Assessing ‘Fiducia Supplicans’: The First 100 Days

ANALYSIS: Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, called the document in a March 17 interview a form of ‘cultural colonization.’

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Vatican’s current doctrinal chief and principal drafter of ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’ is shown during the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, Oct. 9, 2023.
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Vatican’s current doctrinal chief and principal drafter of ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’ is shown during the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, Oct. 9, 2023. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY ­­— March 27 marks 100 days since the Vatican published Fiducia Supplicans, an instruction on blessings of persons in irregular unions. And while the controversy it stirred in the Church in the West has somewhat abated, opposition to the document and how it was implemented continues apace.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, who drafted a pan-African bishops’ statement in January rejecting “blessings for same sex couples in the African Churches,” has not relented in his criticisms, going so far as to say in a March 17 interview that the continent saw the document as a form of “cultural colonization.”

Meanwhile, a lay-led filial appeal launched on Feb. 2 that called on cardinals and bishops to ask Pope Francis to “urgently withdraw” the document and issue a “fraternal correction,” has been signed by more than 100 priests and more than 500 lay professionals. 

Among the signatories’ concerns was that such relationships would now appear “acceptable to God” and that the Catholic Church had “finally evolved, and now accepts homosexual unions and, more generally, extramarital unions.”

Approved by Pope Francis on Dec. 18, Fiducia Supplicans (Supplicating Trust) — On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings specifically allowed, for the first time, non-liturgical blessings of same-sex couples and others in “irregular relationships.” The Vatican described the document as an “innovative” step, broadening the meaning of blessings while at the same time remaining “firm” on the “traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage.”

It came just two years after the Vatican ruled that the Church did not have the power to give blessings to unions of persons of the same sex — a ruling the Vatican’s current doctrinal chief and principal drafter of Fiducia Supplicans, Cardinal Victor Fernández, called a “negative response” requiring a new document of “fraternal charity.” 

But Cardinal Fernández’s declaration immediately drew trenchant criticism from many of the faithful, most notably in Africa, parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia, who rejected any notion that a same-sex couple or those in “irregular” unions could be blessed by a priest as the document proposes (the document insists that it is not the union being blessed but the couple as individuals).

“Behind this declaration was a whole cultural problem,” Cardinal Ambongo told the French Catholic outlet KTO TV in his latest interview, adding that the African continent viewed it as “a kind of imperialism of the West but on the cultural level, that is to say the practices, which are considered normal in the West, were imposed on other peoples.” 

“I believe that explains the virulence of the reaction of Africa,” he said. In January he said the declaration had caused a “shockwave” in Africa.

In recent weeks, more of the Church’s ecumenical partners have made their opposition known. The ancient Coptic Orthodox Church March 9 suspended its 20-year dialogue with the Vatican on account of the document, following what it called the Catholic Church’s “change of position on the issue of homosexuality.” 

Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Serapion of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii explained in an interview with podcast channel FTP that a major problem for them was the terminology used, adding that the document was “playing with words” such as “union, marriage, couples.” 

Bishop Serapion also disclosed that the Oriental Orthodox Churches had asked the Vatican for further clarification of the declaration, but this was refused, prompting them to suspend and re-evaluate their relations with Rome. 

The Register asked Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, to confirm Bishop Serapion’s statement and to comment on the negative consequences for ecumenical dialogue provoked by the document, but he had not responded by press time.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt added its voice of opposition in much the same way that the Catholic and Orthodox bishops of Russia were united their rejection of the declaration (the Russian Orthodox Church has also since formally issued a strong refutation of the declaration in a statement issued on March 25).

In March 21 comments to the Register, Coptic Catholic spokesman Father Rafic Greiche said they feel no obligation “to do what the Pope asks in the document” and that they would “stick to [their] Eastern traditions.” 

“My personal opinion is that it was neither the time nor the context to issue a statement like this, especially without considering the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and also the Muslim world which don’t accept at all, and won’t understand at all, these blessings,” he said. If asked, he added, he said he “and all Eastern groups” would refuse to bless a homosexual couple.

“I don’t think the Pope discerned correctly what had to be done,” Father Greiche said. “He first had to ask before issuing, I wouldn’t call it a dogma, but this statement.” 


Bypassing Synodality

How the Vatican has handled the document has been one of the major criticisms against it. 

Cardinal Ambongo, a member of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals advising him on Church governance, said if a consultation had been made and the document analyzed “in the spirit of synodality” prior to its release, “perhaps we would have presented these documents in another form and with another tone, taking into account the sensitivities of others.” 

