The Vatican’s Monday publication of Fiducia supplicans has revealed what appear to be significant divisions within the Church and its bishops, many of which have come to the fore in recent days.
The divisions point to differing regional approaches to engagement with modernity and secular culture — and it is possible those differences are rooted in the histories and religious demographics of the Church around the world.
The new Vatican document lays out a pastoral theology and guidelines which allow clerics to provide non-liturgical blessings to same sex couples, and others are in sexual relationships the Church regards as sinful.
It has been hailed as an important first step by Catholics who have advocated for changes in the Church’s teachings on LGBT issues, and on cohabitation and divorce and remarriage.
Bishop Georg Bätzing is chairman of the German bishops’ conference, and a champion of Germany’s “synodal way,” which has called for changes to the Church’s teachings on sexual morality.
This week, the bishop issued a statement saying that “the declaration Fiducia supplicans addresses issues that have become apparent in the recent past around the topics of requests for blessing and blessings from a pastoral perspective….. It draws a clear line between unwavering fidelity to the teachings of the Church and the pastoral requirements of an ecclesial practice that wants to be close to people. A pastoral scope for action is described here, which illustrates responsible Church practice.”
Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny, who has also called for revisions to Catholic sexual doctrine, said of the declaration that “It helps us move forward.”
The Belgian bishops have already been in front in the movement calling for changes to Church teaching on sexuality. In 2022, the bishops of Flanders, the region of Belgium in which Antwerp is located, issued a liturgical text for blessing same sex unions.
Although such liturgical blessings are prohibited by Fiducia supplicans — and although the Vatican has recently shown itself willing to be involved in very local liturgical questions — there has not yet been any concrete response to the decision of the Flemish bishops.
Broadly speaking, a cadre of bishops in western Europe seems to approach sexual issues with the idea that modern culture has developed a new set of beliefs and practices about sexuality and relationships, and that in order to remain relevant to the world, the Church must accommodate itself to those beliefs.
That view seems to accept as immutable the modern secular consensus on sexuality and the human person, and to hold that to avoid driving people away, the Church must find a way to allow people to live according to their beliefs while still feeling able to practice the faith.
On the other hand, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued a noticeably brief initial response to Fiducia supplicans.
Emphasizing Catholic teaching on marriage, which Fiducia supplicans also reiterates, the USCCB wrote that: “The Declaration issued today by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) articulated a distinction between liturgical (sacramental) blessings, and pastoral blessings, which may be given to persons who desire God’s loving grace in their lives. The Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, and this declaration affirms that, while also making an effort to accompany people through the imparting of pastoral blessings because each of us needs God’s healing love and mercy in our lives.”
Reactions from Africa, often cited as the most dynamic region in the Church today, have thus far been quite cool to the framework of Fiducia supplicans.
Malawi is a country in southeast Africa with 25% fewer Catholics than Belgium, which in the last five years has ordained more than twice as many priests as Belgium has.
The country’s bishops issued a statement insisting that:“The declaration is NOT about the blessing of same-sex unions and sacramental endorsement of the same as married couples,”
They also warned that: “To avoid creating confusion among the faithful, we direct that for pastoral reasons, blessings of any kind and for same-sex unions of any kind, are not permitted in Malawi.”
On the whole, African and USCCB reactions might be characterized as more “evangelical” than “acquiescent”: they aimed to emphasize Catholic teaching, seemingly in hopes of persuading Catholics to accept the Church’s anthropology rather than the world’s.
It is not especially helpful, or insightful, to describe the wide range of episcopal reactions to a contentious issue along a political scale from “progressive” to “conservative.”
It is decidedly more interesting, however, to consider why bishops in different regions within the Church seem to hold heterogeneous views.
Some commentators have sought to ascribe the differences to economic development, arguing that churches in wealthier countries inevitably become more culturally acquiescent. But that approach fails to explain why the Catholic Church in the United States, one of the most modern and affluent countries in the world, generally finds itself sitting theologically among the more conservative episcopal conferences.
Another explanation could lie in the degree to which the history of different countries has forced the Catholic Church to focus on evangelization in recent decades.
In some historically Catholic countries in Europe, the Catholic Church represents the only widely practiced form of Christianity.
Historically, the religious practice of many Catholics may have been minimal in those countries, with the number of Catholics appearing at mass on a given Sunday being far lower than the percentage of the population registered as Catholics, but the vast majority of people were at least baptized and buried by the Church.
