On December 18, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) promulgated the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans, which clarified questions surrounding informal blessings of couples in irregular situations and same-sex relationships. This document bears the signature of Pope Francis. A few months earlier, five cardinals submitted dubia to the Holy See that included a question on this matter, to which Pope Francis issued a response in October. Fiducia Supplicans, which was written by DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Fernández, provided further clarification on the issue.
In response to the declaration, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller wrote an essay that was published on the Catholic website The Pillar in which he claimed that Fiducia Supplicans was “self-contradictory” and that the new declaration allows for the blessing of sin. Müller quotes Vatican II documents extensively in his essay, but unfortunately he does not seem to have considered the magisterial document Donum Veritatis which sets boundaries for criticizing the Magisterium. Before we break down the Cardinal’s claims, perhaps it would be wise to set some parameters. Here is what Donum Veritatis has to say about non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium:
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a “definitive” pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching. (DV 17)
Documents that come from the DDF such as Fiducia Supplicans, while not infallible, are still part of the ordinary Magisterium when expressly approved by the pope. This means that they require the religious submission of the intellect and will from Catholics (Lumen Gentium, 25). Therefore, this declaration is part of the ordinary Magisterium of Pope Francis and part of his teaching office. As Donum Veritatis explains:
The Roman Pontiff fulfills his universal mission with the help of the various bodies of the Roman Curia and in particular with that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in matters of doctrine and morals. Consequently, the documents issued by this Congregation expressly approved by the Pope participate in the ordinary Magisterium of the successor of Peter. (DV 18)
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The DDF issued this document and it has Pope Francis’s signature on it. Additionally, with regard to Müller’s letter, Donum Veritatis speaks about how a theologian should go about raising concerns and what not to do.
In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the “mass media”, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth. (DV 30)
With that in mind, let’s look at Cardinal Müller’s claims in more detail. Müller appears to have three major contentions with Fiducia Supplicans. He claims that the blessings are novel and have no precedent, homosexual unions are what is actually being blessed, and that the document itself is self-contradictory. Let’s look at Müller’s first claim:
A first observation is that there is no basis for this new usage in the biblical texts cited by FS nor in any previous statement of the Magisterium. Nor do the texts offered by Pope Francis provide a basis for this new type of blessing. For already the blessing according to the Roman Ritual (type “b”) allows a priest to bless someone who lives in sin.
In one sense, Cardinal Müller is correct. The blessings are new and have not been done before. But that is precisely why the document was issued. If the blessings weren’t an innovation, then there would be no need for the declaration. Fiducia Supplicans is pretty clear about this in its opening presentation. As far as “doctrinal leaps” are concerned, there is no precise set pace for which doctrine develops. Pope Francis has “full, supreme, and universal” power over the Church and can broaden the category of who gets blessed as he sees fit (CCC 882). With regard to precedent, Fiducia Supplicans lays out plenty of scriptural precedent for all kinds of blessings (see FS 14-19).
Secondly, Müller says that there already exists a liturgical blessing for those living in sin so there is no need for the document. However, Müller himself is partially responsible for the document being issued because he is someone who has repeatedly asked for clarification and has endorsed the dubia of “The Five.” In his response, Pope Francis left open the question of “whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” This suggested the possibility that couples living in irregular or same-sex relationships might possibly present themselves for a spontaneous blessing and be called to live a holier life. The declaration answered this question. Fiducia Supplicans makes abundantly clear the reason for the clarifications.
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. To meet the latter reaction with fraternal charity, it seems opportune to take up the theme again and offer a vision that draws together the doctrinal aspects with the pastoral ones in a coherent manner because ‘all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love, and witness’. (FS 3)
With regard to Müller’s claim that what is actually being blessed is the homosexual union, Fiducia Supplicans has this to say about the matter. “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” (FS 5). Müller claimed that since a couple was being blessed and the union itself was what made them a couple, then it must follow that the union is what is blessed. Let’s apply this logic to a heterosexual couple. If an unmarried man and a woman who are cohabiting presented themselves to a priest for a spontaneous blessing, would the priest have to deny them? After all, they are a couple and the thing that makes them a couple is their sinful relationship. Using Müller’s logic, the priest in the above scenario would have to deny them a blessing. But this is certainly not the norm in the Church, given the number of engaged couples today who are cohabitating and preparing with a priest or deacon for marriage in the Church.
Finally, Müller claims that Fiducia Supplicans is self-contradictory. “It follows that as long as Pope Francis continues to affirm that homosexual unions are always contrary to God’s law, he is implicitly affirming that such blessings cannot be given. The teaching of Fiducia Supplicans is therefore self-contradictory and thus requires further clarification.” Once again, as we have demonstrated, what is being blessed is not the union or the sin, but the persons. Fiducia Supplicans is very consistent and abundantly clear that marriage is between one man and one woman and that people who are involved in a same-sex relationship can be blessed. There is no contradiction in Fiducia Supplicans:
It is a matter of avoiding that ‘something that is not marriage is being recognized as marriage.’ Therefore, 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.’ (FS 4)
Cardinal Müller certainly has the right to raise concerns and ask clarifying questions. It is important to respect him and his status in the Church. What His Eminence cannot do, however, is send out letters in a pressure campaign to the media to sway public opinion, nor can he accuse a magisterial document of promoting sinful blessings. This is just the most recent of stunts in a pattern of behavior from Müller (attacking Cardinal Fernández’s dubia responses during the Synod and calling the Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines for Amoris Laetitia a “rupture” with Church teaching) who seems either does not understand the clarifications that Pope Francis has offered or is being deliberately obtuse. Giving him the judgment of charity and due reverence to his office, we must assume the former. However, His Eminence’s actions themselves are promoting public dissent and confusing the faithful and these actions should cease at once.
It is important to remember that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. What is at the heart of this controversy is who can have blessings and who cannot. Fiducia Supplicans settles this debate and makes clear that blessings are for everyone who present themselves at the feet of Christ, begging for mercy.
God never turns away anyone who approaches him! Ultimately, a blessing offers people a means to increase their trust in God. The request for a blessing, thus, expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live. It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered. (FS 33)
Jake Hardin is a psychology graduate of Oklahoma State University who has worked in Catholic media as a video editor, op-ed writer, and social media manager. He is a cradle Catholic and attends the TLM.