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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 04, 2024
A rainbow flag is seen on the wall of a Catholic church in Cologne, Germany, May 10, 2021, as the building is open for same-sex couples to receive a blessing. (OSV News photo/Thilo Schmuelgen, Reuters)

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a press release on Jan. 4 “to help clarify the reception of Fiducia Supplicans,” the declaration issued by the dicastery on Dec. 18 that allowed the giving of simple or pastoral blessings to couples in irregular situations, including in same-sex unions. In a rebuke to some critics, the press release insisted that the declaration could not be considered heretical but acknowledged that local bishops could discern how to apply it, provided that they did not totally deny the possibility of such pastoral blessings.

Although that original declaration stated that such blessings were for the couples, not for the particular situation in which the two people happened to be—whether divorced and remarried or in a same-sex union—it caused heated discussion and even controversy throughout the Catholic Church. It also provoked mixed, even contradictory, reactions from bishops in some countries and largely negative reactions in some African nations, as well as in Poland and Hungary.

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández and Msgr. Armando Matteo, respectively the prefect and secretary of the dicastery, signed the original document as well as today’s statement. They seem to have concluded that many bishops and priests have not read the document properly or have read it through ideological lenses. In the clarifying press release, they recommend “a full and calm reading of the Declaration so as to better understand its meaning and purpose.”

According to some in the Vatican, by issuing this five-page clarification in the form of a press release, the D.D.F. is seeking to eliminate much of the confusion that has arisen either through a hasty reading of the original document, from insufficient communication in its initial presentation or from its misrepresentation in some of the media. In many cases, the declaration was presented as the pope giving his approval to blessings for same-sex unions, rather than blessing for couples in such unions or in irregular marriage situations.

A broader understanding of blessings

Cardinal Fernández and Monsignor Matteo explain again that the declaration of Dec. 18, approved by the pope, “contains a proposal for short and simple pastoral blessings—that are neither liturgical nor ritualized—of couples in irregular situations, but not of their unions, underlining that these are blessings without a liturgical format which neither approve nor justify the situation in which these people find themselves.”

The press release seems to indicate that the top officials at the D.D.F. feel that the most important theological elements of the declaration have not been adequately understood in its initial reception. They emphasize that “the real novelty of this Declaration, the one that requires a generous effort of reception and from which no one should declare themselves excluded, is not the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations.” Rather, “it is the invitation to distinguish between two different forms of blessings: ‘liturgical or ritualized’ and ‘spontaneous or pastoral.’”

The press release noted that the “specific and innovative contribution” of the declaration is “to the pastoral meaning of blessings, [emphasis in the press statement], permittinga broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings which is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.”The authors emphasized that this “theological reflection, based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church.”

The declaration, they said, is meant to provide a richer and broader understanding of blessings in a pastoral context. Consequently, the declaration requires bishops and priests “to reflect [on this broader understanding] serenely, with the heart of shepherds, free from all ideology.”

Further, the top D.D.F. officials said, “although some bishops consider it prudent not to impart these blessings for the moment, we all need to grow equally in the conviction that non-ritualized blessings are not a consecration of the person, nor of the couple who receives them, they are not a justification of all their actions, and they are not an endorsement of the lives that they lead.”

They explained that the pope is asking bishops and priests to understand these blessings as a “simple gesture of pastoral closeness, which is a means of promoting openness to God in the midst of the most diverse circumstances.”

Short and simple

Clarifying how such pastoral blessings are distinct from liturgical or ritualized blessings, they noted that they “must above all be short,” lasting “a few seconds”—that is, around 10 or 15 seconds—and “without an approved ritual” or “book of blessings.”

The press release said that “if two people approach together to seek a blessing, one [the priest] simply asks the Lord for peace, health and other good things for these two people who request it,” and, at the same time, “one asks that they may live the Gospel of Christ in full fidelity and so that the Holy Spirit can free these two people from everything that does not correspond to his divine will and from everything that requires purification.”

