The Doctrine That Doesn’t Matter Remains Unchanged

A former Episcopalian priest reflects on the Vatican’s allowance of pastoral blessings for same-sex couples.

When the first rites of blessing for same-sex couples came out in the Anglican church, they were accompanied by a lot of bluster about how they were not to be equated with marriage rites and that they did not constitute a change in doctrine. In 2003, the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Canada published a form of blessing for same-sex couples. Then-Bishop Ingham made a point to distinguish these blessings from the sacrament of marriage. “This is not a marriage ceremony,” he said, “but a blessing of permanent and faithful commitments between persons of the same sex in order that they may have the support and encouragement of the church in their lives together under God.” 

As a former Episcopalian “priest,” I have concerns about Fiducia Supplicans, the new document from the Vatican allowing blessings for same-sex couples. That the text reasserts the Traditional doctrine and sacrament of marriage is not exactly enough to allay them, I’m afraid. I’m grateful for it, don’t get me wrong. But it feels like déjà vu. If you want to know what it sounded like as conservatives were dealing with the liberalizing actions of Anglican hierarchs, just read Catholic social media and news articles in the wake of Fiducia Supplicans. It is all so painfully familiar. Conservatives trying to excite themselves about small victories, liberals running full steam into flagrant offenses, all while leaders talk about listening, learning, and loving. 

Many conservatives defended Fiducia Supplicans because of its strong reassertion of the Traditional doctrine of marriage and its protestation that nothing is changing regarding the sacrament of marriage. But I’ve heard that before. You’ll have to forgive me if I remain a bit uneasy and feel like I’m reliving a nightmare.

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What you must understand is that for many liberals doctrine doesn’t matter. It is not revealed by God or even a human proposition that corresponds to divine revelation. It is merely an expression of human experience about God that is limited by the culture and categories in which it was expressed. Doctrine should be as open to change as the style of vestments or the color of the walls in the local parish.  What you must understand is that for many liberals doctrine doesn’t matter. It is not revealed by God or even a human proposition that corresponds to divine revelation.Tweet This

What matters for liberals is the core experience of compassion and love. Faith is less about knowledge and more about experience, subjectivity, and community. A doctrinal faith to them is a kind of bastardization of true faith, an attempt to reduce the experience of faith to thoughts or ideas. Indeed, doctrines are often seen by liberals as excuses for conservatives not to practice mercy, love, and justice. They serve as walls that keep the world out, so they must be broken down and relativized. The first step in this process is to try to redefine and repurpose them so that it sounds as though a new practice is doctrinally correct or inconsequential.

There are several aspects of Fiducia Supplicans that are causes for concern. But the one that I want to focus on here is how it perpetuates the idea that pastoral practice can be disconnected from doctrinal and moral teachings and, further, that pastoral mercy is of greater importance than doctrinal fidelity. In order to be as fair and deferential to the magisterium as possible, I want to offer a close but hopefully not overly tedious reading of the key aspects of the text. 

An Innovation that Permits Pastoral Blessings of Same-Sex Couples

It seems to me that Fiducia Supplicans gives two reasons why it was necessary. On the one hand, the document repeatedly speaks of the need to “respond” to Pope Francis’ “pastoral vision” which variously calls for Church ministers to move beyond the strict confines of doctrine and morals to offer generous pastoral care and divine mercy to all people, including those in same-sex relationships. 

On the other hand, especially as the German bishops began to formally bless same-sex couples, leaders in the Church have been submitting to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) “questions of both a formal and an informal nature about the possibility of blessing same-sex couples.” 

The key problem here is the discrepancy between such blessings and the 2021 declaration of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which concluded that the “Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” Fiducia Supplicans admits that Pope Francis’ response to various dubia have not been “sufficiently clear” (FS, 3). Thus, Fiducia Supplicans seeks to clarify exactly how blessings can be given to same-sex couples without running afoul of the 2021 statement. 

Some conservatives and defenders have said that the document proposes nothing new, that people are blessed casually all the time and there’s no reason why same-sex couples couldn’t be so blessed. But the Preface makes clear that the document offers an innovation: “The value of this document…is that it offers a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings…based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.” 

What is this innovation? It is the establishment of a rationale for blessing same-sex couples that avoids confusion with blessings for married couples. As the opening line of the first section tells us, the key issue of the document is “avoiding that ‘something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage’” (FS, 4). I think we need to be honest that the magisterium itself sees this document as a “development” and a contribution of a new practice.

But No Change in Doctrine 

In the very first section, the traditional doctrine of marriage is reasserted as “the exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.” “The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm,” it declares, adding that the Church thus has the “right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion” and “does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex” (FS, 5). All is well and good so far as the doctrine and sacrament of marriage is concerned. 

