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What 'Fiducia supplicans' declares about papal power

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Monday Fiducia supplicans, a declaration on the “pastoral meaning of blessings,” specifically treating the blessing of Catholics in irregular unions or same-sex couples.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez. Credit: Vatican media.

The declaration, which provides a rationale for the blessing of couples in illicit unions, provided they are not within the context of a liturgy, cannot be interpreted as analogous to marriage, and do not attempt or imply a legitimizing of the sexual partnership, met with considerable controversy.

Many, including several of the bishops of Germany, hailed the text as a first step towards formal recognition of same sex unions by the Church and a change in the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. 

Others pushed back on more radical interpretations of the text, which explicitly states, repeatedly, that the Church’s teaching on non-marital unions and same sex relationships remains unchanged, and bars the giving of blessings in any way or context which could be interpreted as resembling marriage or legitimizing a sinful situation.

The document’s implementation seems likely to produce outcomes as varied as the text’s interpretations. 

But stepping back from its immediate application and subject, what does Fiducia supplicans say about the teaching office of the Roman Pontiff?

And, in the long term, could Fiducia supplicans’ framing of papal power actually prove to be its most controversial aspect?


One of the key flashpoints of the Francis pontificate has been the concept of the “development” of Church teaching. 

Properly understood, and as the Church has always framed the concept, doctrine, and its practical application, can develop over time, as the Church grows in its understanding of revelation and tradition. 

That notion generally holds that a teaching becomes more detailed and nuanced, but not in a manner which contradicts or abdicates what the Church has always understood.

Under Francis, the limits of the “development of doctrine” have come up for discussion several times, perhaps most notably with a change to the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. on the issue of the death penalty. In 2018, the pope declared “in the light of the Gospel” the death penalty to be “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” even though the Church had always recognized the death penalty as a legitimate exercise of state power to administer justice.

Previous popes, like St. John Paul II, had taught that the death penalty was a licit practice, albeit one which should be used only “in cases of absolute necessity” which were “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Theologians, philosophers, and churchmen of all stripes have gone back and forth on whether Francis “changed” the Church’s teaching, or “developed” it in the light of human social progress and changed global circumstances.

Similar questions were raised about the most controversial section of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, which was interpreted by many, including the bishops of the pope’s home country of Argentina, to suggest couples living in non-marital cohabitation could receive the Eucharist, even if they were living in a state of manifest grave sin, and without the intention to change it.

Both those controversies gave rise to a debate about Francis’ exercise of the papal teaching office, and raised questions about how far a pope can go in reinterpreting or developing doctrine without breaking with the Church’s perennial truths and triggering a crisis of authority and faith.

On its face, Fiducia supplicans would appear to offer less cause for controversy than either of those previous issues. 

First, because it contains numerous, explicit statements that it does not change Church teaching on the sinfulness of non-marital sexual partnerships, as well as several specific prohibitions on the practice of blessing persons in such relationships, to avoid any confusion about what is being blessed. And second because, while issued with the consent of the pope, the DDF declaration is not, properly or legally speaking, a papal document. 

But despite both those aspects, the declaration seems destined to be interpreted and practiced to the contrary, at least in some places. Perhaps ironically, those who do so are also likely to cite Pope Francis in doing so — and that could trigger exactly the kind of crisis the declaration’s numerous caveats seem aimed to avoid. 

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When the wishes and intentions of the pope — either stated or inferred — are cited, they seem likely to be held, as they have been before, as a pole of authority at least equal to the Church’s perennial teachings and traditions. And within the text of Fiducia Supplicans itself there is some indication that this is what the DDF is proposing.

Cardinal Fernandez’s introduction states: “Since ‘the Roman Curia is primarily an instrument at the service of the successor of Peter,’ our work must foster, along with an understanding of the Church’s perennial doctrine, the reception of the Holy Father’s teaching.”

That statement, which quotes from the pope’s own apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangeliium, would seem to place the reception of the pope’s personal magisterium on a par with perennial doctrine — arguably it sets up a hierarchy between the two by suggesting perennial doctrine must be “understood” but current papal teaching “received.”

“The value of this document,” Fernandez continues, “is that it offers a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings, which is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.”

“Such theological reflection, based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church,” the cardinal said.

But critics of Fernandez’s conclusions might take issue with his premise. Stressing his “service to the successor of Peter” and the need to see his teaching “received,” the cardinal left out a perhaps significant part of his quoted passage from Praedicate Evangeliium.

The full line from the apostolic constitution actually reads “The Roman Curia is primarily an instrument at the service of the successor of Peter to assist him in his mission as ‘perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the Bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’,” while itself quoting from Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II’s dogmatic constitution.

Critics of Fernandez could accuse the DDF prefect of leaving out the part about the pope’s role as instrument and symbol of unity among the world’s bishops, while metaphorically and literally cutting out the ecclesiology of the council from his presentation of papal teaching.

And at least in the initial round of reactions, unity would appear to be lacking, both among the bishops and the “whole company of the faithful” on the import and scope of Monday’s declaration.

Several European bishops have welcomed the document as a kind of step in the right direction, including those who have long advocated publicly for wholesale change to Church teaching on the issues of marriage and sexuality. 

Meanwhile, sources close to several African bishops told The Pillar that the episcopate there is “in a state of shock” and “appalled” by the notion that same sex couples could present themselves for any kind of blessing of their relationship.

But perhaps the most consequential and ecclesiologically significant of the declaration’s provisions is not the disunity it is already causing among bishops in different parts of the world, but that it seems to preclude any scope for resolving it. 

The text of Fiducia supplicans says that no further clarifications on the issue can be expected from the DDF. But, perhaps more significantly, the declaration also seeks to prevent the bishops themselves from bringing clarity and order to its implementation in their dioceses.

Quoting an earlier published response from Pope Francis, the DDF declaration states that “it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially establish procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters [...]. Canon Law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should the Episcopal Conferences claim to do so with their various documents and protocols, since the life of the Church flows through many channels besides the normative ones.”

“Thus Pope Francis recalled that ‘what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule’ because this ‘would lead to an intolerable casuistry’,” said the DDF.

In effect, the DDF seems to have declared, on papal authority, that priests are free to exercise “practical discernment” in their application of Fiducia supplicans outside of any regulation, or oversight from their own bishops.

While previous curial acts under Francis have been accused of undermining the authority and discernment of diocesan bishops in their governance, acting against the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II in the process, Fiducia supplicans appears to cut the bishops out of the picture altogether. 

The DDF prefect appears to argue in his introduction that the curia’s work to ensure the “reception” of papal teaching now includes the power to exclude bishops from exercising authority over the pastoral work of their own priests in implementing a “real development” to the magisterium.

If that is indeed the case, many diocesan bishops may consider it a declaration not so much on the nature of blessing but on the nature of their offices, and on the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II, which said they are not “to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them.”

Following on from that, many more will see Monday’s declaration as a recipe for pastoral chaos which they will have little ability to contain or authority to prevent.

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