Ambiguity of ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ Makes Way for Multiplying Misinterpretations

COMMENTARY: The new declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith ensures that no one knows what exactly is being blessed, as it expressly forbids any ritual text that might specify it.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, poses for a photo, Sept. 30, 2023, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, poses for a photo, Sept. 30, 2023, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (photo: Riccardo De Luca / AP )

In the “declaration” Fiducia Supplicans from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), the prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, has exceeded even his own innovative capacities by endorsing “pastoral blessings” for couples, including those of the same sex, in extramarital conjugal unions.

John Bursch in these pages quickly insisted that “anyone who claims that the Vatican’s document authorizes blessings of same-sex unions has not read it or is intentionally misinterpreting it.” 

The U.S. bishops’ statement may agree with that position, but spoke at such a level of generality as to be meaningless, except to say that Church teaching on marriage had not changed. The Canadian bishops were much more clear:

While explicitly affirming the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage, Fiducia Supplicans allows pastors to bless people who freely request a blessing, seeking divine help to live in fidelity to God’s will.  The Declaration makes clear that such blessings must be directed to the persons themselves rather than their situation and that they must be spontaneously requested and are not ritual or liturgical actions.


Multiplying Misinterpretations 

Perhaps Bursch is right, taking Cardinal Fernández at his word about what he intended to do. Yet within 36 hours of publication, there was a story, complete with photograph, in The New York Times, of Jesuit Father James Martin — a longtime advocate of changing Church teaching on homosexuality — blessing a same-sex couple and making very clear his understanding that Pope Francis had given him permission and encouragement to do so.

Father Martin also tweeted the day the document dropped: “My take on the historic Vatican declaration on same-sex blessings. ‘As a priest I look forward to blessing same-sex couples, sharing with them the graces that God desires for everyone, something I’ve waited years to do.’”

Jason Steidl Jack, one half of the same-sex couple Father Martin blessed, wrote for Outreach, “an LGBTQ Catholic resource” of which Father Martin is editor: “Blessings for same-sex unions are powerful signs that same-sex couples share in the same channels of grace that all people enjoy.”  

If Father Martin is guilty of “intentionally misinterpreting” Fiducia Supplicans, might we expect Cardinal Fernández to express his dismay in a manner commensurate to prominent coverage in The New York Times? Will Father Martin, whose ministry is ostentatiously supported by Pope Francis, be instructed that he made a mistake?

To the contrary, is it instead possible that Fiducia Supplicans is intended to be “misinterpreted” in precisely the way that Father Martin did? 

Father Martin is not alone. Given the wide array of reactions from around the world, it would seem that “misinterpretations” are multiplying. Several leading European bishops are eager to have same-sex unions blessed in their dioceses and have welcomed Fiducia Supplicans as precisely authorizing just that.

If a document is that quickly and widely “misinterpreted,” then it is not unreasonable to ask whether that may have been the point. The alternative explanation is that it was incompetently written, and Cardinal Fernández is not incompetent.


Trusting in Fiducia?

It’s not a happy thought to think that a declaration from the DDF is mischievously constructed but we are in unhappy times. The last declaration from the DDF was the Great Jubilee document Dominus Iesus on the unique identity and mission of Jesus Christ. The Church’s attention is now on lesser things. The theological depth of Fiducia Supplicans meets that low bar.

That, just days before Christmas, the Vatican would turn its attention to how to bless cohabiting couples, or adulterous couples, or polygamous “couples,” or same-sex couples, is curious. Less curious perhaps is that the bombshell news of Monday effectively drove out any further coverages of the criminal verdicts on Vatican financial corruption that were handed down on Saturday.

The history of Cardinal Fernández, a close collaborator of Pope Francis in Buenos Aires — appointed the second-most senior prelate in Argentina two months after the Holy Father’s election in 2013 — is relevant. The principal drafter of the major documents of Pope Francis, he was made prefect of doctrine earlier this year.

When drafting Amoris Laetitia in 2015, then-Archbishop Fernández had a tricky problem: If a Catholic living in a conjugal union with someone other than his valid spouse — perhaps after a divorce and civil remarriage — was to be admitted to Holy Communion, a new moral state would have to be envisioned: The person or couple would know something to be gravely sinful and freely chose to persist in it, but at the same time be subjectively not culpable of grave sin. The subjective psychological experience would create a different moral category. The tricky bit was that Pope St. John Paul II had ruled that position inconsistent with the truth about moral acts in Veritatis Splendor, his 1993 encyclical on moral theology. 

Archbishop Fernández fashioned a remedy, which became the text Pope Francis issued. The matter would be buried in an ambiguous footnote and left to ecclesial activists to carry forward on their own, with papal encouragement but not approval. As for Veritatis Splendor, the Holy Father and Fernández pretended it did not exist. One of the longest papal documents ever issued, with more than 400 footnotes, Amoris Laetitia included not a single reference to Veritatis Splendor.

Thus, Amoris Laetitia gave the Church the novel ambiguity that what is a sacrament in Germany is a mortal sin in Poland (receiving Holy Communion in extramarital conjugal union).


Applying Amoris’ Ambiguity

Fiducia Supplicans attempts to do the same thing with blessings that Amoris Laetitia did with Holy Communion, to move away from the objective status of the relationship to the subjective evaluation of their relationship. 

