The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a press release Thursday, “to help clarify the reception of Fiducia supplicans,” the recent declaration on blessings for same-sex couples and others in irregular domestic situations.
The five-page release comes less than three weeks after the publication of the declaration, which itself stated that “no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type.”
Nevertheless, the Jan. 4 release, which was signed by the dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, offered exactly such specific guidance and regulation, and went as far as providing specific wording for such a blessing.
The DDF release also stressed the right and importance of local bishops and episcopal conferences overseeing the implementation of the DDF’s declaration, even to the point of prohibiting its implementation at all in parts of Africa — despite Fiducia supplicans appearing to state that such episcopal oversight was not possible.
Fernández, who has given several interviews on Fiducia supplicans since its release triggered strong and widely divergent reactions among the world’s bishops, also stressed that episcopal opposition to its implementation could not be interpreted as doctrinal opposition to Rome, since the December declaration did not change in any way the Church’s teaching on human sexuality or marriage.
Despite its assured tone and call for “a full and calm reading” of the original declaration, the DDF’s Monday release appears to be a recognition that its initial reception has prompted global confusion and controversy.
Can Fernández’s statement calm the situation — and what does it mean for the long-term effects of Fiducia supplicans in the life of the Church?
According to Cardinal Fernández’s press release, the volume of strong, at times even confrontationally so, statements from various bishops and bishops conferences following Fiducia supplicans is “understandable.”
The opposition to the DDF’s declaration, strident in some places, has “the value of highlighting the need for a more extended period of pastoral reflection.”
It is a striking opening to the cardinal’s release. Many, including many of the bishops whose statements Fernández references, will likely ask why the declaration was published at all if, as the cardinal seems to be conceding, its release was premature and its explanation by the DDF incomplete.
The clarification was framed as a reassurance that nothing has changed with regard to Church teaching, and downplaying the vigorously contested reception of the declaration, Fernández appeared Monday to make several key concessions — or even reversals — regarding the text of Fiducia supplicans.
The first, and perhaps ecclesiologically most important of these walk-backs, is the cardinal’s insistence that “Each local bishop, by virtue of his own ministry, always has the power of discernment in loco, that is, in that concrete place that he knows better than others precisely because it is his own flock.”
That recognition by the cardinal will likely be read with relief by many bishops, though it is in stark contrast to the original text and import of Fiducia supplicans, which appeared to explicitly prohibit bishops from regulating in any way the pastoral freedom and spontaneity of their clergy from offering blessings to same-sex couples.
“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 cardinal noted. “None of this is problematic,” he said, provided it doesn’t imply a wholesale rejection of the DDF’s declaration and the pastoral concerns it sought to address.
The text of the press release seems also to rule out that such a rejection of Fiducia supplicans has or could happen, with Fernández insisting that “what [has been] expressed by [various] Episcopal Conferences cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition,” since there has been no actual change in doctrine.
“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 cardinal said.
Of course, as Fernández’s statement implicitly recognizes, many have insisted the exact opposite, triggering what has at times looked like a full-scale crisis of communion among the world’s bishops over the Christmas season.
The general tone of Fernández’s press release appears to insist that everything is fine, really.
But the extent to which the cardinal has felt the need to provide the kind of granular guidance he previously said his dicastery would not, suggests that he accepts that Fiducia supplicans has created a crisis.
Those who have denounced Fiducia supplicans as authorizing the Church to do exactly what the DDF has previously insisted it cannot — bless intrinsically sinful sexual partnerships — have pointed to a slew of well-publicized examples appearing to make their point.
Shortly after the declaration was issued on Dec. 18, priests and same-sex couples began publishing pictures of themselves imparting and receiving blessings on social media and in secular newspapers.
In some cases, the images showed the priest wearing a stole, a liturgical vestment, and with the blessing being imparted in church buildings, including in the sanctuary.
While Fernández insisted in interviews that people, not unions, could be blessed, and that such blessings did not legitimize sinful relationships, critics of Fiducia supplicans argued that such images, together with widespread secular reporting that the Church had authorized the blessing of same-sex “unions,” showed the DDF declaration had paved the way for a change in Church teaching in fact, if not in theory.