For example, in the Diocese of Antwerp, 90% of the regional population were registered as Catholics in 1970. Although by 2022 that rate had fallen to 77%, the decline has not been primarily due to evangelization by other Christian communities. The decline is rather because of the increase in those with no religious affiliation, and because of immigration from countries with other historical religious affiliations, primarily from the Islamic world.
While Germany as a whole is only 29% Catholic, the modern state of Germany is made up of different regions, some of which have historically been Protestant while others have historically been Catholic.
The Archdiocese of Berlin, in historically Protestant Prussia, was 9.5% Catholic in 1950 and is 6.8% Catholic today. By comparison, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in historically Catholic Bavaria, was 85% Catholic in 1950, though it has fallen to 46% Catholic today.
The history of the Catholic Church is one of repeated re-evangelization, from the efforts of St. Francis and St. Dominic and their respective orders in the Middle Ages to the counter- reformation spearheaded by the Jesuits.
But in countries in which the Catholicism is the nearly exclusive expression of Christianity, and the majority of residents are baptized Catholics, there may be a mentality among some Church leaders that if there are not stark barriers — such as teachings on sexuality which are seemingly out-of-step with modernity — people will happily return to the Church when they feel the tug of religious urges.
Accommodation may thus seem like a way for the Church to remain present and welcoming in countries such as Belgium or Argentina, where the vast majority of citizens are baptized Catholics, but only a small fraction attend Mass or even get married within the Church.
In business, companies with a large market share often aim to be “all things to all people,” in order to avoid losing too much of their customer base — even at the expense of making new customers, or catering to a niche contingent of diehards.
In Catholic countries, the Church might find itself pushed toward a similar strategy of accommodation, because the demographics indicate few unbaptized people to reach, and many who might need just some small nudge to see them formally renounce the Church, as in Germany and Belgium an increasing number of people have been doing each year.
But other countries have religious histories that have trained the Church towards more active evangelization, even for the sake of viable survivability.
In the U.S., Catholicism has always been a minority faith, and even as the mainline Protestantism which dominated the U.S. prior to the 1970s has shrunk to near irrelevance, evangelical Protestantism remains a major cultural force, and one of the most common destinations of baptized Catholics who abandon the Church.
To avoid seeing Catholics abandon their church for a religious competitor — evangelicalism — or to see their funding crash, the U.S. Church has temporal and pragmatic incentives to foster a more actively evangelizing culture. Those motives play a lesser role in the formation of ecclesial culture in Europe, where little religious competition and stable funding are more likely realities.
In Africa, the countries which have seen vibrant church growth in recent decades are also regions of religious competition and active evangelization.
Just 120 years ago, the majority of Africans living south of the Sahara practiced various pagan sects, and the followers of any form of Christianity made up less than 10% of the population. Since that time, the continent has been the target of active missionary work from Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.
Malawi, whose bishops issued an extremely cautious response to Fiducia supplicans, is 33% Catholic, 46% Protestant, with most of the remaining 21% of the population professing Islam.
Nigeria, often cited as one of the most vibrant Catholic countries in the world — and in a tight three-way tie with the US and India for the largest number of diocesan ordinations of any country in the world — is in fact only 12% Catholic, while half the population is Muslim and the rest are Protestant.
That religious competition may well shape ecclesial culture.
Even in some countries where Catholicism is the primary Christian community on the ground, recent history has in some cases made evangelization a necessity for survival.
Behind the Iron Curtain, there was a conscious effort to replace Catholic practice with secularism.
In places like Poland, churches survived by challenging the anthropology and philosophy championed by the communist government.
Today, the Church in Poland stands buffeted by the struggles of the last few decades, during which it has been at times been uncritically identified with the national government and with clerical abuse or corruption. Yet the country’s ecclesial culture remains influenced by decades in which vigorous evangelization was necessary for survival, and the Church could not count on people returning to the faith by default.
If indeed the Church’s leaders are currently divided between those who believe it is necessary to evangelize against a hostile culture and those who believe that accommodation can keep marginally practicing Catholics from formally leaving, the history of the Church would seem to suggest that in the long run, the necessity of evangelization will likely win out.
Pope Francis’ namesake also faced a region in which virtually all people were baptized Catholics, but in which the practical unbelief of laxity was a constant threat.
When the cross at San Damiano commanded him, “Rebuild my Church”, St. Francis was not at first sure whether it was the physical church, or the Church’s faith, which needed restoration.
The Poverello concluded that he was called to mission, not a building project. Bishops in some regions of the world may soon wonder if they face the same choice.