when to listen, when to preach, when to bless. And when we speak (or bless), we must, in prudence, know what to say and when, where, and how to say it.

In spite of its efforts to be clear and to avoid confusion, the fact that FS speaks of the blessings of couples and relationships introduces the tension that I have described. This tension—not resolved by the later distinction between the blessing of a couple and the blessing of a union—I think helps to account for the various ways in which it has been received. It accounts for those who are confused and who think it is confusing (I place myself here); for those who think that FS is signaling, in spite of clear statements otherwise, a softening in the sexual teaching of the Church and the beginning of a more radical change (a judgment shared by some on opposite ends of the spectrum, the one with joy, the other with horror); and for those who have rejected FS or have instructed that it not be implemented.

The tension in FS places those of us who submit ourselves to the magisterium of the Holy Father in a difficult position; for if FS calls us to assent both to the clear reaffirmations of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual activity outside of marriage and to name as good what is not, we cannot do both. And it is obvious that if FS forces a choice, we must do the former and not the latter. The dismay, consternation, and frustration around FS has led to some serious accusations against the Holy Father, and I think we do well to remind ourselves of our obligations to him. We owe him (and our fellow Catholics) honesty about difficulties; we owe his texts a generous reading; and we owe his person goodwill and the assumption of good intentions. 

I’m not speaking here of a call to naïveté, to blind obsequiousness, or to magisterial positivism—these are all, in their own ways, failures of charity and fidelity. More than anything, we need today radical clarity on what it means to be faithful to the truth of the Gospel and radical charity toward those alienated from it. Even though FS falls short of this in important respects, its call is that we do not.

Author

  • Stephen Hildebrand

    Dr. Stephen Hildebrand received a B.A. in Philosophy and Mathematics in 1995 from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He did his Master’s and Doctoral work at Fordham University, graduating in 2002 with a degree in Historical Theology with an emphasis on the early Church. He has published several books and translations, mostly on St. Basil the Great. Since 2001 he has taught theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, serving as chair of the Department of Theology from 2015-2021, Dean of the School of Theology and Philosophy 2022-2023, and currently as Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

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