“I don't think this text was necessary at the time,” he added. “We had just come out of the first session of the Synod on Synodality, and we’re now waiting for the second session. All these questions we raised during the first session of the Synod; we’re going to come back to them and we would have gained a lot by waiting for the end of the second session to mature this kind of subject in a spirit of synodality.”

But the issue will neither be discussed at the upcoming session in October nor in the 10 study commissions Pope Francis announced this month would be established to deal with controversial topics. Fiducia Supplicans is a “pastoral” and not a “doctrinal” instruction, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s general relator, told reporters March 14. 

“It has already been addressed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the authority of the Pope,” he said, “and is not a question to be revisited in the Synod.”

And yet similar criticisms about the document’s imposition without synodality have also come from the document’s supporters. Although confident that God was at work through the declaration, Jesuit Brother Joe Hoover, poetry editor for America magazine, said he was disappointed that the Vatican “appeared to circumvent the entire synodal process,” suddenly handing down the declaration “from above.” He also questioned what he called the document’s “Jesuitical” trait of forbidding the blessing of a union while at the same time approving “a joint blessing of a couple in that same union.” 

Theologians supportive of the document continue to see it as offering pastoral possibilities to help such people “know they’re loved and welcomed in the Church.” Others have viewed it as not going far enough in affirming couples living in such lifestyles, or have criticized it for relegating “same-sex couples to a lower category of blessing.” 

But while its supporters have debated whether it matches their expectations, the document’s critics have continued to find major shortcomings. 

Canonist Father Gerald Murray of the Archdiocese of New York has stressed that the word “couple” in the document is used in a “purely sociological sense,” united in a “type of sexual relationship,” one that the Church “cannot employ, let alone endorse.” 

Fiducia Supplicans, he said in an interview published in First Things, “errs gravely in doing just that, by describing those who engage in adultery or sodomy as couples. This error lays the foundation for Fiducia Supplicans’ heretical assertion that the Church can and should bless adulterous and homosexual ‘couples.’”

Philosopher Edward Feser acknowledged that the Church’s “traditional teaching on homosexual behavior has not been changed” by the document, but he also pointed out that “it is not proclaimed either.” Furthermore, he told the Register that the Pope has appeared to condone such relationships by saying in his new autobiography that they “live the gift of love” and so should have legal recognition, comments that contradict a CDF document issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2003 which firmly ruled out legal recognition of homosexual unions. Meanwhile, those who abuse Fiducia Supplicans, Feser observed, are not corrected.

“As Pope Felix III taught, ‘an error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed,’” said Feser, who teaches philosophy at Pasadena City College in California. “When the highest authorities in the Church do not proclaim her teaching concerning sexual morality,” he said, "they send the message that that teaching is no longer considered important and may even eventually be abandoned.” 

Alluding to the disruption the document has caused to the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, Father Nicola Bux, a theologian and former consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wondered whether “Christian unity on faith and morals is no longer necessary.” 


A significant problem, according to the Spanish theologian Father José Granados writing in Communio: International Catholic Review last year, relates to the theology of Cardinal Fernández. Father Granados said that the cardinal proposes “not so much a theology of the people but a theology from the people” — an approach, Father Granados believes, that contradicts “the true immediate and inescapable context of Catholic theology” rooted in the Eucharist. 


The Pope Stands Firm

Pope Francis, meanwhile, has continued to publicly defend the document, telling members of the Vatican’s doctrinal office at the end of January that the purpose of such blessings was to “concretely show the closeness of the Lord and the Church to all those who, finding themselves in different situations, ask for help to continue — sometimes to begin — a journey of faith.” 

He said non-liturgical blessings "do not require moral perfection to be received" and that they are bestowed on the people requesting them, not their union.

Three days later, in an interview with La Stampa, Pope Francis issued another defense, asserting that the document “aims to include, not divide” and adding that making a “list of sinners” of who can and cannot enter the Church “is not the Gospel.” 

He also dismissed those who “vehemently protest” against the document as belonging “to small ideological groups.” The Church in Africa, he added, presented “a special case” because “for them, homosexuality is something ‘ugly’ from a cultural point of view.”

In a new autobiography Life — My Story in History, Pope Francis again defended Fiducia Supplicans, saying it confirms that “God loves everyone, especially sinners,” and that if some decide not to implement the guidance, as many bishops and some entire episcopal conferences have, “it does not mean that this is the antechamber of a schism, because the doctrine of the Church is not called into question.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original at 3:40 p.m. March 26.