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DDF clarifies ‘Fiducia supplicans’ after ‘understandable’ bishops’ reactions

The Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a clarification Thursday regarding its recent declaration on “the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.”

The Palace of the Holy Office, the seat of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Chabe01 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In a more than 2,000-word press release issued Jan. 4, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) said that it wanted to “clarify the reception” of Fiducia supplicans, a doctrinal declaration released with the pope’s approval Dec. 18.

The text provoked uproar in parts of the Catholic world, especially Africa, where several bishops’ conferences said that the “spontaneous” blessings of same-sex couples envisaged in the declaration should not take place in their territories.

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The press release, signed by the dicastery’s prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández and doctrinal section secretary Msgr. Armando Matteo, called for a “calm reading of the declaration so as to better understand its meaning and purpose.”

Here are some quick takeaways from the clarification.

It’s unusual 

Fiducia supplicans was itself an uncommon document. It’s rare for the Vatican’s doctrine department to issue a text known as a “declaration,” the highest in the hierarchy of documents issued by the doctrinal dicastery. Other kinds of doctrinal office documents include letters, instructions, notifications, vademecums, and responses (and now press releases).

The last declaration before Fiducia supplicans was Dominus Iesus, in the year 2000, which generated controversy in ecumenical and inter-religious circles with its affirmation of the “unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.”

So, declarations are heavyweight documents that tend to provoke big reactions. But it’s unusual for them to be followed by a clarification just 17 days after publication.

The Jan. 4 clarification is particularly surprising as Fiducia supplicans expressly said that “no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type” beyond the guidance that it provided.

Yet it’s not unprecedented for the Vatican to seek to clarify papally approved decisions. One example is Benedict XVI’s 2009 letter to bishops after he remitted the excommunications of four bishops ordained by the SSPX Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. 

The German pope expressed regret that the provision’s terms “were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication,” after it emerged that one of the bishops had denied the Holocaust.

What it says

The Jan. 4 clarification has six subheadings. The first section, entitled doctrine, notes that bishops’ conferences worldwide have issued statements on Fiducia supplicans. It says that these “understandable” interventions underline “the need for a more extended period of pastoral reflection.” 

“What is expressed by these episcopal conferences cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition, because the document is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality,” it says, offering four quotations from the declaration as evidence for the point.

The section concludes by saying that “evidently, 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.”

The second section addresses the declaration’s practical reception. It begins with a pithy summary of the kind of blessing proposed in Fiducia supplicans: “short and simple pastoral blessings (neither liturgical nor ritualized) of couples in irregular situations (but not of their unions).”

It acknowledges that in some parts of the world, “it will be necessary not to introduce them, while taking the time necessary for reading and interpretation.”

“Some bishops, for example, have established that each priest must carry out the work of discernment and that he may, however, perform these blessings only in private,” the clarification notes. 

“None of this is problematic if it is expressed with due respect for a text signed and approved by the Supreme Pontiff himself, while attempting in some way to accommodate the reflection contained in it.”

Recalling that diocesan bishops have the power of discernment in their territories, the text says: “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.”

This is arguably the clarification’s key sentence. 

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The third section, on the delicate situation of some countries, observes that in some nations, homosexuality is criminalized and may even result in the death penalty. In such cases, “it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent,” the clarification says. 

But at the same time, “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.”

The fourth section argues that the real novelty of the document is “not the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situation.” It is, rather, “the invitation to distinguish between two different forms of blessings: ‘liturgical or ritualized’ and ‘spontaneous or pastoral.’” 

The clarification supports this point with quotations from the declaration’s “Presentation,” a 370-word preamble signed by Cardinal Fernández.

It also explains that Fiducia supplicans was issued as a declaration, rather than as a lesser type of document such as a “responsum” (response), because it did more than simply answer a contested question. It also presented a wider vision that the clarification defines as “the positive evaluation of ‘popular pastoral care,’” championed by Pope Francis. 

“In this context, the Holy Father invites us to value the simple faith of the People of God who, even in the midst of their sins, emerge from their everyday lives and open their hearts to ask for God’s help,” it says.

The clarification adds: “The central theme … is to have a broader understanding of blessings and of the proposal that these pastoral blessings, which do not require the same conditions as blessings in a liturgical or ritual context, flourish. Consequently, leaving polemics aside, the text requires an effort to reflect serenely, with the heart of shepherds, free from all ideology.”

While recognizing that some bishops will “consider it prudent not to impart these blessings for the moment,” the clarification expresses hopes that all Catholics will “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 life that they lead.”

The section concludes: “When the pope asked us to grow in a broader understanding of pastoral blessings, he proposed that we think of a way of blessing that does not require the placing of so many conditions to carry out this simple gesture of pastoral closeness, which is a means of promoting openness to God in the midst of the most diverse circumstances.” 

