Since publishing my article on those who put forward dishonest critiques of Fiducia Supplicans, the new Vatican declaration on the pastoral meaning of blessings, I have received a handful of responses from people who say that they are honestly confused about how one can bless a same-sex couple without blessing a same-sex union.
I don’t understand why this is a difficult concept, obviously a “couple” is two people who are paired together. A couple might be married, engaged, or involved in another type of relationship. A union is a type of arrangement or agreement between two people. The Catholic Church only blesses one type of “union” between a couple — sacramental marriage. But the Church can give a simple blessing to one person, a couple, a group, a sports team, or to an entire stadium full of people. The pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing is to “the city and the world.” The Church can bless two people who are a couple without sanctioning everything that they do, nor recognizing every agreement they make.
Although I think the document itself is sufficiently clear on the question, and that most reasonably intelligent Catholics should be able to understand the difference if they read the document with a spirit of receptivity and an open heart, but I also know that most Catholics will not read the document in its entirety, nor are they obligated to do so. In order to dispel any good-faith confusion, I will present an explanation that I believe reflects the mind of the Church on the matter.
What is the “development” in Fiducia Supplicans?
A good place to learn about the distinction between blessing a union and blessing a couple is from the text of Fiducia Supplicans itself. Cardinal Victor Fernandez, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), is the author of the document. In his “Presentation” that appears at the beginning of the Declaration, he asserts, “this Declaration remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.” He does speak about a “a real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church,” however.
What is this development? Traditionalists and papal critics will be very quick to remind everyone that a doctrinal development is not a rupture, but in continuity with tradition. And it seems that this is what is happening here. This seems to be among the first magisterial documents that distinguishes between classical liturgical or ritual blessings and informal spontaneous or simple blessings. A classical blessing is formal and uses a composed, officially Church-approved text, such as those found in liturgical books or the Book of Blessings. The nuptial blessing prayed by the priest or deacon after a couple has exchanged vows at their wedding is one such blessing. An informal blessing is given by a bishop, priest, or deacon to people who request them (“Father, I have a big test tomorrow, can I have a blessing?” Or, “Deacon, I’m going to the dentist tomorrow for a root canal and I’m really scared, can I have a blessing?”). Such blessings are common, unscripted, and an organic part of Church life. They have been for a long time.
I’ve seen some priests on social media priests criticize Fiducia Supplicans along lines such as, “We’re already doing this anyway! Why do we need a document about it? What is the development?” The development, according to the Declaration, is that this distinction is being made in an official magisterial document, adding to “what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium” in the past. This is authoritative recognition of a practice long-cherished and practiced by the Church. It reflects the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful).
Cardinal Fernandez explains that the value of the document is its “contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings.” It is in this broadening — clarifying the distinctions between classical and informal blessings — that we find “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” in the informal type of blessing.
The distinction made in Fiducia Supplicans
Fiducia Supplicans states repeatedly the importance of avoiding any and all confusion between the blessing of a marital union and any other blessing. In fact, it devotes its entire first section (paragraphs 4 through 6) reinforcing this distinction, such as when it says that “rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage—which is the ‘exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children’—and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm” (FS 4). This section also states, “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex” (FS 5, emphasis added).
Therefore, any reader should be able to easily grasp that this is the framework in which the document is to be understood. The document’s second section clearly establishes that classical or liturgical blessings may not be performed on same-sex couples. It says, “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” (FS 11). Going further, it places clear restrictions on simple blessings for irregular or same-sex couples:
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. (FS 39)
The Declaration then gives some suggestions about where such blessings might be appropriate:
Such a blessing may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage. Indeed, through these blessings that are given not through the ritual forms proper to the liturgy but as an expression of the Church’s maternal heart—similar to those that emanate from the core of popular piety—there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to 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. (FS 40)
For most readers, it should be self-evident that the Church goes to great lengths to clarify that a simple blessing for a couple cannot (and should not) in any way appear to be a blessing of the union between them.
