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Is the 'false narrative' narrative a false narrative?

It took fewer than 48 hours after the publication of Fiducia supplicans for a Vatican declaration on blessings to become probably the most controversial text in 10 years of a controversial papacy. 

The text, which offers a framework and guidelines for clerical blessings of same-sex couples, has prompted sharp division among the world’s bishops, and widespread disagreement among Catholics — not about what the text says, exactly, but about what it means. 

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Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio. Credit: Jim McIntosh/wikimedia. CC BY SA 2.0

By Wednesday morning, bishops’ conferences in Africa had told priests not to observe the provisions of Fiducia supplicans, while an Austrian bishop had told his priests they were mandatory. 

And as some Catholics insisted the meaning of the text was being mangled or misrepresented by a hostile and secular media, a Catholic priest was featured prominently in the NY Times — he was reportedly “making history” by performing a much-publicized blessing for two men who have contracted a civil marriage. In fact, according to the NY Times, the priest suggested the blessing to the couple, despite norms of the document which prohibit just that.

By that point, the situation was this: Some bishops were saying they would pay no mind to a directive of the Vatican’s doctrine office, and some priests were defying it openly.

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By Thursday, more episcopal conferences had raised reservations about the document. The confederation of African bishops’ conferences aimed to develop a “continental response” to the document

A former prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine office said the text was “self-contradictory,” while German Catholic leaders were going to the opposite extreme, insisting that the DDF would not prevent them from issuing guidelines for the liturgical blessings of same-sex unions, which are prohibited by the document.

Even some U.S. bishops, generally reluctant to show their heads above the parapet amid disagreements with Francis, began interpreting the DDF’s document in ways that would sharply curtail its practical use, with at least one saying the blessings should only take place privately, for example. 

Days before Christmas, and the whole of the Church’s leadership — and much of its clerical class — seemed to have been drawn into controversy over Fiducia supplicans. 

That controversy is not likely to abate quickly. It may well come to define the Francis pontificate — and certainly could set the terms for the next papal conclave.

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Amid all of that, some commentators and apologists have focused their energies on defending the orthodoxy of the text itself — arguing that, despite the 5,000 words of the “declaration,” it really doesn’t say very much at all, that it effectively restates the reality that one need not be a saint to receive a blessing, or even have much desire to become one.

Some Catholic commentators have accused the media, for example, of perpetuating a “false narrative” on the document, seemingly because some reporters failed to appreciate the text’s careful distinction between blessing “couples” and blessing the union of those couples.

In truth, the relative theological orthodoxy of the document is still under debate — as a sharp essay from Cardinal Gerhard Müller demonstrated Thursday. The text has been subject to numerous anthropological and theological criticisms.

It is also obviously true that many media outlets have gotten it wrong — with some Catholic media outlets among the worst offenders.

But the “media screwup” narrative is gaining traction among bishops because it allows them to avoid talking about Rome’s role in the challenges of the week.

Bishops who want to avoid pointing fingers at the Apostolic See — even those who privately describe the document’s publication as incendiary — have been happy to take up the “false narrative” narrative, blaming the media for a firestorm, rather than the Vatican.

Some have done so while framing the document as a vigorous defense of Catholic doctrine on marriage — seemingly blaming the media for seeing the document as anything more than that.

But in truth, anyone who says that the text is the story of the text is missing the real narrative. The text exists in a context, in which influential Catholic leaders have already exceeded its prohibitions without consequence, and said they will continue to do so. Those leaders have used the text to justify things explicitly prohibited by it, with some claiming the mantle of Pope Francis to do so. 

No one who has read it argues that the text technically allows blessing same-sex unions or marriages — but very few outside observers see a difference between publicly blessing “couples” and blessing their unions — especially when those couples frame the event in major international newspapers as a kind of approbation.

The Vatican has not responded to those things. If the text was actually meant to be restrictive of emerging liturgical practices, some Catholics wonder why the Holy See hasn’t done anything to clarify the scandal of its misuse. 

That still could happen. Sources close to the Vatican told The Pillar Thursday that some Vatican dicastery heads are “fuming” over Fr. James Martin’s NY Times blessing, arguing that it immediately undermined whatever good work the document might have done to provide some kind of evangelical invitation to Catholics in same-sex unions. 

But the question many Catholics are now asking themselves is about the intention of the Apostolic See. If the Vatican really wanted to restrict excesses in Europe, they say, officials choose a funny way to do that. If the DDF wanted to encourage better pastoral care for same-sex couples in accord with Catholic doctrine, they argue, it has not demonstrated the required follow-through to see that happen.

And if the entire global media establishment proffered a “false narrative” about the Fiducia supplicans, why is a continental bishops’ conference pushing against a problem it believes to be very real?

Finally, what culpability does Cardinal Fernandez have for failing to anticipate the way in which his text might be immediately abused, misunderstood, and misrepresented, and for the scandal that would cause? 

Some put it this way: How could the Apostolic See have failed to appreciate the gravity of its announcement? Or did Vatican officials understand what would happen, and proceed anyway? 

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There is one narrative floating among priests this week that exemplifies the frustration among many clerics. 

As same-sex blessings become available in the Church of England this month, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has noted that he would not personally bless same-sex couples who approached him for such a blessing.

Is it really possible, some priests have asked, that an Anglican archbishop has more freedom to decline such a blessing than does a Catholic priest in Austria? 

Even while this issue has fundamentally split the Anglican Church over the course of a decade, has the Catholic Church jumped out ahead of it in the course of one week? 

And has all of that overshadowed the importance of conversations about how the Church can actually help gay people to live fruitful lives in accord with the Gospel? 

With all of that unfolding, the view that the scandal of the past week is a “false narrative” propagated by the media seems to fall flat.

Instead, it seems the drama of recent days is unearthing long-standing tensions, deep theological disagreements, and pent up concern about the direction of the Church. All of that is shaping up into a global ecclesial conflict, lit off by a document that either changed nothing, or changes everything — depending on who you ask.  

Can the dicastery which has promised to offer no clarifications on its document put a stop to that conflict? Does the Vatican share the view that conflict is no more than a ginned up, media driven, “false narrative?”

That remains to be seen.  

But for practicing Catholics, there is likely a more important question which has sometimes gone unconsidered.

Inside the Church, the debate is seen by many as a crisis. But to people watching from outside of the Church’s life, does it look like a crisis, or like a farce?

Does the debate over Fiducia supplicans give credible witness to a Church that stewards the true and lasting answers to the most pressing and profound questions of human existence?

If not, what would that witness look like?

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