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DDF dismisses criticism of Declaration on same-sex blessings and advises hierarchy to study and implement it carefully

09 January 2024


Members of the Swiss Guards watch Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Wednesday

Members of the Swiss Guards watch Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Wednesday

THE Vatican has insisted that Roman Catholic bishops must eventually allow their clergy to bless same-sex couples, despite top-level criticism of a pre-Christmas Declaration, Fiducia Supplicans, conditionally approving the practice (News, 22/29 December 2023, 5 January).

“Prudence and attention to the ecclesial context and to local culture could allow for different methods of application, but not a total or definitive denial,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) says in a press release, dated 4 January.

“Some bishops have established that each priest must carry out the work of discernment and may perform these blessings only in private — none of this is problematic if it is expressed with due respect for a text signed and approved by the Supreme Pontiff.”

The press release seeks to “clarify the reception” of Fiducia Supplicans, published on 18 December, which declares that RC priests are permitted to give “non-liturgical blessings” to same-sex couples.

The press release says that the 5600-word Declaration remains firm on the Church’s “traditional doctrine about marriage” as the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman”, and on the impossibility of conferring liturgical blessings or “moral legitimacy” to any “extra-marital sexual practice”.

It goes on to say, however, that bishops’ conferences need an “extended period of pastoral reflection” on the Declaration, as well as a “full and calm reading” to grasp its “meaning and purpose”.

“What is expressed by these Episcopal Conferences cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition, because the document is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality,” the press release, signed by the Prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, says. “There is no room to distance ourselves doctrinally from this Declaration — or to consider it heretical, contrary to Church tradition or blasphemous.”

Subtitled On the pastoral meaning of blessings, Fiducia Supplicans says that RC clergy may bless same-sex couples without requiring a prior “exhaustive moral analysis”, provided the act does not resemble a wedding or imply that a marriage has taken place.

It stipulates that those living in “irregular unions” should not be deprived of God’s love and mercy, and that blessing of these individuals is permitted “outside of a liturgical framework”, without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage”.

Although the document was welcomed by many bishops’ conferences in Europe and the United States, some prelates have urged Rome to go further and stop defining homosexual acts as sinful, whereas others, especially in Africa and Asia, have distanced themselves from the Declaration.

AlamyThe Prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández

RC Conferences in Malawi and Zambia became the latest to forbid priests from acting on Fiducia Supplicans, while the the President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, the Congolese Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, a close papal adviser, has called for a “single synodal pronouncement” offering “definitive guidance” for the Church throughout his continent.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, of Guinea, a former Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, said in an Epiphany message last weekend that Christmas had been “troubled and darkened” by “confusion and division” over same-sex unions, which had been amplified by the Declaration’s “lack of clarity” and openness to manipulation.

He said that the document’s claims should be answered “with the Word of God, the Magisterium and traditional Church teaching”, and should avoid “vain quibbles about the meaning of the word blessing”. He said that he was grateful to African bishops who had “done the work of truth” by firmly opposing it.

“We must encourage other national or regional Episcopal Conferences to do the same — we are not opposing Pope Francis, but firmly and radically opposing a heresy contrary to Catholic faith and tradition, which seriously undermines the Church,” Cardinal Sarah said.

“As the voice of the poor, the simple, and the small, the Church of Africa is responsible for proclaiming the Word of God to Western Christians who, because they are rich and well endowed in philosophy, theology, biblical and canonical sciences, believe themselves to be modern, wise and evolved.”

In its press release, the Vatican Dicastery said that Fiducia Supplicans had proposed “short and simple pastoral blessings (neither liturgical nor ritualised) for couples in irregular situations (but not of their unions)”, which would “neither approve nor justify the situation in which these people find themselves”.

While bishops should not go against the Declaration, the release continues, the time needed for applying it depends on local contexts and episcopal discernment, while a “rushed response” should be avoided in countries that “to varying degrees condemn, prohibit and criminalise homosexuality”.

“In several countries, there are strong cultural and even legal issues that require time and pastoral strategies that go beyond the short term,” the release says.

“If there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent — it is clear that the bishops do not wish to expose homosexual persons to violence.”

The press release says that Fiducia Supplicans had achieved a “real novelty” in distinguishing between “liturgical or ritualised” and “spontaneous or pastoral” forms of blessing, which require “an effort to reflect serenely, with the heart of shepherds, free from all ideology”.

It says that same-sex couples could be offered a prayer for “health, work, peace and mutual help”, and for freedom “from everything that contradicts the Gospel”, but says that the blessing should not take place prominently “within a sacred building or in front of an altar”, or appear “to justify anything that is not morally acceptable”.

“To be clearly distinguished from liturgical or ritualised blessings, ‘pastoral blessings’ must above all be very short, lasting a few seconds, without an approved ritual or a book of blessings,” the press release continues.

“Does it make sense to deny these kinds of blessings to people who ask for them? Is it not more appropriate to support their faith, whether small or great, to assist them in their weaknesses with a divine blessing, and to channel that openness to transcendence which could lead them to be more faithful to the Gospel? . . . If a priest gives this type of simple blessing, he is not being a heretic, ratifying anything or denying Catholic doctrine.”

Critics have warned, however, that both the press release and the Declaration are likely to compound confusion across parts of the Church. Many have complained that the Vatican initiative came just before Christmas, without consultation or forewarning, and should have been left to next October’s planned General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Media pictures have already appeared of RC priests, wearing vestments, blessing same-sex couples in churches in Germany and the United States.

Preaching on the feast of the Epiphany in St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope urged Roman Catholics to “let go of ecclesiastical ideologies” and “discover the meaning of Holy Mother Church”, while also avoiding “splitting into groups” based on their own “ideas and projects”.

A parish priest from Italy’s Livorno diocese was declared excommunicated by his bishop last week for describing the Pope in a sermon as “a Jesuit mason tied to a group of globalists and an anti-pope usurper”.

Interviewed this week by the English-language paper Times of Malta, the DDF’s Maltese Adjunct Secretary, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, called on the Church to revise its rules and allow priests the option of marrying.

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