On December 18, 2023, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) issued a Declaration on the pastoral meaning of blessings, Fiducia Supplicans, which included statements about the possibility of offering pastoral blessings to couples in irregular situations, including same-sex couples. Anyone even remotely attentive to social media or Catholic online news outlets is aware that there was immediate, widespread, and ongoing criticism of the document among Catholic commentators. Charges ranged from suspicions of heresy to imprudence to ambiguity. In response, other Catholics mounted strong defenses of the document, either by way of merely pointing out its technical orthodoxy or by way of expressing positive appreciation and support for the declaration. Some pundits more modestly sought simply to explain the document on its own terms, clarifying what it was saying or—perhaps more importantly—what it was not saying. Conversations about the text were often accompanied by very strong emotions, leading to embittered, heated conflicts.
Additionally, bishops and bishops’ conferences weighed in. Some, such as Cardinal Oswald Gracias, bishop of Mumbai in India, welcomed the document. He reportedly stated that the document “is a ‘natural’ for his country, calling it ‘an affirmation of our spirituality and a gift.’” Other prelates indicated that they would not be implementing the blessings allowed by the declaration. Simon Caldwell reports that “bishops in such countries as Ukraine, Brazil, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, Cameroon, Malawi, Nigeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sao Tome and Principe, and Kazakhstan [are] openly refusing to allow the blessings of same-sex couples in their dioceses.”
The declaration itself had stated that “no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type,” because it deemed itself “sufficient to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard” (§41). However, due to the public uproar and the hesitancy of some bishops to implement the document, the DDF decided to respond via a press release concerning the reception of Fiducia Supplicans on January 4, 2024. Here, a summary of some of the main points from that press release is offered.
After a single-sentence introduction, the press release consists of six sections, totaling about 2,100 words, less than half the length of Fiducia Supplicans itself. The first line of the first section, on “Doctrine,” reads: “The understandable statements of some Episcopal Conferences regarding the document Fiducia supplicans have the value of highlighting the need for a more extended period of pastoral reflection.” It interprets the decision not to implement the blessing of same-sex couples in those dioceses as based on reasons other than doctrinal opposition, reiterating—via quotes from the declaration—that the doctrine expressed therein “is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality” and completely in line with Church tradition. Rather, it sees their hesitancy as rooted in practical reasons (see Section 2, “Practical reception”).
Along these lines, the DDF recognizes that different cultural and legal contexts call for divergent prudential decisions regarding implementation (see Section 3, “The delicate situation of some countries”). “If there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself as a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent” (ibid.). Even outside of such extreme circumstances, there is room for variety in the administration of such blessings, following the “discernment of each diocesan Bishop with his Diocese” (Section 2). It offers an example to highlight the point: “Some bishops . . . have established that each priest must carry out the work of discernment and that he may, however, perform these blessings only in private” (ibid.). Accordingly, “each local Bishop, by virtue of his own ministry, always has the power of discernment in loco, that is, in that concrete place that he knows better than others precisely because it is his own flock” (ibid.).
What is perhaps more unexpected is that this press release communicates new limitations on the blessings in question. “It remains clear, therefore, that the blessing must not take place within a prominent place within a sacred building, or in front of an altar, as this also would create confusion” (Section 5, “How do these ‘pastoral blessings’ present themselves in concrete terms?”). It reiterates and amplifies what the declaration said by stating that these pastoral blessings must be “very short,” perhaps lasting “about 10 or 15 seconds” (ibid.).
Furthermore, the press release rejects the idea that the declaration changed anything regarding the Church’s stance on homosexual behavior or the illicitness of other extramarital sexual relationships. Rather, it affirms that “non-ritualized blessings are not a consecration of the person nor of the couple who receives them, they are not a justification of all their actions, and they are not an endorsement of the life that they lead” (Section 4, “The real novelty of the document”). It claims that the blessings are “of couples in irregular situations (but not of their unions)” and “neither approve nor justify the situation in which these people find themselves” (Section 2). Instead, when offering such a blessing, “one asks that they may live the Gospel of Christ in full fidelity and so that the Holy Spirit can free these two people from everything that does not correspond to his divine will and from everything that requires purification” (Section 5).
The press release even offers a sort of template that a priest could model such blessings after, using the example of divorcees in new unions, but applicable to same-sex couples as well: “‘Lord, look at these children of yours, grant them health, work, peace and mutual help. Free them from everything that contradicts your Gospel and allow them to live according to your will. Amen.’ Then it concludes with the sign of the cross on each of the two persons” (ibid.).
While I think it is fair to say that most people saw the blessing of same-sex couples as the innovative dimension of the declaration, this press release argues otherwise. As Luke Coppen relates: “The fourth section argues that the real novelty of the document is ‘not the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations.’ It is, rather, ‘the invitation to distinguish between two different forms of blessings: “liturgical or ritualized” and “spontaneous or pastoral.”’”
Importantly, this claim is tied to the type of document that Fiducia Supplicans is. Declarations are the highest level of document the DDF can issue. The last time the (then) CDF issued a declaration was in the year 2000, with Dominus Iesus. Thus, such documents are rare, indeed. The press release states that the decision to issue Fiducia Supplicans as a declaration had nothing to do with the issue of couples in irregular unions being blessed (see Section 4). Rather, “in the background is found the positive evaluation of ‘popular pastoral care’ which appears in many of the Holy Father’s texts. In this context, the Holy Father invites us to value the simple faith of the People of God who, even in the midst of their sins, emerge from their everyday lives and open their hearts to ask for God’s help. For this reason, rather than the blessing of couples in irregular unions, the text of the Dicastery has adopted the other profile of a ‘Declaration,’ which is much more than a responsum or a letter” (Section 4). According to this clarification, then, it is one of the least contested aspect of the document—rather than the most contested—that is responsible for its highest form of promulgation.