Simon Cereno had been expecting a normal, if not a quiet, Christmas with his large Italian-American family.
But on December 18, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released Fiducia supplicans, and headlines like “POPE APPROVES SAME-SEX BLESSINGS” started scrolling across TVs and social media feeds.
Simon (a pseudonym) is one of the few practicing Catholics in his family; he also identifies as “queer and celibate,” while several of his relatives are in same-sex unions.
“As the token religious freak of the family,” he told The Pillar, he was the person his family came to with opinions about the new Vatican declaration.
“Most of the family members who approached me about it started the conversation with something along the lines of, ‘Isn’t it great how the pope is changing the Church?’... and implying that he soon will start recognizing the sacramentality of same-sex marriages,” Simon recalled.
Some of his family members mentioned the controversy the document has stirred up, and “even expressed fear that the pope will be assassinated,” he said.
Amid those conversations, Simon realized two things were consistent: His relatives “had just read the mainstream news headlines, and really didn’t understand what [Fiducia] was saying;” and, nonetheless, the idea of a newly-welcoming Church “has made them curious about returning to church and… recognizing their need for a relationship with God.”
Simon, like many Catholics who spoke with The Pillar, is himself ambivalent about Fiducia supplicans.
But Simon was struck that the headlines prompted his family to “open up to me about spiritual things, and express interest in prayer and Mass. ... The finer details of what [Fiducia] implies can come later. In order to understand it, one must first be interested in pursuing a relationship with Jesus.”
Both priests and lay Catholics have found themselves in Simon’s position in the weeks since Fiducia’s release, with many harboring ambivalence about the document itself, fielding questions from people with widely-varying ideas about what it really says — or should say — and wondering how witness to the Gospel can emerge from controversy.
Some gay and same-sex attracted people told The Pillar that they found Fiducia supplicans less comforting than they might have expected.
Barbara (a pseudonym) is a young professional who discerned a vocation to celibacy as a laywoman, then met her partner, who is also celibate and identifies as a trans man, although Barbara notes that the term doesn’t cover the full complexity of the partner’s situation. Barbara and her partner say they believe they’re called to a kind of partnered celibacy — not marriage, following the Church’s teachings, and committed.
Barbara said she loves their parish, and she would love to receive a blessing with her partner, but her unusual family situation has made her afraid to ask for one.
Barbara believes blessings support her vocation and strengthen her community.
In the past, Barbara said, “I’ve really benefited from getting blessings for various major life changes, whether it’s starting a new career, starting in a new academic program, [or]—I had my parish give me a blessing for travel when I have gone on medical missions in recent years. I take that with me when I go, and I feel as though I have my church family with me.”
Barbara and her partner have both had painful church experiences in the past, including participation in ex-gay ministry and “pray away the gay” Christian therapy.
Finding a Catholic church where they can worship feels like a fragile mercy, she said.
“I’ve really come to love my local parish. I feel a strong sense of connection to it, I love my priest and my community. And I fear losing that.”
So with the feeling that might be at stake, why would Barbara consider asking for a blessing?
“The reason we would want [a blessing] is having some sort of acknowledgment of our vocation [to partnered celibacy] within my parish. It would really be nice to have some sort of way, within my local parish, of just saying, ‘This is another vocation that people can live into.’ And I feel really sad about the fact that I’m so, so, so scared,” she said, with a low laugh, “to ask my really awesome priest what he thinks about it. …It would be wonderful just for once not to feel like we’re going at this completely alone.”
Among Catholics who talked with The Pillar about Fiducia supplicans, fear was a recurring theme.
Priests and other church personnel said they were afraid of speaking out of turn, of provoking further controversy, of seeming disobedient — either to their immediate superior, or to the Holy Father.
Individual gay Catholics in non-marital, nonsexual-but-committed same-sex partnerships also expressed fears: That Fiducia and its press-release clarification, which suggested blessings of “about 10 or 15 seconds,” might actually make it harder for priests to bless even those partners who intend to live celibately; that the controversy around Fiducia will make priests more hesitant to work with partnered gay people, not more eager or bold.
But for his part, Fr. Michael Hurley, OP, outlined his views on the subject with a refreshing confidence.
Hurley is the pastor of St. Dominic’s Parish in San Francisco.
“I think I have a reputation for meeting people where they’re at,” he told The Pillar.
“But at the same time, we’re a church known for the Dominican identity of seeking the truth. That does mean conversion.”