Monday’s press release would seem to many as an obvious, if unstated, acceptance by the DDF of those concerns, since it explicitly rules out exactly the kind of blessings that have featured so prominently in the media.
“Pastoral blessings must above all be very short,” Fernández said. “These are blessings lasting a few seconds,” he continued, and “must not take place in a prominent place within a sacred building, or in front of an altar, as this also would create confusion.”
Perhaps more significantly, though, the cardinal also went beyond the DDF’s original insistence that offering brief, non-liturgical, pastoral blessings when spontaneously requested obviously did not legitimize a sinful union.
On Monday, Fernández suggested that such blessings should have an explicit, if even oblique, recognition of the problematic nature of the relationship of a couple, and include a prayer for the couple’s further conversion.
Offering a specimen text, the cardinal suggested a priest pray “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,” Fernández said, underlining that it was each of the persons being blessed, individually, and not their union or status as a couple.
Leaving aside the irony of the cardinal offering a specimen text for a blessing he insists can have no set texts, Fernández’s release seems to be a concerted effort to rein in a situation that most onlookers accept has already spiraled out of control.
But does the release do enough to reconcile the sometimes diametrically opposed reactions to Fiducia supplicans among the world’s bishops?
And, at the pastoral level, will the DDF’s actions leave Catholics who seek such blessings better provided for, or will the furor around the declaration create a pastoral crisis of its own?
Whatever Cardinal Fernández’s hopes for Thursday’s press release, it seems certain that bishops around the world will continue to weigh in strongly on the true import and meaning of Fiducia supplicans.
If anything, the apparent contradictions between the declaration’s original text and the cardinal’s release seem likely to generate a new round of debate about what the DDF is really saying, and by extension what Pope Francis really wants to see from priests around the world.
Taking Fernández’s clarifications at face value, though, it seems clear that blessings for couples in same-sex unions should be truly spontaneous, last mere seconds, take place away from any prominent sacred space, and include some petition for the grace to conform their lives and relationship to Church teaching.
It seems equally clear, though, that in dioceses in some countries, most notably Germany, Belgium, and parts of the United States, this will not be what happens.
Regardless of whether such blessings are conducted in the future with reporters and photographers in attendance, it seems clear that some priests and bishops believe that the Church can and should bless the unions of same-sex couples, and will do so in liturgical or quasi-liturgical settings.
In doing so, they will, as ministers of the Church, teach and lead others — not least those to whom they impart such blessings — to believe the same.
Such cases would, on a plain text reading of Fernández’s Thursday release, represent a kind of “doctrinal opposition” to Church teaching, both the perennial doctrine and tradition and the magisterium of Pope Francis which Fiducia supplicans was intended to lay out.
It is not clear what, if any, appetite the DDF has shown to confront such opposition when and where it manifests itself — the Church in Germany seems committed to endorsing exactly the kind of para-liturgical framework Fernández has ruled out.
It’s equally unclear what support, practical and moral, the dicastery will offer to bishops in other parts of the world where reception of Fiducia supplicans may vary from diocese to diocese.
The U.S. bishops, for example, would seem unlikely to be able to arrive at a swift consensus on any conference-wide guidance or response to the December declaration. Indeed, the division caused by recent debates over “Eucharistic coherence” could deter them from even attempting to formulate one.
But, taking a hypothetical scenario, what response would come from Rome if a conflict arises when a bishop seeks to curtail the ministry of a priest or priests of a religious order operating in his diocese in contravention to his own published guidance on Fiducia supplicans?
Given that such conflicts have already arisen, and stalled in Rome, over other issues, the near future could see a series of overlapping, parallel realities in dioceses across the United States. In the middle of that confusion would be ordinary Catholics, including those who might want to seek such blessings, but who would be offered contradictory teachings on their meaning and significance.
Added to that, the general temperature of debate in the Church seems likely to stay high.
A lack of clarity and consistency about what the Church teaches and proposes in line with Fiducia supplicans seems likely to fuel accusations, fair or not, that confusion and contradiction were actually an intended outcome of the DDF’s declaration.
Amid all this, many bishops may read Fernández’s press release and wish the cardinal and his dicastery had engaged in “a more extended period of pastoral reflection” before saying anything in the first place.