Today the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) published a declaration approved by Pope Francis, Fiducia Supplicans (“On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings”), which delves into the subject of blessings, describing and differentiating formal blessings — such as those we find in rituals and liturgies — with spontaneous or informal blessings. Vatican News explained that the document explores how informal blessings may allow “the possibility of welcoming even those who do not live according to the norms of Christian moral doctrine but humbly request to be blessed.”

This document builds on Pope Francis’s response to dubia submitted this summer by Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller, published in early October, regarding blessings for those who are in same-sex relationships. In his response, the pope reminded the cardinals that “we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”

In the Responsa, Francis went on to suggest that deeper investigation of the question was warranted, writing, “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.” This DDF declaration appears to be the fruit of that discernment.

In addition to Fiducia Supplicans and the 2023 Responsa, the question of blessings for those in same-sex unions was also addressed in a 2021 Responsum from the DDF, which was then headed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria. The earlier document affirmed a blanket ban on such blessings, saying “the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit.” At the time there were some questions about the extent to which Pope Francis had carefully considered the document, and many noted that his approval of the 2021 Responsum contained language different from the “in forma specifica” formula that typically appears on DDF documents approved by the pope. Rather than stating that Pope Francis “approved” the document and “ordered” its publication, the Responsa said that the pope had been “informed” of the document and granted his “assent” to its publication.

Additionally, in an episode of the Field Hospital podcast in April 2022, Chilean abuse survivor advocate Juan Carlos Cruz told Jeannie Gaffigan and me that Pope Francis told him that he regretted signing the document, a point he made again in July of this year during his talk at the Outreach Conference in June of this year. Cruz mentioned in both venues that the curial officials deemed responsible for drafting and promoting the document had been reassigned. The most prominent member of this group was former CDF secretary Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who was named bishop of the Italian Reggio Emilia-Guastalla Diocese in January 2022.

Although the 2021 Responsum‘s authoritative weight or doctrinal orthodoxy were not widely questioned, some Catholics pointed to problems with the language and lack of nuance in the document, such as its failure to make clear distinctions between persons in a same-sex union and the union itself. Additionally, one curiously-worded sentence seemed to imply that homosexual individuals were ineligible for any blessings by a priest unless they “manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.” Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn expressed regret about the language in the Responsum during a televised interview, saying, “A mother will not refuse to give a blessing, even in cases when her son or daughter encounters trouble in life. Quite the opposite.”

Fiducia Supplicans (FS) therefore states that it provides “new clarifications on the Responsum ad dubium” (FS 2) of 2021. It acknowledges the concerns that the 2021 Responsum “did not consider the formulation of its answer and the reasons provided in the attached Explanatory Note to be sufficiently clear.” This document, therefore, is an attempt “to take up the theme again and offer a vision that draws together the doctrinal aspects with the pastoral ones in a coherent manner” (FS 3).

Key points of Fiducia Supplicans

So what does the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans say? At 45 paragraphs long and divided into four sections, six key points jumped out at me:

  1. It reaffirms the traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage. Fiducia Supplicans underscores the Church’s continuing adherence to its traditional doctrine regarding marriage. It makes clear that the Church cannot sanction or bless unions that contradict its understanding of marriage, states that “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex” (FS 5; emphasis added), and affirms the Church’s teaching “that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning” when “grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage” (FS 4).
  2. It proposes an expansion of the understanding of blessings in the life of the Church. The document warns against “the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites” (FS 12). While maintaining doctrinal consistency, the document suggests a broader and more nuanced understanding of blessings in a pastoral context. It recognizes the importance of blessings beyond liturgical settings, proposing a more inclusive approach that respects the diverse circumstances and spiritual needs of the faithful, including those in ‘irregular’ situations or same-sex relationships.
  3. It clarifies the role of the Church in offering blessings. In addition to the formal, ritualized type of blessing found in the Church’s liturgical books, the document emphasizes blessings that are less formal in nature, spontaneous, and that take place outside the context of a liturgical rite. The document emphasizes the Church’s role in bestowing blessings as an expression of God’s mercy and love. It says, “Granted by God to human beings and bestowed by them on their neighbors, the blessing is transformed into inclusion, solidarity, and peacemaking. It is a positive message of comfort, care, and encouragement” (FS 19). Fiducia Supplicans argues that blessings should be seen as gestures of the Church’s maternal care, not as endorsements of particular lifestyles or relationships. This perspective allows for a more compassionate and less judgmental approach in pastoral care.
  4. It emphasizes Pope Francis’s focus on pastoral charity and inclusivity. The declaration calls for a pastoral approach that embodies charity and inclusivity, reflecting Pope Francis’ teachings. It quotes a catechesis by the pope, which reminds us, “we are more important to God than all the sins we can commit because he is father, he is mother, he is pure love, he has blessed us forever. And he will never stop blessing us” (FS 27). Fiducia Supplicans encourages the Church to avoid being overly judgmental or exclusive in its ministry, especially in situations where people seek blessings in faith and sincerity, regardless of their life circumstances.
  5. It makes a clear distinction between liturgical rites and blessings. Fiducia Supplicans distinguishes official liturgical rites, like the Sacrament of Marriage, and ordinary blessings. It suggests that while the Church may not create liturgical rites for blessings of unions outside the traditional marriage definition, it can still offer blessings in a pastoral context, recognizing those who ask for a blessing but “do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but 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” (FS 29).
  6. It rejects the approach proposed by some Belgian and German bishops. Fiducia Supplicans, while opening the possibility of informal or spontaneous blessings for those in same-sex relationships, effectively closes the door on proposed liturgical rites, such as those approved by Belgian bishops and proposed by some German bishops. The document says, “one should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation.” Furthermore, in order to prevent scandal, the text instructs that “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” (FS 39).

Overall, Fiducia Supplicans seeks to balance adherence to traditional doctrines with a more compassionate and inclusive pastoral approach, recognizing the complexity and pastoral situations today and the spiritual needs of the faithful.

Updated to add the sixth point.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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