The fifth section, which asks how do these “pastoral blessings” present themselves in concrete terms?, expands on the description of such blessings offered in Fiducia supplicans. It stresses that they should last “a few seconds, without an approved ritual and without a book of blessings.”

“If two people approach together to seek the blessing, one simply asks the Lord for peace, health and other good things for these two people who request it,” it says. “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.”

Addressing a criticism voiced by bishops, the clarification says that this “non-ritualized form of blessing” does not “intend to justify anything that is not morally acceptable.”  

“Obviously it is not a marriage, but equally it is not an ‘approval’ or ratification of anything either,” it insists. “It is solely the response of a pastor towards two persons who ask for God’s help. Therefore, in this case, the pastor does not impose conditions and does not enquire about the intimate lives of these people.”

The fifth section then imagines a scenario in which a priest on a pilgrimage is asked for a blessing by a divorced and civilly remarried couple who are suffering from illness and economic hardship. 

“In this case,” the clarification says, “the priest can recite a simple prayer like this: ‘Lord, look at these children of yours, grant them health, work, peace and mutual help. Free them from everything that contradicts your Gospel and allow them to live according to your will. Amen.’ Then it concludes with the sign of the cross on each of the two persons.”

Seemingly appealing to Church leaders worldwide, it adds: “We are talking about something that lasts about 10 or 15 seconds. Does it make sense to deny these kinds of blessings to these two people who ask for them? Is it not more appropriate to support their faith, whether it be small or great, to assist them in their weaknesses with a divine blessing, and to channel that openness to transcendence which could lead them to be more faithful to the Gospel?”

The clarification then specifies that “the blessing must not take place in a prominent place within a sacred building, or in front of an altar, as this also would create confusion.”

“For this reason,” this section concludes, “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.”

This statement is potentially relevant to the Catholic Church in Germany, which is currently preparing a “handout” containing texts for same-sex blessings.

The clarification’s sixth and final section says that in some places, catechesis “will be necessary that can help everyone to understand that these types of blessings are not an endorsement of the life led by those who request them.”

“They are simple expressions of pastoral closeness that do not impose the same requirements as a sacrament or a formal rite,” it says.

“We will all have to become accustomed to accepting the fact that, if a priest gives this type of simple blessings, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything nor is he denying Catholic doctrine.”

The clarification calls, implicitly, on clergy to help Catholics “to discover that these kinds of blessings are just simple pastoral channels that help people give expression to their faith, even if they are great sinners.”

“For this reason, in giving a blessing to two people who come together to ask for it spontaneously, we are not consecrating them nor are we congratulating them nor indeed are we approving that type of union,” it underlines. 

“In reality the same happens when individuals are blessed, as the individual who asks for a blessing – not absolution – could be a great sinner, but this does not mean we deny him this paternal gesture in the midst of his struggle to survive.”

The document concludes: “If this is clarified as a result of good catechesis, we can free ourselves from the fear that these blessings of ours may express something inadequate. We can be freer and perhaps closer and more fruitful ministers, with a ministry that is full of gestures of fatherhood and hospitality, without fear of being misunderstood.”

What’s changed?

The big difference between the declaration and the clarification is that the first document proposed a practice, while the second is responding to objections to the proposal. The clarification therefore has a defensive tone that is absent from the declaration.

While the clarification insists that Church leaders cannot reject the declaration outright, it makes several concessions. It goes as far as saying that bishops may discern that it is not prudent to introduce the blessings in their dioceses, as long as they are not presenting “a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests.”

The clarification even appears to seek to offer a way out to bishops’ conferences that have expressed resolute opposition to the declaration, suggesting that after discerning that such blessings are not possible, they should “recommend the need for study and discernment.”

Another major difference between the declaration and the clarification is that the second text offers a more detailed description of a model blessing, right down to suggesting specific wording and indicating that it should last “about 10 or 15 seconds.”

The text also offers the seemingly important direction that blessings should not occur “in a prominent place within a sacred building, or in front of an altar,” though it doesn’t say whether clergy will face any consequences for ignoring the stipulation.

What happens next?

Church leaders in more than 50 countries responded publicly to Fiducia supplicans in the 17 days between its publication and the press release’s appearance.

The clarification could prompt a new wave of reactions from the world’s bishops’ conferences. But it’s unlikely that the responses will be as numerous as the first time round. Bishops may feel they have already said everything they want to about the declaration. The doctrinal office’s concessions may also draw some of the heat out of the issue.

But bishops are likely to continue to ask the DDF to answer queries about the declaration. The dicastery initially said that “no further responses should be expected.” But now that it has issued one clarification, it will no doubt face pressure to issue more.

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