Well…not so fast! It must be acknowledged that in context this reassertion of the Traditional doctrine of marriage is made only to effectively set it aside. Indeed, the very reassertion of the classical doctrine of marriage appears as an epexegetical comment in a sentence that reads: “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” (FS, 4). 

The Category of Pastoral Blessings

The second section of Fiducia Supplicans serves to establish the existence of pastoral blessings that are to be understood as “non-liturgical,” “unconditional,” and “spontaneous.” It is here that we find the “broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings” mentioned in the Preface (cf. FS, 7) and how Fiducia Supplicans constitutes a development beyond the aforementioned 2021 statement of the CDF that determined the Church could not bless same-sex unions. 

The 2021 response understood blessings as belonging “to the category of sacramentals” and, therefore, as having close connection with the liturgy of the Church. Because blessings “imitate” the sacraments and are official prayers of ministers of the Church connected to her liturgy, the response judged that “what is blessed [must] be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.” Thus, the Congregation concluded that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.”

What Fiducia Supplicans seeks to do is show that there are forms of blessing that are not sacramental or liturgical. While the text concedes the 2021 response of the CDF that liturgical blessings require moral conformity to God’s will, it quickly adds that we must “avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone” (FS, 12). 

What evidence do we have of non-liturgical blessings? Fiducia Supplicans offers two lines of evidence, one from Scripture and one from Tradition. 

In a rather terse and, frankly, not all that illuminating survey of Scripture, we find that there are blessings that descend from God to man, blessings that ascend from man to God, and, finally, blessings that extend from one person to another. Examples of the latter are the blessing of brides by their family members before their weddings, the blessing of sons by their fathers, and the blessing of children before they embark on a journey. The document baldly asserts that these latter blessings “appear as a superabundant and unconditional gift” (FS, 16), are “poured out on others as a gesture of grace, protection, and goodness” (FS, 18), and “are found in a realm of greater spontaneity and freedom” than those in “a liturgical framework” (FS, 23). I confess I didn’t quite see this conclusion being established. 

The key concepts here are “unconditional” and “spontaneous.” The unconditionality of these blessings allows for blessings that do not have moral prerequisites, while their spontaneity requires that they do not have to be attached to liturgical settings or rituals. 

Alongside this biblical evidence, Fiducia Supplicans highlights the casual pastoral blessings that are commonplace. Beyond the occasional blessing a priest may offer someone or some group who approaches him in the street or airport, there are various blessings in the Book of Blessings that “are meant for everyone” (FS, 28) and do not “require anything” (FS, 27). These are blessings for a range of activities and states of life, and they are offered to persons without moral prerequisites.  

The Church, then, knows of “non-liturgical” and “unconditional” blessings in her Scripture and Tradition. These she understands to be “pastoral” blessings. They can be offered without “an exhaustive moral analysis” being set as a precondition (FS, 25). Thus, while the 2021 response of the CDF ruled out liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, it could not forbid pastoral blessings, which do not require moral conformity and are disconnected from the liturgy.

Blessing Couples of the Same Sex or in Irregular Situations

Having established the category of “pastoral blessings,” the document offers its innovation, a pastoral blessing for same-sex couples as couples. “Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex” (FS, 31). 

It is important to recognize that this is a blessing for couples as couples. Up until this point, the loudest critics of concerned conservatives have repeatedly emphasized that the only thing Pope Francis and his doctrine chief, Cardinal Fernández, allow is the blessing of individuals who happen to be in same-sex relationships. This can no longer be asserted as the document admits the blessing of couples.

It’s also important to recognize that the relationship of the couple is being blessed. Some have tried to maintain that even if a couple stands before the priest for a blessing, because Fiducia Supplicans says that their union cannot be blessed, it cannot be that the relationship of the couple is being blessed and it is merely a blessing for them as individuals. But the text says clearly that “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” (FS, 31).

Lest there be any doubt, readers should know that in a follow-up interview with The Pillar, Cardinal Fernández clarified: “Therefore, since it is not a question of the sacrament of confession(!), but of a simple blessing, it is still asked that this friendship be purified, matured and lived in fidelity to the Gospel” (emphasis added). How then do we understand that their “union” cannot be blessed while their “friendship” or “relationship” can? I think in the context of the document it is clear that “union” stands for an official, public, and morally and liturgically recognizable relationship. The document says, then, that while the Church cannot bless the union, since such a union is invalid in the eyes of the Church, it can nevertheless bless the relational life of the couple, asking God to help the couple be more patient, forgiving, joyful and so forth with each other.

