If you’ve been reading the headlines, whether in the progressive National Catholic Reporter, the extreme-right Lifesite, or nearly any news source in between, chances are you saw articles claiming Pope Francis has permitted priests to “bless same-sex unions” or “bless sinful relationships.” I say nearly any news source, because one outlet got the story right.

The announcement of Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings—the Francis-approved Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith—on the Holy See’s Vatican News site explained that the document, which pertains not only to same-sex couples but also to any couple in a union not recognized by the Church, enables “the couple [to be] blessed but not the union.” Such a union cannot be blessed, because it entails sexual relations outside of sacramental marriage. “What is blessed,” Vatican News continues, “is the legitimate relationship between the two people”—i.e., those aspects of their relationship that pertain to friendship.

Does it matter that, with regard to unions of couples who are not sacramentally married, Fiducia Supplicans distinguishes between the question of (1) whether such a couple may receive a blessing, to which it answers yes, and (2) whether such a union may be blessed, to which it answers no? Or is it merely theological hairsplitting? I believe that the distinction makes a difference. Indeed, it is crucial to understand the distinction if we are to see how Francis, although introducing a genuine development in “the pastoral meaning of blessings,” has not changed Catholic teachings on human sexuality, marriage, sin, or grace.

A “Real Development” in the Doctrine of Blessings—Not of Marriage

From the very beginning of Fiducia Supplicans, DDF Prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández frames with exactitude what the Declaration intends and what it does not intend. He writes in his introductory presentation,

The value of this document … 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.

Fernández then makes clear that the “real development” put forth in the Declaration concerns only the Church’s understanding of the meaning of blessings and not the meaning or nature of marriage: “It is precisely in this context”—i.e., “a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings”—“that one can understand 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.”

What, then, is the “real development” to which Fernández refers? It is to make explicit what has long been implicit in the Church’s understanding of blessings, namely, that a blessing is not for the believer who is perfect, but rather for the believer who begs God’s grace while on the road to perfection. It is to acknowledge that people whose lives are not in conformity with Catholic teachings, but who desire to become closer to God, do in fact request and receive blessings from priests every day.

To give but one example, at the end of every Mass, in every parish in the world, the faithful receive a blessing. Through that blessing at the end of Mass, every priest, whether he realizes it or not, has blessed couples in same-sex unions and in irregular unions countless times.

With Fiducia Supplicans, the Magisterium both acknowledges the existing ecclesial reality and gives priests direction on how to act in light of that reality. It does so by affirming that the faithful whose lives are not in conformity with Catholic teaching have the right to request blessings. That right requires that the faithful, “recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of [God] help, do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but … 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 31).

A Blessing for “Individuals” in Need of Grace—Not of Unions

Fiducia Supplicans draws out the implications of Pope Francis’s recent response to dubia that included the question of blessings for same-sex couples. In my commentary for Where Peter Is, I noted that the Holy Father took care to distinguish between blessing a union and blessing individuals who are in a union.

After stating that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude,” [Francis] wrote, “Therefore, 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.”

Three times the Holy Father emphasizes that, to grow in our walk with God, we need grace to help us “live better.” He has already said that the Church can in no way permit a blessing that would “suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.” So he is not speaking here of the blessing of a sexual union. He is speaking rather of a situation in which individuals seek a blessing to help them grow in their walk with God. To those who would prevent a priest from raising his hand to bless individuals who are living contrary to the Church’s teachings, Francis effectively asks: how are people to receive the grace to live up to the demands of the Gospel, if the Church denies it to them at every turn?

It is interesting to note that whereas Francis’s Responsum ad dubium emphasized three times that we need grace to “live better,” Fiducia Supplicans makes that same point four times. Two of those times occur within quotes from the pope’s Responsum. The other two are in paragraphs that expand upon Francis’s teaching:

One who asks for a blessing shows 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 [FS 20]. …

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[,] … 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].

Thus Fiducia Supplicans follows Pope Francis in insisting that blessings are not for the perfect, nor are they for people who wish to remain in sin. People who request blessings do so because they recognize their own sinfulness and their consequent need for God’s grace so that they may align their lives more closely with the will of God.

The Declaration additionally follows Francis in indicating that when blessings are given to couples in irregular or same-sex unions, they are intended for the individuals and not for the unions themselves. Before making that distinction, it first establishes that such blessings should not be made in the form of an officially established ritual. Any official ritual form of such a blessing is forbidden, both “to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage” (FS 31) and to emphasize that the blessing is a form of pastoral accompaniment to provide couples with “an effective means of increasing [their] trust in God.”

With that in mind, Fiducia Supplicans states,

One should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing. 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.

Although the word “individuals” appears only in the English version of the document, it is implied in the Italian version (which is presumably the official version, since no Latin version exists as yet), as well as the Spanish and French translations, all of which use “these” (“that these have peace, health,” etc.). Thus the blessing of a couple in a same-sex union or other irregular relationship is not a blessing of their union, which is a singular thing, an “it.” It is a blessing of these persons and of their desire to “live better” in their relationship with God and with each other.

As Vatican News notes, inasmuch as a blessing of such a couple pertains to their relationship, it is a plea to God to help them become better friends to one another. In that regard, it is notable that Fiducia Supplicans does not support the romanticized idea of adelphopoiesis or “vows of friendship” that has been promoted in recent years by some Catholics in the gay community. The qualities of friendship mentioned in the Declaration—“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”—are qualities desirable in any friendship, not merely romantic or sexual relationships. Underlining this, at every turn, the Declaration, citing Francis, repeats the need for “avoiding that ‘something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage.’”

