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Episcopate gives Rome a rough ride over Fiducia Supplicans declaration

05 January 2024

DDF document on same-sex blessings openly criticised

Alamy

The Pope gives a blessing at the end of his weekly general audience at the Vatican, on Wednesday

The Pope gives a blessing at the end of his weekly general audience at the Vatican, on Wednesday

LATIN and Eastern Rite bishops around the world have given a mixed reception to Fiducia Supplicans, a pre-Christmas Vatican Declaration that conditionally allows priests for the first time to bless same-sex couples (News, 22/29 December 2023).

“This statement does not change the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality,” the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference said in a brief note last weekend.

“We can bless everyone individually, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. But we must always avoid giving a common blessing for couples living together in a marriage not valid in the Church or a same-sex partnership.”

The note is the first in Europe to signal unhappiness with the Declaration by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Doctrine of the Faith, which was approved by Pope Francis and published on 18 December.

Bishops in neighbouring Ukraine said that the “possibility of blessing same-sex couples” had been widely “perceived as permission to sin”, and had caused “a storm of reaction and misunderstanding regarding questions of morality in the Catholic Church”.

The distinction between “merciful acceptance of the person” and “express disapproval of the sin” had not been clearly visible in the Declaration, which appeared to approve “the sinful life of homosexual couples”, they said.

In Britain, however, Fiducia Supplicans has been welcomed as a sign that the Church was “a loving mother”, in a statement by the Archbishop of Cardiff, the Most Revd Mark O’Toole. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, told priests in a pre-Christmas letter to give blessings to those wishing “to approach God in search of grace and mercy”, even if their “patterns and associations in life are outside the clear and consistent norms of Church teaching”.

The Vatican Declaration has been criticised by Britain’s 500-member traditionalist Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, which says that it will “confuse the faithful” and “inevitably lead to scandal”.

It was lauded as a “historic and hopeful initiative”, however, by the Association of Catholic Priests, in Ireland, which predicted that it would bring “if not a new dawn, at least a new approach, a new impulse and a new freedom to the search for a more sensitive and humane response to urgent pastoral needs”.

In the United States, a brief statement by the Catholic Conference of Bishops said that Fiducia Supplicans had not changed the Church’s teaching on marriage, but sought “to accompany people through the imparting of pastoral blessings because each of us needs God’s healing love and mercy”.

The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, has praised the document for helping “many more in our community to feel God’s closeness and compassion”; the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, thanked the Vatican for recognising that “all Catholics, including those whose unions are not recognised by the Church, equally need the grace and love of God.”

The 5600-word Declaration “On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings” says that RC clergy may bless same-sex couples without requiring a prior “exhaustive moral analysis”, provided that the act does not resemble a wedding or imply that “something that is not marriage is being recognised as marriage”.

It says that those living in sinful “irregular unions” should not be deprived of God’s love and mercy, and can obtain blessings “outside of a liturgical framework”, without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage”.

The document quotes the Pope’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the need to shun “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism”, based on “inspecting and verifying”, and says that requests for same-sex blessings, while not becoming the norm, should be considered, case by case, with “practical discernment”.

Interviewed this week by Germany’s Catholic weekly Die Tagespost, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, acknowledged that Fiducia Supplicans had not “offered the answer people would like to have in some countries”, but said that he believed that the document provided a “pastoral response which everyone could accept, albeit with difficulty”.

The Declaration has been welcomed as “clear in content and intent” by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, President of the Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, and praised by the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a member of the Pope’s Advisory Council, who told the American online agency Crux that it suited the “Indian mentality”, which was “inclusive and understanding of people of other religions and beliefs”.

In Latin America, the President of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Jaime Spengler, told Porto Alegre’s Rádio Gaúcha that the Vatican Declaration would encourage church leaders to “think and seek solutions in a more radical, constructive way”, and warned against an “an exacerbated moralism” that “leads to nothing and merely excludes”.

In Uruguay, however, the Archbishop of Montevideo, Cardinal Daniel Sturla, told his country’s El Pais daily that his own clergy would not abide by Fiducia Supplicans, since it contradicted a papal-approved statement from February 2021, signed by the DDF’s previous Prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, which firmly ruled out the blessing of same-sex unions.

The Congolese President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, another close papal adviser, has called on his Continent’s bishops to submit proposals by mid-January for a “single synodal pronouncement” on the Declaration, which would “provide unequivocal clarity” and “offer definitive guidance”.

Individual bishops and archbishops from around Africa, however, have already instructed priests not to implement the Declaration.

Although the Kenyan Bishops’ Conference approved Fiducia Supplicans in a statement on 20 December, the Archbishop of Nairobi, the Most Revd Philip Anyolo, told his clergy three days later that they were “prohibited from blessing irregular relationships, unions or same-sex couples”. Any such acts, he said, would “go against God’s word, the teachings of the Church, African cultural traditions, and the laws of our nations”.

In a message last weekend, the Bishops’ Conference of Ivory Coast said that the Vatican Declaration was proving “problematic in our ecclesial context” by giving “the impression that the Church approves and encourages a reality that is intrinsically evil, unnatural and contrary to our customs and habits”.

In a pre-Christmas statement, the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference similarly cautioned against misinterpretations of Fiducia Supplicans, and said that permitting same-sex blessings “would go against God’s law, the teachings of the Church, the laws of our nation and our people’s cultural sensibilities”.

The Declaration brings the worldwide RC Church closer to the position on same-sex relationships of some Anglican and Protestant denominations, including the Church of England, whose General Synod narrowly voted in November to allow dedicated church services to bless the weddings of same-sex couples (News, 24 November 2023).

It follows other heavily criticised moves towards pastoral liberalisation under Pope Francis, now 87, who celebrated his tenth anniversary as pope last March.

In Germany, the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, welcomed Fiducia Supplicans as “pointing up the pastoral importance of a blessing that cannot be refused upon personal request”, while his Austrian counterpart, Archbishop Franz Lackner, of Salburg, told the public broadcasting network Österreichischer Rundfunk that priests “can no longer say no” when asked by any couple for a blessing.

Another former Vatican Prefect, German Cardinal Müller, rejected the Declaration on 21 December, however, branding it a “sacrilegious and blasphemous act against the Creator’s plan”, which “directly contradicted” previous Vatican guidance and was “not based on any church doctrine, biblical teaching, writings by church Fathers or Doctors of the Church”.

In Poland, the spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference, the Revd Leszek Gesiak, said in a statement that the DDF’s previous February 2021 declaration had clearly stated that the Church did not have the authority to bless same-sex unions. Fiducia Supplicans was “not about the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, but rather about the correct understanding of the word blessing”, he said.

Several Orthodox leaders, including Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), formerly the Russian Orthodox Church’s Foreign Minister and now Metropolitan of Budapest, have also strongly criticised Fiducia Supplicans, while the Primate of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, said in a statement last week that the Declaration would not apply to the world’s 23 autonomous Eastern Rite Catholic confessions, which followed separate canonical rules.

In one of the strongest RC reactions, Archbishop Tomasz Peta of Kazakhstan’s Astana diocese, said that Pope Francis had disregarded “truth of the gospel” and should revoke the blessing permit, which “most seriously abused the Holy Name of God” and embodied a “great deception and evil”.

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