That should be easier, except that the challenge for Cardinal Fernández was not to get around what St. John Paul II taught in 1993, but what Pope Francis himself said in 2021. The Pope approved then a DDF teaching that same-sex unions may in no manner be blessed because the Church cannot ask God to “bless sin.” 

In 2021, the DDF taught the following:

“It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage . . . as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements . . . cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing.”

Now, Pope Francis has approved another DDF text that teaches the opposite. Cardinal Fernández thus takes refuge in the ambiguity of blessings.

Fiducia Supplicans is Cardinal Fernández in full flight. It’s long, some 5,000 words covering a range of interesting but not directly relevant topics, just as Amoris Laetitia slogged through seven chapters before getting down to the matter at hand. Cardinal Fernández writes of “ascending” and “descending” blessings, includes a few biting passages telling priests not to be nasty, and presents a veritable parade of lace-clad straw-clerics who allegedly subject passersby who ask for a blessing to a scrutiny worthy of the Grand Inquisitor. 

All of that to settle on the point, fairly summarized by the Canadian bishops, that persons can be blessed without blessing their relationships or behavior. Priests, after all, bless little boys without blessing the mean things they do to their sisters, or bless baseball bats without blessing the intent to clobber someone with them. Thus, if anyone asks for a blessing as a sign of God’s closeness, they generally get it, no questions asked. 

All of that, though, is so unremarkable that it raises the question why it would to be said at all, especially if it had just been said in 2021. Perhaps the lengthy disquisition was to obscure that something else is really being said. After all, Cardinal Fernández himself in Fiducia Supplicans says that he is offering something truly “innovative.” 


Innovations in Ambiguity

That innovation is this: Any “irregular” couple may ask for a blessing “spontaneously” as a couple. “Irregularity” here means a conjugal couple that is not in a valid marriage, which would include a cohabiting couple, a fornicating couple who do not live together, a same-sex couple, an adulterous couple, polygamous “couples,” and presumably even an incestuous couple.

They may then be blessed as a couple, without any simulation of marriage. The blessing, which is not to have any prescribed ritual, would then bless those good things in the relationship — mutual solidarity, orderly housekeeping, sparkling conversation — but not the sinful aspects. Cardinal Fernández considers these blessings to be “pastoral” and to be encouraged, rather than “liturgical,” which remain forbidden as an attempt to bless sin. 

That can be confusing. It’s a bit like the different doctrines of the Eucharist in some Protestant denominations. The minister may not believe in the Real Presence, while the congregant does, so at Holy Communion the trusting supplicant is receiving in his mind something the minister does not believe he is giving. If you are not too bothered about the splendor of the veritas, it’s a convenient solution. 

How might this work in practice, apart from the apartment of Father Martin? A young man might ask a priest to bless him and his live-in girlfriend, hoping that he can finally get his grandmother off his back about “living in sin.” After all, if the priest blesses them as a couple, it can’t be sinful, can it? The Church wouldn’t bless sin, would it, Grandma?

The priest, having studied the 5,000 words of Fiducia Supplicans, offers the blessing, knowing that that the young couple is genially garrulous and that aspect of the relationship is what is being blessed. 

Fiducia Supplicans ensures that no one knows what exactly is being blessed, as it expressly forbids any ritual text that might specify it. The priest intends to bless their shared banter; the couple understands it as a blessing on their shared bed.

Some pointed reactions want nothing to do with that apparent contrivance. Larry Chapp, whose work has appeared in the Register, calls Fiducia Supplicans a “disaster” which “undercuts” the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Over at First Things, Dan Hitchens, quondam editor of The Catholic Herald¸ described Fiducia Supplicans as a pontificate “collapsed in on itself” like a “black hole” from “where the light of reason cannot penetrate.”

Back to Father Martin, who is to Pope Francis what Father Richard John Neuhaus was to St. John Paul II, the trusted American interpreter of the pontificate. 

On Monday evening, just hours after Fiducia Supplicans was released, saying that priests could grant blessings if they were spontaneously or freely requested, Father Martin took the initiative. He texted a same-sex couple he knew to receive a blessing and rang up The New York Times. The next morning, they and the newspaper photographer were in Father Martin’s apartment for the blessing. The following day it was all published, including another photo of the couple “on their wedding day at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village in 2002.” Fiducia Supplicans directly instructs that blessings are not to be given with a connection to any civil ceremony. 

What might be expected if Cardinal Fernández uses his Amoris Laetitia template for Fiducia Supplicans? Father Martin may write a private letter to the Holy Father explaining how he is blessing “same-sex unions.” Pope Francis may write back a private letter commending Father Martin. The letters will then be published, either leaked in Rome or in New York, or both. 

Then Pope Francis, in an audience with Cardinal Fernández, may retroactively raise that epistolary exchange to the status of a magisterial apostolic letter. That was the Buenos Aires solution that Cardinal Fernández arranged for Amoris Laetitia when he was still the archbishop of La Plata

That took months when Cardinal Fernández was overseas. In Rome it could be done in a few days or weeks, perhaps for the feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 31) or the Holy Espousals of Mary and Joseph (Jan. 23), both good feast days to insist that the teaching on marriage has not changed.