Then, as if in response to bishops who have publicly charged that the declaration approves “the blessing of sin,” such as adultery, fornication or sodomy, and therefore have rejected the giving of such a blessing, today’s D.D.F. statement makes clear that it does no such thing.

They explained that such short, simple blessings do “not intend to justify anything that is not morally acceptable.” The blessing, they repeated, is not a marriage or a ratification of the situation of the couple but “solely the response of a pastor towards two persons who ask for God’s help.” Therefore, in this case, they said, “the pastor does not impose conditions and does not inquire about the intimate lives of these people.”

Furthermore, they recalled that the declaration said that such blessings of couples in irregular situations or same-sex couples should not take place alongside or “even in connection with” a civil union ceremony or with “any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”

Today’s statement said that “every Bishop in his Diocese is authorized by the Declaration Fiducia supplicans to make this type of simple blessing available, bearing in mind the need for prudence and care, but in no way is he authorized to propose or make blessings available that may resemble a liturgical rite.” A few bishops and even bishops’ conferences havemoved in this latter direction.

Local application—not rejection

The press release said the statements of some bishops’ conferences were “understandable” and highlighted “the need for a more extended period of pastoral reflection.” At the same time, however, the D.D.F. officials insisted that such statements “cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition” to the declaration, which, in fact, “is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality” and “remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.”

Consequently, they said, “there is no room to distance ourselves doctrinally from this Declaration or to consider it heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous.” Some bishops and cardinals have denounced the declaration in these terms, and almost always in relation to the blessing of couples in same-sex unions. The former prefect of the D.D.F., Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has denounced the latter as “blasphemous.”

They recognized that the declaration “may require more or less time” for its practical application “depending on local contexts and the discernment of each diocesan Bishop within his Diocese.” In some places, they said, there are no difficulties for its immediate application, “while in others it will be necessary not to introduce them, while taking the time necessary for reading and interpretation.” Such different approaches to the subject are “not problematic,” they said, providing they are “expressed with due respect for a text signed and approved by the Supreme Pontiff himself.”

Then, in a key paragraph, they said:

Each local bishop, by virtue of his own ministry, always has the power of discernment in loco, that is, in that concrete place that he knows better than others precisely because it is his own flock. Prudence and attention to the ecclesial context and to the local culture could allow for different methods of application, but not a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests [italics added by author].

In other words, a bishop cannot forbid priests of his diocese from giving such blessings.

Today’s statement recognizes that in several countries, “there are strong cultural and even legal issues that require time and pastoral strategies that go beyond the short term.” It says that “if there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself as a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent. It is clear that the Bishops do not wish to expose homosexual persons to violence.” Homosexuality is criminalized in much of Africa and the Middle East and parts of Asia.

At the same time, it insists that “it remains vital that these Episcopal Conferences do not support a doctrine different from that of the Declaration signed by the Pope, given that it is perennial doctrine, but rather that they recommend the need for study and discernment so as to act with pastoral prudence in such a context.”

Significantly, it says that in these countries that in one way or another “criminalize homosexuality,” the church and its pastors also have “a great and wide-ranging pastoral responsibility” that includes “the defense of human dignity, the teaching of the Social Doctrine of the Church” and the development of strategies that do not admit “a rushed response.”

Today’s press statement from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded by saying that in some places a “catechesis will be necessary that can help everyone understand that these types of blessings are not an endorsement of the life led by those who request them. Even less are they an absolution.… They are simple expressions of pastoral closeness that do not impose the same requirements as a sacrament or a formal rite.”

Then, as if in response to some of the harsh criticisms that have sometimes been leveled against priests who give such approved blessings, today’s D.D.F. statement said, “We will all have to become accustomed to accepting the fact that if a priest gives this type of simple blessing, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything nor is he denying Catholic doctrine.”

It concluded: “We can help God’s People to discover that these kinds of blessing are just simple pastoral channels that help people give expression to their faith, even if they are great sinners,” and that even if the individual who asks could be a great sinner, “this does not mean that we deny him this paternal gesture in the midst of his struggle to survive.”

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