There is sad irony to the fact that a declaration which repeatedly calls for its directives to be implemented in a way that avoids “scandal and confusion”[i] has, itself, been surrounded by much confusion and—at least in the eyes of some—the visage of scandal. Part of the confusion lies in the inherent ambiguity of words that bear a variety of connotations. When people read a news article headline declaring that “Pope Francis approves the blessing of same-sex couples,” it is rather easy to get a false impression about what has actually happened.
The word “blessing” can mean different things. What the document describes as “ascending”[ii] blessings are when humans give praise to God. But we certainly do not bless God in the same way that God blesses us. The latter is a “descending”[iii] blessing, wherein God gives us his grace. Additionally, there is the colloquial use of the term blessing, which means to give one’s approval. This is the sense of blessing used when parents give their blessing for their child to marry. Sometimes sense two and sense three can be combined. In the Rite of Holy Matrimony, for example, the priest or deacon may bless the union of the husband and wife by both giving the Church’s approval of their marriage bond and asking God to send forth his grace upon them to help them live out their commitments.
The present confusion stems from people thinking that the third meaning of blessing (approval) is either the primary meaning or is at least concomitantly implied alongside the “descending” meaning of the blessing of same-sex couples. This would amount to Pope Francis approving of romantic same-sex relationships and/or offering a descending blessing because such relationships are now condoned. That would, in fact, be contrary to the Catholic faith and therefore scandalous. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (§2284) and often involves giving others the impression that something that is sinful is not sinful.
As already mentioned, the DDF declaration “On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” Fiducia Supplicans, is aware of the possibility of scandal if blessings are given to same-sex couples in an improper way and explicitly says such scandal must be avoided. As one example, it insists, “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.”[iv]
Relatedly, the declaration is clear that the third meaning of blessing mentioned above—blessing of approval—is excluded from consideration. It states that when a “descending” blessing is requested by same-sex couples, the scenario where a blessing could be given is a situation in which those requesting it “do not claim a legitimation of their own status,” “recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help.”[v] Similarly, it says that such a blessing “does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything.”[vi] Reiterating this point further on, the document proclaims that “there is no intention to legitimize anything.”[vii] The document, then, is not approving of romantic same-sex relationships. In fact, the document states early on that “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.”[viii]
Here, I think, is another reason for the confusion: a distinction between blessing a same-sex couple and blessing their union. What does it mean to bless same-sex couples but not bless their unions? If you are blessing a couple, are you not blessing their union? In this case, no! And this is what is understandably difficult for people to immediately comprehend. It is not intuitively obvious that you can bless a couple without blessing or condoning their union.
So what kind of blessing are we even talking about, then? What is the purpose? The document describes the kind of blessing it has in mind: “These forms of blessing express a supplication that God may grant those aids that come from the impulses of his Spirit—what classical theology calls ‘actual grace’—so that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel, that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties, and that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love.”[x] The term actual grace is defined in the Catechism: “Actual graces . . . refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (§2000).
Actual grace, as distinct from sanctifying grace (which is habitual), is divine assistance given to help one do the right thing. Such a blessing, then, is bestowed upon those who recognize that they are struggling to do the right thing and are asking God for the grace to do the right thing. Thus, the declaration suggests that, “in a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have . . . God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.”[xi] Such a blessing asks for God’s “help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.”[xii]
So what does this all mean, in the end? Essentially, it means that the Church responds to the requests of people who are in objectively sinful and disordered situations (either same-sex relationships or other irregular situations, like those who are divorced and invalidly “remarried”) with a prayer that God may help them to overcome sin, to live holier lives, and even “to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and of truth.”[xiii] People in these situations may often know that their relationship is sinful but have a hard time understanding it or struggle to find the strength to rectify the situation. The document repeatedly mentions that the request is for those who approach with humility and who recognize their need for divine assistance in the face of their sinfulness and is not for those who are seeking legitimization of their sinful behavior. Similar blessings are given to those struggling with addiction who are seeking help in overcoming their addiction and not those seeking to justify it. In such cases, the fact that a person has an addiction is not being blessed or celebrated but the disordered circumstance is a relevant factor for the kind of blessing offered and for the purpose of a blessing conferred upon an addict. (Although, there are formal blessings for those struggling with addiction, which this document prohibits for same-sex couples. The blessings dealt with here are in response to spontaneous requests and so ritualized versions are not to be given.[xiv])
The legitimate worry that some Catholics have is that these nuanced explanations will not be evident in practice in all instances. There is concern that couples will ask for blessings without the proper dispositions envisioned and outlined in the document and/or that clergy may provide such blessings in a manner contrary to what the document actually says. In other words, the fear is that there will be abuses that give the impression that homosexual activity or irregular (same-sex or otherwise) relationships are themselves being condoned. To avoid this scandal, pastors and other clergy are going to have to ensure that what they are requesting from God is divine assistance to repent and be faithful to the Gospel. Any form of blessing that gives the scandalous impression that same-sex unions are licit is in direct violation of the DDF’s declaration. This fact needs to be made clear, otherwise scandal and confusion will abound against the explicit wishes of the Holy See.
[i] See Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith [henceforth, DDF], Fiducia Supplicans, declaration (Dec. 18, 2023), §§30 and 39.
[ii] See ibid., §§15, 17–18, 29, and 31.
[iii] See ibid., §§15, 17–18, and 30–31.
[iv] DDF, Fiducia Supplicans, §39.
[v] Ibid., §31.
[vi] Ibid., §34.
[vii] Ibid., §40.
[viii] Ibid., §5.
[ix] See Catechism of the Catholic Church §1750.
[x] DDF, Fiducia Supplicans, §31.
[xi] Ibid., §38.
[xii] Ibid., §40.
[xiii] Ibid., §30.
[xiv] See ibid., §38: “one should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation.”