On December 18, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) published the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans on the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings. This document is the most recent addition to an ongoing debate within the Catholic Church regarding blessings for same-sex couples.
Naturally, as a polemical subject, it generated controversy. A heated discussion erupted on social media regarding the true meaning of the declaration and the scope of these blessings.
So, what does Fiducia Supplicans really mean? After reading the text in its entirety, I will try to answer some of the most pressing questions raised by the document.
Blessings for same-sex couples became a hot topic in Germany after the legalization of homosexual marriage in that country in 2017. The issue has been under discussion since the beginning of the German Synodaler Weg (“Synodal Way”) in 2019, with some German bishops showing openness towards these blessings.
In 2021, the DDF under then-Prefect Cardinal Ladaria published an answer (hereafter Responsum) to the following dubium: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?”
The DDF answered negatively.
However, the discussion did not die down. This year, the German Synodal Way approved a motion calling on bishops to establish blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples as a diocesan liturgy, with the redaction of a manual and training of ordained ministers for those blessings.
Also this year, Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller submitted five new dubia to the DDF. The second dubium asked whether the Church could accept “as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from revealed doctrine?”
The reply from Pope Francis (hereafter Respuesta) reasserted Church doctrine while seemingly showing a greater openness for blessings of homosexual people than the previous 2021 Responsum seemed to allow.
Now, the DDF under the new Prefect Cardinal Fernandez has clarified the matter further with the declaration Fiducia Supplicans. In a Presentation preceding the declaration, Cardinal Fernandez explained the rigorous process undergone during the preparation of the document, and how Pope Francis himself reviewed it and signed it.
Additionally, Fernandez declared that the Holy Father made the Respuestas to the 2023 dubia known “while the subject matter of this document was being studied.”
1. Does Fiducia Supplicans change Church doctrine regarding same-sex unions?
The document unequivocally reiterates Church doctrine on this point, by citing Pope Francis’ Respuestas: Marriage is an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” (#4).
The text goes on to say that this definition is grounded on perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage (#4). In the Presentation preceding the declaration, it is stated that blessings for same-sex couples can only be done “without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”
Everything that contradicts this meaning is deemed “inadmissible” (#4). Those unions “cannot be compared in any way to a marriage” (#30).
Those “who invoke God’s blessing through the Church are invited to strengthen their dispositions through faith, for which all things are possible and to trust in the love that urges the observance of God’s commandments.” (#30).
2. If nothing changed, then why issue the declaration?
The stated purpose of Fiducia Supplicans is to offer “new clarifications on the Responsum ad dubium that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published on 22 February 2021” (#2).
Those new clarifications were needed because of the variety of reactions elicited by the Responsum. Though some “welcomed the clarity” of the Responsum, “others did not share the negative response it gave to the question or did not consider the formulation of its answer and the reasons provided in the attached Explanatory Note to be sufficiently clear” (#3).
This seems to be an allusion to the German Synodal Way’s persistence in establishing liturgical blessings for same-sex unions despite the Responsum. “To meet the latter reaction with fraternal charity, it seems opportune to take up the theme again” (#3).
Furthermore, just because the Church’s doctrine remains unchanged, that doesn’t mean that absolutely nothing changed with the new declaration. Perennial Church teaching may remain the same, while Church praxis (discipline) may change. Also, a change may mean a replacement for something new, but it may also mean a development. As the Presentation preceding the declaration says:
“The value of this document, however, 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.”
3. Does Fiducia Supplicans contradict the 2021 Responsum?
In Catholic theology, doctrine develops without contradicting what came before. Then, how can Fiducia Supplicans be a true development, if it seems to contradict the 2021 Responsum? The latter did not allow blessings for same-sex relationships, while the former seems to allow it. Also, the Responsum rules out that the presence of positive elements in those relationships may “render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing,” whereas Fiducia Supplicans affirms that a blessing may be imparted to those who “beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit” (#31).
The answer is that both documents talk about blessings of different kinds, so that what is taught of one kind cannot be transposed to the other. They are talking about different planes that do not intersect.
Fiducia Supplicans explains that from “a strictly liturgical point of view, a blessing requires that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church” (#9). There should be care that these blessings are imparted to “things, places, or circumstances that do not contradict the law or the spirit of the Gospel. This is a liturgical understanding of blessings insofar as they are rites officially proposed by the Church.”
This is exactly what the 2021 Responsum affirmed:
“[W]hen a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.”
Another important detail is that the Responsum often reminds us that blessings “are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments.” It categorizes blessings as “sacramentals” which “have been established as a kind of imitation of the sacraments.”
“[S]ince blessings on persons are in relationship with the sacraments, the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing, invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony.”
It is in this context that the Responsum confirms that such blessings are not possible:
“For the above mentioned reasons, the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.”