I thought Cardinal Fernandez gave a good example of the type of blessing that would be licit in his interview with the Spanish newspaper ABC, when he said:
Imagine that, in the middle of a large pilgrimage, a divorced couple in a new union says to the priest, “Please bless us. I can’t find a job and [my husband] is very sick, life is getting very heavy for us, God help us.” Would you refuse such a blessing?
I don’t see any problem.
And if they were gay, would you deny it? You see, blessing them is not accepting a marriage, nor is it a ratification of the life they lead, nor is it an absolution. It is a simple gesture of pastoral closeness that does not have the same demands of a sacrament. We will have to get used to understanding that if a priest gives this kind of simple blessing he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything, nor is he denying the Catholic doctrine on marriage.
How is the blessing of a couple in such a case the blessing of an illicit union? These are people who have come to a priest, with a shared life and happen to be a couple, who are in desperate need of grace and healing.
Are papal critics so unimaginative that they are incapable of imagining such scenarios? Or are they so heartless that they think a priest should withhold a blessing until they pledge to separate?
In my article last night, I even noted that Fr. Thomas Weinandy — who has decided that Fiducia Supplicans is not magisterial — seems to understand the distinction, writing in his article, “While couples in irregular marriages and same-sex couples can be blessed, what cannot be blessed, and so validated, is the sin in which they are engaged” (emphasis added).
Dawn Eden Goldstein draws the distinctions clearly in her recent analysis, which addresses the issue at length. In it she notes that “Although [Fiducia Supplicans] acknowledges that ‘a pastor’s simple blessing … does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything,’ the Declaration is quite clear that its teachings apply to blessings for ‘every brother and every sister.’” Here she is stressing that such blessings are meant for each of the persons in the couple, not an attempt to legitimize a union.
Pedro Gabriel nuances it further, noting that Fiducia Supplicans studiously avoids explicitly focusing on the dichotomy between individuals and relationships. His impression is that the document “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.” This suggests that the fixation of the document’s critics on the word “couple” is entirely misplaced, and we should turn our attention to why we bless. What is intended by the person giving the blessing?
Curious to figure out whether Chat GPT could It handle the difference between “couples” and “unions,” I asked it, “What might the Catholic Church mean when it says that the blessing of a same-sex couple is different from blessing a same-sex union?”
When the Catholic Church distinguishes between blessing a same-sex couple and blessing a same-sex union, it reflects the Church’s theological and doctrinal stance on marriage, relationships, and the nature of blessings.
1. Blessing a Same-Sex Couple:
- The Church may view the blessing of individuals in a same-sex relationship as a recognition of their inherent dignity and worth as persons. In Catholic theology, every individual is seen as deserving of respect and love, regardless of their sexual orientation.
- This blessing could be understood as a prayer for their well-being, happiness, and spiritual guidance, aligning with the Church’s broader mission of offering pastoral care to all individuals.
2. Blessing a Same-Sex Union:
- The Catholic Church traditionally holds that marriage is a sacrament intended by God to be a union between a man and a woman. This view is rooted in the Church’s interpretation of biblical teachings and its understanding of natural law.
- Therefore, the Church might differentiate between blessing a couple (as individuals) and blessing their union (as a marital, conjugal relationship). The latter is often seen as an endorsement of the relationship in a way that aligns with the sacramental understanding of marriage, which the Church does not extend to same-sex unions.
In summary, the distinction lies in the Church’s approach to balancing its doctrinal beliefs about marriage with its pastoral care for individuals. Blessing same-sex individuals can be seen as an act of pastoral care, while blessing a same-sex union could be perceived as conflicting with the Church’s teachings on the sacrament of marriage. This distinction reflects the complex interplay between doctrine, pastoral care, and evolving societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships within the context of the Catholic Church.
That’s all I’ve got on this topic. Hopefully that helped you if you were genuinely confused.