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The EditorsJanuary 16, 2024
A same-sex couple is pictured inside the Essen Cathedral in Germany Oct. 30, 2021. (OSV News photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

Does a new approach to blessings signal a change in church teaching on marriage? On Dec. 18, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published “Fiducia Supplicans,” which allows for the possibility of spontaneous pastoral blessings—as distinguished from blessings within a liturgical rite—for people who are in irregular marital situations or same-sex unions. Although the document clearly says that the church’s teaching on marriage remains unchanged, many Catholics are debating precisely that question.

But while what the church teaches on marriage has not changed, the document does mark a development in how the church teaches what it has always taught. That development touches upon a deeper and more fundamental question for the church’s ministry and evangelization: How can the church unite clarity of teaching with pastoral closeness to people in their struggles? That challenge has been present throughout Pope Francis’ papal ministry and deserves deeper reflection beyond any single magisterial document.

Reactions to “Fiducia Supplicans” have been plentiful. Many welcomed the new declaration as a change in both tone and practice from a 2021 document from the same dicastery that forbade any blessing of a same-sex union and said that God “does not and cannot bless sin.” But others decried it as yet another example of “confusion” in Pope Francis’ papal teaching, a source of scandal and division in the church.

How can the church unite clarity of teaching with pastoral closeness to people in their struggles?

A number of bishops and ecclesial conferences criticized the new declaration or seemed to limit its application in areas under their authority. Many other critics of the declaration expressed concern that the discussion of blessing couples led to confusion between blessing the people in an irregular or same-sex union and blessing the union itself. These reactions led to a press release from the D.D.F. on Jan. 4, which reiterated that the declaration in no way changed church teaching—and so the reactions to the document, it argued, were not about a doctrinal dispute. At the same time, the press release acknowledged that there may be a variety of local situations, especially in countries where homosexuality is criminalized, where the practical application of the document would be more complicated.

As a declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans” carries more weight than the more ordinary responses the D.D.F. issues. (The most recent declaration issued prior to this was “Dominus Iesus,” in 2000.) And a press release to clarify a declaration is novel as well, particularly when the declaration had said that “no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type.”

But it would be a mistake to focus only on “Fiducia Supplicans” by itself. The declaration in December was part of a recent pattern of D.D.F. interventions. On Sept. 25, the dicastery published a response to some dubia about Communion for divorced and remarried persons, confirming Pope Francis’ call in “Amoris Laetitia” for “pastoral accompaniment for the discernment of each unique person” (emphasis in original). On Oct. 31, it responded to a dubium about the participation of transgender and homosexual persons in baptism and marriage, confirming that they could serve, under the same conditions that applied to anyone else, as sponsors for the sacrament of baptism or witnesses to the sacrament of marriage.

And on Dec. 13, less than a week before publishing “Fiducia Supplicans,” the D.D.F. published a letter replying to a bishop in the Dominican Republic about single mothers abstaining from Communion out of a fear of judgment from priests and fellow Catholics. The D.D.F. emphasized, quoting “Amoris Laetitia,” that “in such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort, and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy.”

It challenges those whose instinct is that true pastoral charity can be shown only by teaching hard moral truths and calling sinners to conversion.

In each of these instances, prioritizing clarity in the church’s teaching seems to require some form of exclusion. And in each of these instances, the D.D.F. has replied not by changing the teaching, but by insisting that the church, even while teaching what it has always taught, must also draw close even to those whose lives may be visibly out of step with that teaching.

This call to closeness challenges the church in many ways. It challenges those whose instinct is that true pastoral charity can be shown only by teaching hard moral truths and calling sinners to conversion. A focus primarily on clarity of teaching could lead to the conclusion that people who feel excluded, judged or abandoned by such approaches either do not understand or refuse to accept the call to conversion. Or it could suggest that the church must begin every encounter with such persons by emphasizing repentance and reform.

But a focus on pastoral closeness insists that those feelings of exclusion cry out for concern even when they arise in response to authentic teaching. It says that the church always has a duty to accompany people who seek God’s blessing, even in morally complicated and imperfect situations.

But this call to closeness also challenges those who may assume that church teaching must change, or be on the way toward changing, in order for such accompaniment to be authentic. In the case of “Fiducia Supplicans,” it says that there is no inherent contradiction between continuing to affirm the traditional understanding of marriage as the exclusive union of a man and woman and blessing a same-sex couple. It does not treat a pastoral blessing as a near-but-not-quite recognition of same-sex marriage, but instead trusts that in such a blessing, “which does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything, [people can] experience the nearness of the Father, beyond all ‘merits’ and ‘desires.’” It recognizes that grace “works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else.”

Flannery O’Connor once wrote to someone considering conversion to Catholicism that “I think most people come to the church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However, this is true inside as well, as the operation of the church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

Advocating for greater clarity in teaching or for a development in teaching, of course, is not automatically equivalent to smugness. Nor is offering respectful criticism of papal or magisterial teaching. But we should not be too quick to measure all teaching against our own limited tolerance for confusion. It may be precisely in what we misunderstand as confusion that God is drawing us close. The successor of Peter keeps calling the church to attend to God’s style of “closeness, compassion and tenderness.” This is not a confusion of the church’s teaching, but a deepening of it.

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