But Fiducia Supplicans does not talk about blessings in the sense intended above. On several occasions, it tells us that we must avoid any confusion with the sacrament of Marriage (#5, 6, 30, and 39).
Furthermore, “blessings are among the most widespread and evolving sacramentals” (#8). In other words, there is room for doctrinal development. Whereas the 2021 Responsum was talking about blessings in a liturgical setting (the same context proposed by the German Synodal Way), Fiducia Supplicans teaches about blessings in extra-liturgical settings.
Throughout the declaration, we can see the gradually evolving continuity between the 2021 Responsum and the Holy Father’s 2023 Respuestas.
“For this reason, when it comes to blessings, the Church has the right and the duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion. Such is also the meaning of the Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states that the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex” (#5).
“Basing itself on these considerations, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Explanatory Note to its 2021 Responsum recalls that when a blessing is invoked on certain human relationships by a special liturgical rite, it is necessary that what is blessed corresponds with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. For this reason, since the Church has always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit, 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 Holy Father reiterated the substance of this Declaration in his Respuestas to the Dubia of two Cardinals.” (#11).
In this sense, Fiducia Supplicans reaffirms the 2021 Responsum. However, it limits its scope to its accurate (liturgical) context. Then, it proceeds to develop doctrine in a different context, outside the scope of the previous Responsum.
It is “within the horizon outlined here,” that a possibility appears of blessings for same-sex couples in a form “which should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage” (#31).
Here, we see echoes of the 2023 Respuestas to the Dubia, where Pope Francis says (contrary to the German Synodal Way’s motion), that dioceses and episcopal conferences should not “officially establish procedures or rituals” for these blessings, and neither should Canon Law (#37).
“In this perspective, the Holy Father’s Respuestas aid in expanding the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2021 pronouncement from a pastoral point of view” (#26). Fiducia Supplicans completes the development.
4. Are the blessings directed at people or relationships?
One of the controversies raging in social media was whether these blessings would be imparted to people with same-sex attraction or to their same-sex relationships. The former would be allegedly less problematic from a doctrinal point of view.
In this regard, Fiducia Supplicans employs the term “couple” to define the target of the blessing. Paragraph 31 talks about “the possibility of blessings for (…) couples of the same sex.” Likewise, paragraph 39 speaks of a blessing “requested by a same-sex couple.”
However, once again, the term “couple” could refer to the people who are part of the couple or to the relationship itself. Also, there can be linguistic nuances in the use of this term that do not carry out well to the English translation.
Since there would be no consensus, this would once again be proof of the alleged ambiguity typical of Pope Francis’ teachings.
But the lack of consensus on this part may be because Fiducia Supplicans never explicitly mentions this “people vs. relationship” dichotomy. Such distinction was introduced by the 2021 Responsum:
“The answer to the proposed dubium does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching (…) [God] does not and cannot bless sin: he blesses sinful man.”
From this point onward, this dichotomy has framed the discussion surrounding the blessings of same-sex couples. It seemed like the only way to pursue this debate would be to argue in favor of blessings towards individuals, not relationships.
However, Fiducia Supplicans studiously avoids this dichotomy. Rather, it develops the debate in an unforeseen, yet elegant and creative way. It does not so much discuss who or what gets blessed, but what blessings are and for what purpose.
5. What blessings can be imparted upon same-sex couples and for what purpose?
While Fiducia Supplicans reiterates everything the 2021 Responsum said regarding liturgical blessings, it also says that one “must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone” (#12). Cardinal Fernandez points out that the Holy Father’s Respuestas invited “us to broaden and enrich the meaning of blessings” (#7).
In this sense, the document makes a distinction between blessings done as part of a liturgical rite and simple blessings. It is the latter that are subject to the doctrinal development of a “more pastoral approach to blessings” (#21). “This is a blessing that, although not included in any liturgical rite, unites intercessory prayer with the invocation of God’s help by those who humbly turn to him” (#33).
Throughout Fiducia Supplicans we see several beneficial functions for such simpler blessings:
- Expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better (#21, quoting the Pope’s Respuestas);
- Entrust oneself to the Lord and his mercy, to invoke his help, and to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and truth (#30);
- Call on grace that can orient everything according to the mysterious and unpredictable designs of God (#32);
- Increase one’s trust in God (#33);
- Express and nurture openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life (#33);
- Ask for peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely (#37);
- Open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness (#40);
- Renew the proclamation of the kerygma, an invitation to draw ever closer to the love of Christ (#44).
We can see that among the manifold purposes of this blessing, there is no legitimation of homosexual acts or an equivalence between same-sex relationships and marriage. Such legitimation would go against the manifest mind and will expressed in the document (#31, 44).
