On July 12, 2013, Pope Francis told a group of young people, “make a ruckus, but do a good job of it!” The next day, July 13—World Youth Day—he told 30,000 young people: “make a mess.” What did Francis mean by such exhortations? Certainly, he urged that the followers of Christ disturb the status quo by living the Gospel in the modern world.
Perhaps this author may be forgiven if she sees irony in the pontiff’s statements—as this is a pope who is doing a pretty “good job” in causing a “ruckus” and making “a mess.” However, what’s most important is to understand Pope Francis—to understand the foundational principle that drives his papacy—as this principle is the basis for the most recent “ruckus,” which, it would not be an exaggeration to say, has rocked the Church and perhaps the world.
A sampling of the October 3rd headlines tells the story: “Pope suggests blessings for same-sex unions may be possible” (Associated Press); “Pope Francis Suggests Gay Couples Could Be Blessed in Vatican Reversal” (The Guardian); “Pope Francis signals openness to blessings for gay couples ahead of synod” (Washington Post).
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On July 10 of this year, five cardinals submitted five questions—“dubia”—to Pope Francis. They are Walter Brandmüller of Germany, a former Vatican historian; Raymond Burke of the United States, whom Francis had removed as head of the Vatican’s supreme court; Juan Sandoval of Mexico, the retired archbishop of Guadalajara; Robert Sarah of Guinea, the retired head of the Vatican’s liturgy office; and Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong.
Surprisingly, Francis answered the dubia the very next day—very different from his silence when some of these same cardinals submitted questions to him in 2016 seeking clarification on the interpretation of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, particularly regarding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. Francis’ answers to the current dubia included a response to the following question, number 2: “Dubium regarding the assertion that the widespread practice of blessing same-sex unions is in accordance with Revelation and the Magisterium (CCC 2357).”
The pope responded:
According to the Divine Revelation, attested in Sacred Scripture, which the Church teaches, “listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, 10), “In the beginning,” God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, and blessed them to be fruitful (cf. Genesis 1:27-28) and hence, the Apostle Paul teaches that denying sexual difference is the consequence of denying the Creator (Romans 1:24-32). We ask: can the Church deviate from this “principle,” considering it, in contrast to what was taught in Veritatis splendor, 103, as a mere ideal, and accept as a “possible good” objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from the revealed doctrine?
It is customary for dubia to be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and that is what the cardinals expected. Francis could easily have answered this dubium with a simple “no” and thus affirmed the doctrine of the Church. However, the preface to dubium number 2 placed the question within the context of blessings for same sex unions, and thus, Francis chose to provide an elaborated response with Points A through G. In points A, B, and C, Francis clearly explained the Catholic doctrine on marriage. Other types of union cannot be equated with it—and the Church must avoid any type of rite that would “suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”
Point D is where the pope wades into troubled waters, beginning with the word “However.” Here, the remainder of his response is marked by the primary principle of the Francis pontificate—namely, the conflict he poses between doctrine (the rules) and “pastoral charity.”
D) However, in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.
E) Therefore, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.
F) On the other hand, although there are situations that are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view, the same pastoral charity requires us not to simply treat as “sinners” other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors affecting subjective accountability (Cf. St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17).
In Point G, Francis cautioned that “pastoral prudence” may vary from diocese to diocese, that there may not necessarily be a uniform rule as this would lead to “an intolerable casuistry…as the life of the Church flows through many channels other than normative ones.”
In Point D, the pope did not neglect to remark on one of his pet issues: that in contrast to “pastoral charity,” the “defense of objective truth is not the only expression of that charity.” Those in the Church who prioritize “defense of objective truth” have been subjected to some of the pope’s sharpest criticism. In a July 2015 interview with Andrea Tornielli, Francis responded to those in the Church who criticized his overemphasis on the mercy of God, calling such criticisms “Angry mutterings.”
Believers who insist on clear articulation of doctrine are, according to Francis, “scholars of the law”—comparing them to Pharisees—with a “logic” opposite the authentic “logic of God, who welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good, transforming and redeeming my sin, transmuting condemnation into salvation.” Such Catholics are “whitened sepulchers” and “hypocrites”—“men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.” One wonders who exactly Francis has in mind with such a caricature of certain Catholics.
The pope’s answer to dubium number 2 is based on what he sees as the need for the Church to be more inclusive, as stated in Point D: “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.” He then goes on to affirm that blessings of gay unions may be possible—but only if such rites “do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” Here, Francis intends to be careful—that the Church cannot permit such blessings if such actions give the impression that gay unions are the equivalent of marriage. But the pope’s caution does not go far enough. The issue is not only the need to avoid giving scandal and creating confusion. This is hardly the sole issue at stake.
The issue was already dealt with in 2021 in response to a dubium sent to the Vatican. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a response signed by prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria. 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” followed by an explanation. Regarding the nature and purpose of sacramental rites, the response stated that according to the nature and purpose of sacramentals 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. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.
Since same-sex unions are contrary to “the designs of God inscribed in creation,” blessing same-sex unions is not possible.
The explanation is quite clear—and indeed is nearly opposite Francis’ response to dubium number 2. Ladaria recognized that same-sex unions may contain “positive elements.” However:
[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…since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.
