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Russell Pollitt, S.J.January 31, 2024
Cardinal Stephen Brislin addresses the press on Jan. 30, describing the position of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference on the Vatican declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans.” Photo courtesy of SACBC Communications Office.Cardinal Stephen Brislin addresses the press on Jan.30, describing the position of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference on the Vatican declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans.” Photo courtesy of SACBC Communications Office.

Cardinal Stephen Brislin, the spokesperson for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that the conference “has taken a slightly different stand from the rest of Africa” on the Vatican declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” which for the first time formally granted permission to clergy to bless people in same-sex or irregular relationships. He added that the conference’s local bishops “would implement the document and its recommendations with blessings, prudently.”

Explaining the bishop conference’s position on “Fiducia Supplicans,” the prelate said that “it is up to the local bishop to see how he will implement it in his diocese. This is quite clear because it is a pastoral issue and not a doctrinal issue.”

Cardinal Brislin, the archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, was addressing a press conference on Jan. 30, with the president of the conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, after the first biannual plenary of the bishops at their headquarters in Pretoria, South Africa.

Cardinal Brislin: “We in South Africa felt that obviously, it is up to each local bishop but that we would implement the document and its recommendations with blessings, prudently.”

Less than a month ago, on Jan. 11, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besengu, O.F.M. Cap., had said that he signed a document rejecting “Fiducia Supplicans” on behalf of the entire Catholic Church in Africa. Cardinal Besengu, the archbishop of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said that his statement on the declaration reflected a synthesis of all the African bishops’ responses to “Fiducia Supplicans” before going to Rome to present it to Pope Francis.

Cardinal Besengu said: “We, the African Bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.”

But during the press conference on Jan. 30, Cardinal Brislin said, “Each bishop has to assess the particular needs of his own diocese and the particular impact this would have. And we in South Africa felt that obviously, it is up to each local bishop but that we would implement the document and its recommendations with blessings, prudently.”

The cardinal added that the Southern African bishops’ conference position is “certainly not a criticism of [other African bishops], as they must just see and assess their own particular situations.” He said that the other African bishops “are fully entitled to do that as they are looking at their own particular situations and their own particular pastoral concerns.”

Like the Southern African conference, the Maghreb region’s bishops on Jan. 23 announced that they had also departed from SECAM’s position. After their plenary session, the bishops of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara said: “When people in an irregular situation come together to ask for a blessing, it may be given provided this does not cause confusion for them or for others.”

“When we give a simple blessing, we don’t ask a lot of questions. We don’t ask people if this is your wife and if you have been faithful to her always.”

The diverging responses to the papal declaration reflect the vast cultural and religious diversity of Africa, suggesting that for the continent there will be no one “African position” on “Fiducia Supplicans.”

Responding to South African media, Bishop Sipuka affirmed church teaching, saying that the Catholic Church still holds that “same-sex unions, according to the teaching of the church, are not in accordance with the will of God.” The bishop added, “People who have deviated—or who are deviating from the will of God—[however] are not excluded from the mercy of God.”

Cardinal Brislin agreed with Bishop Sipuka, noting, “The declaration very clearly reaffirms the doctrine of the Catholic Church about marriage, [that it is] a lifelong commitment between a man and woman.”

“‘Fiducia Supplicans,’” the cardinal said, “is really a document that is talking about a pastoral practice, for example, for people who are in other irregular situations—like people who are divorced and remarried and haven’t managed to have an annulment and young people perhaps who are living together without any marriage or commitment—[that they] are not excluded from the pastoral care of the church.”

“What this document is saying is that if such people come for a blessing, that blessing should not be denied to them because a blessing is not a reward for perfection,” Cardinal Brislin said. “We know that Christ came for sinners.”

The fact that people come for a blessing means that they are open to God’s grace, that they are seeking God’s grace, and this should be remembered.

Bishop Sipuka emphasized the need for prudence among the clergy. He said, “We don’t know what concrete expression that prudence would take; it will depend on the circumstances.” He warned that “an impression should not be given both to those who are asking for a blessing that by blessing them you are legitimizing what they are doing [living in an irregular situation], or [for] those who are observing.”

“We don’t want to be prescriptive, but on the other hand, we are clear about when that act [blessing] is done, [it] should not give an impression that the church is approving same-sex marriage,” Bishop Sipuka said.

Cardinal Brislin added that the fact that people come for a blessing means that they are open to God’s grace, that they are seeking God’s grace, and this should be remembered. “The difficulty that the church has is not that somebody is gay or even that they live together; it is the sexual expression that is not in accordance with God’s will,” he said.

The cardinal said, “In talking about homosexuals or other people in irregular situations, it is actually a challenge to all of us that we make sure that we do live chaste lives.”

When asked about the practicalities of such blessings, whether or not priests should inquire about the nature of the relationship of the people being blessed, the cardinal said: “Generally speaking, when we give a simple blessing, we don’t ask a lot of questions. We don’t ask people if this is your wife and if you have been faithful to her always and that sort of thing. And I would suggest that the same [practice be observed], even though this is challenging. If [priests] are asked for a blessing, give a blessing.”

“Their motivation does need to be right,” the cardinal added. “It must be a spontaneous request. It mustn’t be in order to promote an ideology or to show themselves; it must be a genuine thing that is coming from their hearts.”

Bishop Sipuka affirmed church teaching, saying that the Catholic Church still holds that “same-sex unions, according to the teaching of the church, are not in accordance with the will of God.”

Local media also asked about the challenge of misinformation and false news in the light of the declaration and the Synod on Synodality.

Cardinal Brislin said that fake news and misinformation is very real. He cautioned people to be “very careful which blogs they go onto and which sites they watch as a number of sites have a particular slant or particular ideology they try to promote.”

He said that some of the things written on the blogs are “so unchristian, no matter which side they are coming from, whether it is left or right.” He encouraged people to find online news and information sources that reflect a balanced view.

Cardinal Brislin cautioned about media who insist on polarizing opinions evocatively. “People who start calling the pope the anti-Christ or the devil incarnate should not be given attention,” he said. “Leave them behind.”

“Also, from the other side,” he said, “where people might say that Pope Benedict was the anti-Christ or something. Get away from those sites and blogs.”

In other news, the assembled bishops commended the South African government for its principled approach to the International Court of Justice for the protection of innocent lives in the current conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. The bishops appealed to those involved in the conflict and those supporting each side to honor the decisions of the I.C.J. They said that peace could only be established with the total cessation of hostilities and a just settlement for all the peoples of the Holy Land.

The press conference was convened at the conclusion of the South African bishops’ conference eight-day biannual plenary. Other matters addressed by the bishops, according to Cardinal Brislin, included faith formation, the role of the laity in church governance and pastoral life, ongoing formation of the clergy and the complex issue of gender fluidity—which, he said, will be addressed further by informed professionals. He also said the bishops had discussed the upcoming general election in the country, synodality, the state of the conferences’ finances, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.

The cardinal said that the bishops had reserved a full day to listen to the delegates to the first session of the 16th General Assembly of Bishops on Synodality, adding that they had used the methodology of the synod at their meeting—dividing into groups for reflection and trying to listen to each other. He said that this had been a moving experience.

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