In other words, these blessings are to be imparted to a specific kind of people, namely those who “recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help, do not claim a legitimation of their own status” (#31), who “do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else” (#32).
“One who asks for a blessing show himself to be in need of God’s saving presence in his life and one who asks for a blessing from the Church recognizes the latter as a sacrament of the salvation that God offers. To seek a blessing in the Church is to acknowledge that the life of the Church springs from the womb of God’s mercy and helps us to move forward, to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will” (#20).
In this setting and with this purpose, these blessings can be a “seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered” (#33).
It is also important to note that Fiducia Supplicans does not merely talk about blessings of same-sex couples, but also of couples in “irregular situations” (which, in Amoris Laetitia, refer to cohabitating non-married couples and to divorced and civilly remarried couples). However, only the former seemed to cause controversy, which shows an unhealthy fixation on this specific sin.
6. In what circumstances are these blessings to be carried out?
When Fiducia Supplicans describes the blessings to be imparted to same-sex couples and couples in irregular situations, two words pop up constantly: unconditionality and spontaneity.
Since these blessings are not done in a liturgical setting, the similarity with the sacraments does not exist. Therefore, the conditions for such blessings are less stringent than the ones for admittance to the sacraments. “One must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone, for it would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments” (#12).
“Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection” (#25). “Indeed, there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing” (#12).
This is traditional. When a sinner comes to a priest asking for a blessing, the priest does not need to know the sinner’s status to impart that blessing. At the end of every Mass, the priest gives a blessing to anyone in attendance, regardless of the state of their soul.
To ground the traditional nature of these blessings, Cardinal Fernandez enumerates several biblical precedents in paragraph 16, which “appear to be superabundant and unconditional gift.” “Therefore, even when a person’s relationship with God is clouded by sin, he can always ask for a blessing, stretching out his hand to God, as Peter did in the storm when he cried out to Jesus” (#43).
Fernandez also quotes St. Thérèse when she says we must trust “in the infinite mercy of a God who loves us unconditionally” (#22). He also draws from the Church’s liturgy, by citing a Collect from the Roman Missal: “Almighty ever-living God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask” (#34).
Finally, he cites a catechesis from Pope Francis, wherein blessings are “offered to all without requiring anything (…) without preconditions” (#27). The Holy Father goes on to say:
“It is a powerful experience to read these biblical texts of blessing in a prison or in a rehabilitation group. To make those people feel that they are still blessed, notwithstanding their serious mistakes, that their heavenly Father continues to will their good and to hope that they will ultimately open themselves to the good. Even if their closest relatives have abandoned them, because they now judge them to be irredeemable, God always sees them as his children” (#27).
Hammering moral truths to wounded sinners that come asking for a blessing to receive God’s help and comfort when everyone around them deserted them is counterproductive. It is by knowing that they are blessed that their hearts may be opened to God’s will, not by marginalizing them even further. The blessing enables and precedes the process of conversion, not the other around.
As for spontaneity, it flows from the non-liturgical nature of these blessings. “When considered outside of a liturgical framework, these expressions of faith are found in a realm of greater spontaneity and freedom” (#23).
“People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing” (#21) can do so in extra-liturgical contexts, as for example, visits to shrines, pilgrimages, meeting with a priest (even in the street) and prayers recited in a group (#28, 40).
In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely (#37).
Since, as we have seen, these blessings are not to be regulated by dioceses, episcopal conferences, ecclesial structures, or Canon Law, priests should “be formed to perform blessings spontaneously that are not found in the Book of Blessings” (#35). This runs counter to the German Synodal Way’s motion that priests be formed in these blessings as if they were liturgical rites.
7. Isn’t there a possibility that this document may cause scandal?
Fiducia Supplicans is very clear that any type of scandal or confusion must be avoided. In its presentation, Cardinal Fernandez says that he can not allow “any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.” The Church’s right—and even duty—to avert any kind of confusion is reiterated in paragraphs 5, 6, and 30.
To achieve this purpose, the DDF proposes some measures to prevent a scandalous confusion of same-sex unions with sacramental marriage:
“In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple.” (#39)
In this sense, the secular media and liberal pundits who may take advantage of this document to promote the idea that the Church may now bless same-sex unions on the same level as sacramental marriage are fostering the same scandal that Fiducia Supplicans explicitly says must be avoided.
Likewise, radical traditionalist and conservative commentators who enable this narrative to spin the Pope and the DDF as heterodox or ambiguous are spreading the same scandalous confusion as their progressive counterparts.
Neither is acting according to the mind and will of the document itself, which seeks to implement a proper understanding of simple, spontaneous, and non-liturgical blessings that can be imparted unconditionally upon sinners to help them and console them, without legitimizing any behavior contrary to perennial Church doctrine.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Vlad Chorniy.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.