Several questions can be raised with this innovation. In light of today’s sexual culture, does this send the right message? Will this divide the Church? How many couples will truly understand that the Church isn’t in some way recognizing and sanctioning their relationship? But these questions of prudence ultimately give way to the question of truth: how exactly can a priest ask for God’s grace to bring a couple’s relationship to mature and grow in greater fidelity to the Gospel when the dynamics of the relationship are ordered toward immoral ends? It does seem odd to ask for God to strengthen a union that is itself contrary to His will.

Changing Pastoral Practice Might Be More Significant than Changing Doctrine

The issue I want to focus on is how the attempt to detach these blessings from the official doctrinal, moral, and liturgical life of the Church plays into an overall relativizing and trivializing of doctrine, morality, and liturgy. 

As noted at the outset of this article, when the Episcopalians went to allow same-sex marriage, they began not by changing the doctrine or the sacrament of marriage, but by altering pastoral practice. Something similar is happening in this document and indeed in the present Magisterium. In both there is a repeated attempt to turn away from settled official doctrinal, moral, and liturgical teaching to less standardized and more casual pastoral practice. At the same time, both this document and current pontificate often seem to look at doctrine, morality, and liturgy as obstacles to be overcome in the name of pastoral charity

Fiducia Supplicans speaks of the “risk of reducing the meaning of blessings” to the liturgical “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” (FS, 12, emphasis added). It tells us that blessings “outside of a liturgical framework” have “greater spontaneity and freedom” (FS, 23). It exhorts us to “shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes” (FS, 25). It warns against any attempt to ritualize the blessings because “ritualization would constitute a serious impoverishment because it would subject a gesture of great value in popular piety to excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives” (FS, 36, emphasis added). 

Now we could very well and rightly read this as the document trying to push its readers to accept a different category of blessings while not fearing that they are in any way official, doctrinal, moral, and liturgical. At the same time, however, we need to recognize that it does so while also sidestepping and diminishing the importance of the Church’s doctrinal, moral, and liturgical teaching.

This emphasis on the pastoral over the doctrinal is made all the more troublesome when we recall that in the context of this pontificate faithful Catholics are regularly scolded for being “rigid” and “clinging” to old doctrines and liturgies. He consistently pits the experiential, relational, and pastoral over against the doctrinal. To give just one recent example of this well-established pattern, a Crux report from this June noted that in a homily honoring Saints Peter and Paul, “Pope Francis said understanding and imitating Jesus is not a matter of following doctrinal formulas or the ‘rigid observance’ of rules and norms.” 

Given his insistence on the priority of the pastoral over the doctrinal, it could be that changing pastoral practice is more significant to him than changing the doctrine. One could argue that it is precisely the fact that pastoral blessings are unregulated that makes them, in Francis’ eyes, more valuable and authentic than liturgical blessings. With pastoral blessings, pastors are free from all the rules and scruples and formulas. They can just respond spontaneously with mercy. They can act more like God who, in the words of the document, “never turns away anyone who approaches him” (FS, 33).   

Moreover, precisely because these blessings are unregulated and unofficial, they cannot be subject to the Church’s doctrinal, moral, and liturgical teachings. For me, the most revealing line of this document is the following: 

What has been said in this Declaration regarding the blessings of same-sex couples is sufficient to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard. Thus, beyond the guidance provided above, no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type. (FS, 41)

Did you catch that? The DDF and the Holy Father will not regulate the details of these blessings any further. 

So, while many might think that because these blessings are unofficial and improvised they are rather insignificant, it appears that this is a strength because it protects them from magisterial intervention. Since these blessings are not ritualized, they really cannot be scrutinized or censured. 

It is true that Fiducia Supplicans does not change the doctrine or sacrament of marriage and simply calls for a rather low-level, generic pastoral blessing of same-sex couples. But I worry that the unregulated and doctrinally disconnected nature of these blessings makes them, in the eyes of those who wish to ignore the Church’s teaching, a more meaningful tool for relativizing and rivaling Church teaching. While abuse may not invalidate proper use, allowing abuse while dismissing as irrelevant proper use is an endorsement of abuse. In that case, then, the discipline of Pope Francis and Cardinal Víctor Fernández will be the most important guide as to the intentions of this document. And it appears they’ve already decided not to do their jobs.

Author

  • James R.A. Merrick

    James R.A. Merrick holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and is a former Anglican minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 2017. He has taught theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, St. Francis University, and Grand Canyon University. He is the co-editor of Engaging Catholic Doctrine with Scott Hahn and Bishop Barron.

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