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The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on Monday released a document on same-sex blessings that has been widely anticipated since the July appointment of Cardinal Victor Fernandez as the dicastery’s prefect.

Pope Francis and DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez. Credit: Vatican Media.

The document allowed for the possibility of “spontaneous” blessings for same-sex couples. While it prohibited liturgical blessings and took pains to emphasize Catholic doctrine regarding marriage, it is nonetheless controversial, and will remain so in the life of the Church.

The controversy ahead is two-fold — there will be both disagreement among Catholics about how the text is framed, and about what it will represent in many parts of the Catholic Church.

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Fiducia supplicans is a 5,000 word document issued Dec. 18, and published immediately in five languages, in order to be available broadly to Catholics.

To Vatican-watchers, it likely comes as no surprise, as Fernandez told The Pillar months ago that he was working to “enrich or expand” prior Church guidance on the subject.

The Dec. 18 text said it aims to reflect on the notion of blessings themselves, in order to explain “the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

As a matter of theological reflection, the text’s preliminary notes declared Fiducia supplicans to be a “real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church.”

While the text spent considerable time unpacking a theology of blessing, it has gotten the most attention for the implications of that theology. Fiducia supplicans argues that because even the desire for a blessing is a sign of the desire for God’s presence, a kind of priestly benediction should not be denied to Catholics in same-sex sexual partnerships.

The document took pains to emphasize that the possibility of being blessed does not mean that the Church’s doctrine on sexual morality has changed, or that its understanding of marriage has changed. In fact, it emphasized that while it is possible to bless couples who “spontaneously approach a priest” for a blessing, that benediction should not be confused with marriage, or correlated with affirmation of their union.

“The Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice,” the text affirmed.

Still, it also indicated that there are some circumstances when a non-liturgical spontaneous blessing of two people in a same-sex union could be pastorally appropriate. 

The text said that it was not endorsing the kinds of blessings that might be seen as same-sex marriage by another name, and that blessings are not explicitly approbations — even if that’s how the term is often used in popular parlance, especially with regard to marriage.

In its document, the DDF seemed to have in mind the possibility that people who identify as gay might approach a priest after a liturgy, or at a large shrine or pilgrimage site, or at an airport, even, and request a blessing. 

Anyone with pastoral experience knows that priests are regularly asked for blessings, and that a moral evaluation of a person’s entire life is not undertaken each time a priest blesses a stranger, or a person not well-known to them.

Indeed, most people with pastoral experience know how often priests are asked for informal, spontaneous, “on-the-street” blessings even by people on the margins of Catholic practice, and that the experience itself can often be a powerful one, and even an invitation to deeper practice of the faith.

In that sense, it seems clear that the dicastery wants to advance the notion that a priest could distinguish between blessing people in a same-sex union, even together, and blessing the union itself — and that he should not regard himself as inhibited from offering a priestly benediction without inquiry if he is approached somewhat spontaneously by two people of the same sex.

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While U.S. bishops have begun issuing statements, it is not certain how the global college of bishops will respond to the DDF’s proposal on the subject.

There are certainly theologians who will argue that a same-sex union is a visible sign of contradiction to the Church’s teaching, and that if a priest is aware that the people who have approached him are in a same-sex union, his blessing — even a spontaneous one — gives the impression of a tacit approval, and thereby could seem to undermine the integrity of Catholic life and doctrine. 

Indeed, the DDF argues that priests conferring such blessings should avoid all “serious forms of scandal and confusion” and for many clerics, that would seem to be a significant restriction on the conferral of blessings to couples he knows to be in a same-sex unions, even in non-liturgical contexts.

For some, that issue suggests that circumstances the DDF text describes are actually quite limited. But others will likely take a less restrictive view of scandal, especially if asked for blessings in public places, given that few people would have insight into why a priest seemed to be praying with or blessing some particular pair of people.

For their part, theologians have raised other concerns about the document. 

Some have expressed concern about its anthropological premises, suggesting that the text’s own language — its use of terms like “same-sex couples” — already implicitly validates the notion of a same-sex union, at least on some level, in a way that is novel for Vatican documents. 

For others, the language used to describe those unions will likely be seen as problematic. Some theologians will likely raise concern that describing same-sex sexual unions as “inadmissible” or “irregular” fails to adequately describe them, and suggests that they are morally problematic because they violate some extrinsic rule, rather than because they violate the natural law, a more fundamental issue  

In short, among theologians, canonists, and other experts, the actual text of Fiducia supplicans is likely to be the subject of considerable debate, and disagreement, in the months to come. The DDF said explicitly that it won’t be issuing clarifications, which means that even if such debate is divisive, it will not soon resolve with clarity.

In the meantime, it is not clear whether Fiducia supplicans will offer much to Catholics who identify as gay, and who wish to live according to Catholic teaching. A “spontaneous blessing” does not seem a likely starting point of accompaniment, support, or more material and concrete guidance. 

There are indeed Catholics who are looking for those things. While some will take the DDF’s text as a sign of hope, and others feel discouraged by it, it is not clear that many will perceive that Fiducia supplicans answers entirely their pastoral needs.

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Of no less concern is the question of whether Fiducia supplicans will be taken seriously in the Church as a text, and thus subject to debate, or whether it will be taken as a kind of a signal towards an as-yet-unspecified direction, such that the limits of its text can be exceed by priests and bishops without consequence.

Taken on its face, the text of Fiducia supplicans might be seen as a rebuke of the practice, emergent in some European countries, of formal and liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, which do bear some resemblance to weddings.

And indeed, if the Vatican clamps down on that practice in the months to come, the notion of Fiducia supplicans as a restrictive document will be borne out.

But if the Vatican does not clamp down on liturgical blessings of that type, than Fiducia supplicans will be important more as symbol than as text.

For some clerics already inclined to participate in, or even attend, same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations, the text will likely normalize that practice — making it less clandestinely undertaken.

But in some places, it seems likely a broad range of prohibited liturgical practices will be eventually framed as taking place in the “spirit of Fiducia supplicans,” and that the bishops who promote them will feel empowered by the text.

For some, that will become a matter of grave concern as it pertain to ecclesial unity — it seems entirely likely that as European countries set out in the “spirit of Fiducia supplicans,” other parts of the Church’s episcopate will object.

In some places, and among some bishops, Fiducia supplicans will be seen as a kind of high-water mark for the problems of the Francis pontificate, and for some, it will become a kind of rallying cry for clarity from the Vatican.

In that tension, a kind of schism — at least of the de facto type — could become more amplified between bishops.

To some observers, that prediction might seem oversold.

But it is a fact that issues pertaining to the approbation or liturgical blessings of same-sex couples have been the source of fracture among the most prominent ecclesial communities. Given that schisms can occur in the Catholic Church, it would seem historically naive not to recognize the possibility over this issue.

That means that Pope Francis, or his successor, has a major weighing issue ahead of him: Eventually the pope will have to decide if tolerating the “spirit of Fiducia supplicans” is worth the prospect of schism — or if he will have to take up the unpleasant task of cracking down on excess.

Of course, all of that is made more difficult by the Vatican’s financial crisis, and the crisis of credibility which stems from the Church’s global abuse crisis. But even amid those difficulties, it seems almost certain that without vigilant discipline, the residual ecclesial effects of Fiducia supplicans could be historic.

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