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Pope under pressure over Fiducia Supplicans after Orthodox Churches break off dialogue

15 March 2024

Doctrinal declaration allows Roman Catholic clergy to bless same-sex couples


Pope Francis on a visit to the church of St Pius V in Rome last Friday for a Lenten prayer and reconciliation initiative

Pope Francis on a visit to the church of St Pius V in Rome last Friday for a Lenten prayer and reconciliation initiative

PRESSURE is growing on Pope Francis to rethink a doctrinal declaration, Fiducia Supplicans, allowing Roman Catholic clergy to bless same-sex couples (News, 22 December 2023, 5 January), after the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East responded by halting its dialogue with the Vatican.

“We affirm our firm rejection of all homosexual relationships, because they violate the Holy Bible and God’s law in creating mankind as male and female — we consider any blessing of such relations, whatever its type, to be a blessing for sin,” the Coptic Orthodox Church’s governing Holy Synod, chaired by Pope Tawadros II, said in a statement released last week.

“After consulting with sister-Churches of the Eastern Orthodox family, it was decided to suspend theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, re-evaluate the results achieved by this dialogue from its beginning 20 years ago, and establish new standards and mechanisms for the dialogue to proceed in future.”

The statement follows growing controversy over Fiducia Supplicans, published in December by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by its Argentinian Prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández. It says that RC priests were now permitted to give blessings “outside of a liturgical framework” to same-sex couples, without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage”.

Addressing dicastery staff in late January, Pope Francis said that “pastoral and spontaneous blessings” did not “require moral perfection”, but were intended to express “the closeness of the Lord and Church” to those living “in different situations”.

The opening to blessings has been criticised, however, by prominent church leaders, and rejected by numerous Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conferences and individual dioceses worldwide.

In a February statement, the Russian Orthodox Church said that it had also concluded that the Vatican declaration “reflected a sharp departure from Christian moral teaching”, while the Greek Orthodox Church “categorically rejected” a mid-February parliamentary vote to allow same-sex marriages, and is also studying the Rome text.

In a video message at the weekend, the Coptic Church’s spokesman, Fr Moussa Ibrahim, said that the RC Church’s latest “change of position on homosexuality” had required the suspension of links.

An accompanying synod statement said that those choosing to “reconcile with their homosexual tendencies and let themselves go with homosexual acts, rejecting spiritual and psychological treatment”, should be “warned and cut off from communion until they repent”.

“The Coptic Orthodox Church rejects sexual perversion and all types of sexual practices outside the sacred framework of marriage — it categorically rejects invoking cultural differences to justify same-sex relations,” said the Synod’s 133 members, whose Church dates from a first-century mission by St Mark, and makes up one tenth of Egypt’s population of 114 million.

An international joint commission was set up in 1973 after a historic Rome meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Coptic leader, Shenouda III, and was widely seen as heralding ecumenical advances with other Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Pope Francis established an annual Day of Catholic-Coptic Friendship after his first meeting with Pope Tawadros in May 2013 (News, 17 May 2013), and also signed declarations with Coptic and Muslim leaders during a visit to Egypt in April 2017 (News, 28 April 2017).

In an address to theologians this January, the Pope also paid tribute to the “incredible richness” of dialogue between the “Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Malankara, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Latin Church traditions”.

The first Feast of Coptic Martyrs, commemorating 21 Christians beheaded by Islamic State terrorists on a Libyan beach in 2015, was celebrated on 16 February by the Vatican, which added the murdered Copts to the RC Church’s official list of saints in 2023.

A senior member of the Egyptian 272,000-member Coptic Catholic Church said that he nevertheless believed that the Pope and the Vatican had “misjudged the timing” of the Fiducia Supplicans declaration, which Orthodox or Muslim leaders had not been consulted over, and was widely seen as “just satisfying Churches in the West”.

His own Church, which has 14 dioceses in Egypt, had also refused to accept same-sex blessings, and, he said, that other historic Orthodox Churches looked set to break off dialogue after “insisting only Orthodox traditions are truly righteous”.

“No one here can really understand why the Pope has done this — being in an Islamic environment, we also have to be very cautious, since homosexual acts are forbidden here,” the Revd Rafic Greiche, editor of Egypt’s Catholic Hamil al-Risalah weekly, and a former Catholic spokesman on relations with the Coptic Church, told the Church Times.

“The explanations provided later for this declaration have merely compounded the harm already done. I think the Pope and Vatican should now find the courage to withdraw it.”

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