And the ultimate reason why the Church cannot bless same-sex unions is because: “[God] does not and cannot bless sin.” Thus, even if Francis’ concern was met—that such blessings do not give the impression that gay unions may be equated with marriage—such blessings are inherently wrong as the Church simply cannot bless sin. The Ladaria response of course noted that the Church remains near to those with homosexual orientation, “prays for them, accompanies them and shares their journey of Christian faith” and “the proposed dubium does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
The current dubium number 2 essentially asked the same question answered in 2021. The pope could easily have referred to the negative answer already declared and affirmed by him. Instead, the pope more than opened the door for blessing same-sex unions in Point E when he stated that if pastoral prudence discerns that such blessings “do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage”—such blessings could be approved—despite the fact that the couple being blessed is living in an objectively sinful situation. After all, such couples are simply “expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.” The pope more than opened the door for blessing same-sex unions when he stated that if pastoral prudence discerns that such blessings “do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage” such blessings could be approved.Tweet This
The pope’s contradiction of the 2021 dubium response—and contradiction of Catholic teaching on the meaning of human sexuality itself—has been hailed by those inside and outside the Church as a welcome advancement. Certainly, those in the Church sympathetic to the gay rights agenda are exploiting the new response to further the approval of gay sexual unions.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, was quick to comment:
The allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God. Those recognitions, while not completely what LGBTQ+ Catholics would want, are an enormous advance towards fuller and more comprehensive equality.
What was called “sin” in the 2021 dubium response, DeBernardo—emboldened by the Francis response—may now audaciously call “holy.” And certainly, the “more comprehensive equality” to which he refers is nothing less than gay-unions being affirmed in the Church as the equivalent of marriage—contrary to the pope’s very concerns on this point.
Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, who recently named an openly-gay man as head of the diocesan Office of Worship, commented:
The Catholic Church believes marriage can only occur between a man and a woman, but a blessing can still hold great significance to queer couples because they act as prayers for God’s presence and help. It almost signifies God’s approval.
Actually, such blessings will do one of two things, or both. They will 1.) cause confusion by giving the impression that gay unions are the equivalent of marriage, and 2.) the Catholic Church, for the first time in her history, and contrary to revealed doctrine, will indeed bless sin. We may add a third consequence: the gay-rights community will certainly exploit these blessings—seriously politicizing a sacramental to advance the goal that gay sexual unions are indeed marital unions after all.
If Francis affirmed the 2021 negative response to virtually the same dubium—why did he not do so here, with of course emphasizing that the Church seeks to welcome homosexual persons, show them the love of Christ, and attend to their spiritual needs? The real answer is found in the “key” to the Francis pontificate—the key that was fully evident in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) that addressed the subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried.
In article 302 of that document, Francis rightly, and with recourse to the Catechism, notes that many factors may mitigate personal culpability for sin. However, in article 303 Francis applies the lack of culpability in a relativistic manner:
Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
Then, Article 305 states:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
The ultimate key to understanding Francis comes at the end of AL, Article 311:
We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.
To understand what drives the Francis pontificate is to appreciate his personal spiritual doctrine: 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. Mercy and the demands of the Gospel exist in a Christian paradox, but for Francis they exist in conflict. Mercy is such a value for him that Francis states, “the name of God is mercy.”
One may fairly conclude that in the spirituality of Francis mercy trumps justice, love trumps truth—but without concluding that justice and truth are of no consequence.
This conflict between doctrine and mercy was certainly reflected in his letter to Archbishop (now Cardinal) Victor Fernandez when Francis appointed his Argentinean friend and ghostwriter as head of the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that letter, Francis made this very curious statement: “[R]eality is superior to the idea.” It is not quite clear what Francis meant by such a remark in his “job description” to Fernandez. But the remark is consistent with Francis’ spiritual dynamic—namely, that one’s lived experience (reality), “the complexity of one’s limits” comes before “a cold and harsh logic.” Compassion and understanding for one’s personal, lived situation comes before the imposition and demands of doctrine.
But here’s the problem. If the Church winds up approving blessings for same-sex unions, she will institute a pastoral practice that renders the Church’s moral teachings insignificant. One can legitimately ask, if the Church can bless gay sexual unions, what other objectively sinful situations may also be blessed? Why limit blessings to only gay couples?
In the Tornielli interview, Francis stated, “Mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God.” However, is mercy really the first attribute of God? Consider Jesus’ words to Pilate: “The reason I was born, the reason why I came into the world, was to testify to the truth—anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.” Jesus did not say, “The reason why I came into the world was to show the mercy of God.” If He had said such a thing, it would have been a true statement! After all, the sacrifice of Christ is the ultimate act of mercy—and we are all in need of such mercy! However, for Jesus, testifying to the truth was His ultimate mission—the revelation of truth about God and about man. Moreover, Scripture proclaims God’s ultimate essence in 1 John 4:8. “God is love.”
The five cardinals who submitted their dubia told Catholic News Service that Francis’ answers: “have not resolved the doubts we had raised, but have, if anything, deepened them.” They therefore sent reformulated dubia on August 21, rephrasing them to elicit “Yes” or “No” replies.
Should the Church allow same-sex unions to be blessed it would be an empty mercy—a mercy that cannot save because it is a “mercy” divorced from the truth of Christ—that Truth which sets us free.
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