At the same time, despite the claim made by Philippine Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas in a letter on the Declaration that was reprinted by the Napa Institute, Fiducia Supplicans does not add a new category of blessing, a blessing of “mercy” that excludes “sanctification.” Although it 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.”

Francis Follows the Benedict Option

If we are to look for an example of the pastoral understanding that Francis seeks to promote through Fiducia Supplicans, we need look no further than the one given by Pope Benedict XVI when interviewed by Peter Seewald in 2010. In that interview, Seewald asked Benedict about comments he made in 2009 opposing the use of condoms to fight AIDS in Africa.

Benedict responded reaffirming the Church’s opposition to condom use, but then he added, “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

An apparently shocked Seewald responded, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

“She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution,” Benedict replied, “but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Benedict’s comments hit the press with all the force that greeted Fiducia Supplicans. But if any Catholics expected that, in the face of widespread misinterpretations, the pope would walk back his comments, they soon learned they were mistaken. Vatican press secretary Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement that, like Fiducia Supplicans, both affirmed that Church teaching on human sexuality had not changed and acknowledged that Benedict’s words marked a real development in the Church’s pastoral understanding of that teaching.

Although Lombardi’s press note, unlike Fiducia Supplicans, carried no magisterial weight, it nonetheless stood as a Vatican-approved interpretation of Pope Benedict’s words. The entire statement is worth reading, but the last two paragraphs are especially relevant to understanding Francis’s continuity with his predecessor:

The reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift. Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical personalities have sustained, and still sustain, similar positions. Nevertheless, it’s true that until now they have not been heard with such clarity from the mouth of the pope, even if it’s in a colloquial rather than magisterial form.

Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution of clarification and deepening on a question that has long been debated. It’s an original contribution, because on the one hand it remains faithful to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in rejecting “faith in condoms” as an illusory path; on the other hand, it shows a comprehensive and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering the small steps—even if they’re only initial and still confused—of a humanity often spiritually and culturally impoverished, towards a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.

I would not at all be surprised if Benedict himself wrote that final sentence about being “attentive to discovering the small steps—even if they’re only initial and still confused—of a humanity often spiritually and culturally impoverished, towards a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.” In any case, those words bear a remarkable resemblance to Fiducia Supplicans, which states, quoting Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, “Pope Francis reminds us that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.’’

Who Needs Saving?

One priest who knew the value of such small steps was Father Edward Dowling, SJ (1898-1960), the Jesuit who, although not himself an alcoholic, became a close spiritual adviser to Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. When I researched my biography of Dowling, Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor, I was struck by his prophetic observations in an address to the 1953 National Clergy Conference on Alcoholism in which he discussed the issue of whether alcoholic priests should join A.A.

The main concern that people had about a priest joining A.A., Father Ed noted, was, “What will be the effect on the Church?” His answer has particular relevance in light of Fiducia Supplicans. Dowling said, “Frankly, I don’t think the Church needs saving nearly as much as this man. God’s cause is often hurt by people who are trying to save God.”

God’s cause is often hurt by people who are trying to save God. Those words came not only out of Father Ed’s experience helping alcoholics, but also out of his decades of providing pastoral accompaniment to people with all sorts of problems that they were afraid to reveal to other priests.

When I was researching Father Ed, I interviewed Michael Coffey, whose mother, Mary Jane Coffey, approached Dowling in the mid-1950s. Recently divorced from her alcoholic husband, she faced a seemingly insoluble problem. Her bishop in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, having learned of her divorce from the legal-notices section of a local newspaper, chose to use his prerogative to have her excommunicated. (This was a special prerogative that the U.S. bishops had claimed since the late 19th century to discourage divorce. It remained available to bishops until Pope Paul VI eliminated it in 1977.)

Michael Coffey told me his mother was pained at being separated from the sacraments and life of the Church that she loved. “She had other Catholic friends who had been through divorce and were [likewise] branded active sinners. They were still trying to love the Church and stay in it.”

In 1957, Mary Jane and several other divorced Catholic women began to meet with Father Ed so that he might help them find legitimate ways to remain active in the Church. He guided them to form a support group, Divorcees Unanimous.

Despite the women having been excommunicated, Dowling found ways to give the group spiritual accompaniment, including leading an annual retreat for them. “He saw a whole subset of people who were being harmed by the Church,” Michael Coffey told me. “He thought it was his job to keep them in the Church but keep them safe.”

Mary Jane Coffey went on to take vows as an Auxiliary of the Sisters of the Cenacle. When she died in 2005 (many years after her excommunication was nullified), she was “fortified with the Sacraments of Holy Mother Church.” Who is to say that this Catholic woman would have retained her faith, had not a priest who was, like Pope Francis, a “shepherd with the smell of the sheep,” ministered to her in a manner that, although obedient to canon law, gave her the opportunity to be “despite everything, always blessed” (FS 45)?

Let us pray that the priests and faithful of the Church never turn away those who approach them seeking “to move forward, to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will” (FS 20).

Image: By Alfredo Borba – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34671623

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Dawn Eden Goldstein, JCL, STD, is the author of several books, including Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.'s Spiritual SponsorThe Thrill of the Chaste, and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She has taught at seminaries in the United States, England, and India. Currently she is writing a biography of Father Louis J. Twomey, SJ. Visit her at The Dawn Patrol.

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