St. Dominic’s parishioners include gay people with a wide range of relationships to the Catholic Church, the priest explained.
Hurley said that in his pastoral ministry, he tries to hear people’s stories: “Where are you in life? Where is God in your life? Even if I could bless you, it’s not magic; the rest of your life [needs to be] receptive.”
Hurley talked about the blessings offered at a baptism, when the parents receive a blessing even if they are not married:
“You bless them, as mother of this child and father. You lean in to what can be blessed, the avenues in which God’s grace can work; and if there are things which need to be worked out, you hope that follows.”
“The blessing shouldn’t be the first or the last item” in a pastoral relationship, he emphasized.
Keith Wildenberg first came to St. Dominic’s at the prompting of his partner. Keith and his partner had already had a ceremony of “spiritual brothering,” based on Eastern Christian traditions of adelphopoeisis or adoptive brotherhood, and were living chastely.
The pair met with Fr. Hurley together.
“There are a lot of folks who go into conversations like that expecting the worst,” Keith said with a laugh — “on both [sides]!”
He recalled that Fr. Hurley “asked to hear our story. And because I’m the talker, I was telling my story and he kept gently turning it back to [my partner]. There were several delightful surprises,” including that Fr. Hurley “consistently used the word ‘friendship,’ bringing it back to Aquinas and Aristotle.”
Keith said he knows that “out in the world… when you talk about friendship, it feels so small. When you use the word ‘friendship’ with people who aren’t in the know, it seems demeaning.”
Language about friendship can strike people in different ways.
Barbara told The Pillar about her unease when people at her parish would hear her refer to her partner as “family” and yet continue to refer to them as “friends.”
But while Barbara felt that language of friendship was used to avoid talking about the reality of her partnership, Keith saw that language, in the context of his conversation with a Dominican priest, as a way to fit him and his partner into a longstanding spiritual and intellectual lineage. He felt that Fr Hurley presented “friendship” as a way of elevating their love, rather than minimizing it.
The meeting with Fr. Hurley convinced Keith that “yes, this parish is our home now. And also that our friendship is sacred.”
Keith said that Hurley sought out their gifts, encouraging them to join the choir -– both because of their love of sacred music, and because of “the community that has formed in this choir.”
And in the course of their conversation, Hurley blessed them.
That meant a lot, Keith said.
“I reminded [my partner] of that the other day and he smiled big, because it’s what he remembers most from our time: just how very, very warm it felt. I can’t recall the words of the blessing. I just recall the warmth of it.”
Keith has spent decades mentoring gay Catholics. He said that many pastors—and same-sex couples—don’t have a good sense of what a Catholic vision for their love might look like:
“You’ve told us we need to be blessing around the hopes and dreams that the Church has for this gay couple, but the Church has never said what those hopes and dreams are, at least not explicitly.”
He suggested that “for a couple who were ‘openly noncelibate,’ if you will, I might couch [a blessing] in terms of growing closer to Christ and to community, and sharing gifts with the community. Give that couple a reason to stick around. You’re not putting these people through hoops, you’re not applying canonical tests to their disposition to receive this blessing.”
He noted that gay people often need time to grow in trust before they can begin “visioning” what a life in harmony with Catholic teaching might look like.
For his part, Hurley emphasized the importance of pastoral accompaniment.
“Oftentimes folks who are in ‘irregular situations’ feel like they don’t have access to pastoral accompaniment,” he said.
“If the document is able to give the idea [that they can come in], even if it’s a mistaken idea of what is actually offered, it can always be a starting point to a conversation. You always look for: how do you take one step forward? That’s why we’re not angels. Angels get one moment, we’ve got our whole life to walk that journey.”
With a big laugh, Fr. Hurley added: “I won’t be having classes about how to read [Fiducia]. All you’re going to get is folks [taking] sides.”
He said he’d rather spend time blessing than debating.
“I welcome anyone who wants blessings to come on down! We bless what we can bless, and let God take care of the rest.”
Editor’s note: The author of this report, Eve Tushnet, co-founded with Keith Wildenberg a non-profit organization, Building Catholic Futures, which aims to help Catholic institutions nourish the faith of gay and same-sex attracted believers. Wildenberg was among Catholics interviewed for the report.
Editor’s note: While the term “celibate” means in a formal canonical sense the state of being unmarried, it is used in this report to describe relationships characterized by a commitment to chastity within the unmarried state, in accord with Catholic doctrine.