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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 26, 2024
Pope Francis meets members of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Jan. 26, 2024. In the front row from left are: Cardinals Christoph Schönborn, Robert Prevost, Seán P. O'Malley, Peter Turkson, Victor Manuel Fernández, Claudio Gugerotti, Marc Ouellet, Fernando Filoni, John Onaiyekan and Stephen Mulla. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis meets members of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Jan. 26, 2024. In the front row from left are: Cardinals Christoph Schönborn, Robert Prevost, Seán P. O'Malley, Peter Turkson, Victor Manuel Fernández, Claudio Gugerotti, Marc Ouellet, Fernando Filoni, John Onaiyekan and Stephen Mulla. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis sought to clarify and defend the declaration on blessings of couples in “irregular situations” in his address to the plenary assembly of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, today, Jan. 26. The dicastery had issued the declaration, titled “Fiducia Supplicans,” with his approval on Dec. 18, but its publication had received a mixed reception from bishops’ conferences around the world. While some conferences, such as the German and Swiss, welcomed it, others, most notably in Africa, as well as those of Hungary and Poland, did not.

America has learned that the declaration and its publication were discussed at the plenary meeting this week, after Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernádez, the prefect of the dicastery, spoke about it in his introductory speech. While some members lamented that the assembly had not been consulted prior to the declaration’s publication, the discussion was nevertheless conducted “with much respect and delicacy,” the source said.

Pope Francis sought to clarify he declaration on blessings of couples in “irregular situations” in his address today to the plenary assembly of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Aware of the mixed global reaction and, it seems, also of the discussion in the plenary assembly, Francis spoke about “Fiducia Supplicans,” effectively offering a defense of the text in a way reminiscent of what John Paul II did in the year 2000 after the publication of “Dominus Jesus,” which was the last declaration of this kind to come from that same dicastery (then called congregation). “Dominus Jesus” was published by the congregation when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect, and it too received a mixed reception, hence John Paul II’s defense of it.

Today, Pope Francis spoke about the recent declaration in “the context of evangelization.” He explained that “the intention of ‘the pastoral and spontaneous blessings’ is to show concretely the closeness of the Lord and of the church to all those who, finding themselves in different situations, ask help to continue—sometimes to begin—a journey of faith.”

He said, “I wish to briefly underline two things: the first is that these blessings, outside of every context and form of a liturgical character, do not require moral perfection to be received. The second is that when a couple spontaneously comes and asks [a priest] for this [blessing], it is not the union that is blessed but simply the persons who together have asked for the blessing.” He repeated it is “not the union, but the persons” that are blessed, “naturally taking account of the context, of the sensibilities, of the place they live, and of the most appropriate ways of doing so.”

Pope Francis explained all this at the very end of his talk to the plenary assembly. The plenary meeting is held every two years, with the last one being in 2021. This year’s assembly took place Jan. 23-25, and brought together around 25 members, including several from Europe, three from Africa, but none from Asia, while the only one from Latin America, was the prefect, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernádez, who took over as head of that dicastery last September.

Francis began his talk by recalling that according to the new constitution for the Roman Curia, “Predicate Evangelium”: “The task of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is to help the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world by promoting and safeguarding the integrity of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. It does this by drawing upon the deposit of faith and seeking an ever deeper understanding of it in the face of new questions” (No. 69).

Pope Francis spoke about the recent declaration in “the context of evangelization.”

The dicastery has two distinct sections for this purpose, he said, one is doctrinal, the other disciplinary. The latter has “competent professionals” that apply canon law and in particular deals with cases of the abuse of minors by clerics, and it also promotes formation in canon law for bishops and those involved in its application. Though the pope did not say it, America has learned that the disciplinary section receives some 750 new cases of abuse each year (some of which are “historical” cases, that is they date back many years).

The Argentine pope recalled that in his motu proprio (a decree issued on his own initiative) “Fidem Servare” on Feb. 11, 2022, he had insisted on “the urgency to give more space and attention” to the doctrinal section of the D.D.F., which has qualified theologians and personnel.

In his talk today, Francis focused on this section where the dicastery is involved in the ambit of “understanding of the faith” in “the change of epoch” that we are living through. He addressed three words that summarize topics that fall under the current work of the dicastery: sacraments, dignity and faith.

The plenary assembly had discussed “the validity of the sacraments” and the pope recalled that the life of the church “is fed and grows” through the sacraments. He called upon those administering the sacraments to do so with “particular care” and reminded them that through the sacraments ``believers become capable of prophesy and of witness.” Francis added: “We have urgent need of prophets of a new life and of witnesses of charity” in today’s world.

“We cannot hide the fact that in large areas of the planet—as Benedict XVI said—‘faith no longer constitutes an obvious prerequisite for common living.’”

Next, turning to the topic of “dignity” and the defense of human dignity, Pope Francis recalled that the dicastery “is working on a document on this subject.” He said: “I hope that it [the document] will help us, as a Church, to always be close to all those who, without fanfare, in concrete daily life, fight and personally pay the price for defending the rights of those who are disregarded.” He expressed the hope that “in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words.”

America has learned that the dicastery has been working on the document on human dignity for about five years, and various versions of the texts have been sent back for redrafting. A source said its publication is not on the near horizon.

Pope Francis devoted the greater part of his talk to the question of “faith.” He recalled in this context two events. First, we have just celebrated the tenth anniversary of “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the apostolic exhortation published in November 2014, that is the programmatic document for his pontificate; and second, the Jubilee Year 2025 during which “we will renew our faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the hope of history and of the world.”

The pope told the assembly: “We cannot hide the fact that in large areas of the planet—as Benedict XVI said—‘faith no longer constitutes an obvious prerequisite for common living. Indeed, it is often denied, mocked, marginalized, and ridiculed.”

The first Latin American pope said: “It is time to reflect anew and with greater passion” on such themes as “the proclamation and communication of faith in today’s world, especially to the younger generations” and “the missionary conversion of church structures.” He said it is also necessary to reflect on “the new urban cultures, with their many challenges but also the unprecedented questions of meaning they raise”…and above all on “the centrality of the kerygma [the essence and spirit of the Gospel] in the life and mission of the Church.” Francis said that it is in these areas that “help is expected from this dicastery.” He said the dicastery’s task of “safeguarding the faith” is to be translated into “reflection and discernment” so as to help the community of believers to bring about “a pastoral conversion” and “a missionary proclamation” of the central message of the Gospel.

He reminded the plenary assembly that “faith in Jesus Christ” is “what is essential for us” and expressed the hope that “we will solemnly renew it in the course of the next Jubilee” and realize that “each of us is called to announce it to every man and woman on earth.”

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