Marking One Month of ‘Fiducia Supplicans’: Opposition Shows No Signs of Abating

Criticism of the document that authorized the blessing of same-sex couples is seen as unprecedented by some Church historians.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández exiting the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, Oct. 9, 2023.
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández exiting the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, Oct. 9, 2023. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY — One month after the Vatican released Fiducia Supplicans allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, the backlash the document triggered shows no signs of diminishing.

The criticism has been so pointed and widespread, in fact, that some historians say that never before has a papal document provoked such opposition and confusion, leaving many observers to wonder how the fallout can be resolved.

“The existence of a sharp contrast between bishops and cardinals within the Church is now a reality that cannot be denied,” Church historian Roberto de Mattei told the Register. Pope Francis, he believes, “is provoking a deeper crisis than all the previous ones, not only because of the breadth of opposition, but also because of the fact that it comes from those ‘peripheries’ that Pope Francis has indicated as the authentic expression of the Church.”

Approved by Pope Francis and published shortly before Christmas on Dec. 18, the declaration specifically allows, for the first time, non-liturgical blessings of same-sex couples and others in “irregular relationships.” The Vatican described its publication 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, in a less authoritative document called a responsum ad dubium (a response to a question), clearly ruled that the Church did not have the power to give blessings to unions of persons of the same sex. Although widely seen as a reversal of that text, the Vatican tried to assure the faithful that Fiducia Supplicans (Supplicating Trust) did not allow the blessing of unions but only of individuals who are in same-sex or irregular relationships. 

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith since September, said in a preface to the declaration that his document was a reaction of “fraternal charity” to those who did not share the “negative response” of the responsum, issued under his predecessor, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer. 

But almost immediately after its publication, some of its supporters exaggerated its precepts while opponents firmly rejected them. A handful of bishops, such as those in Madrid, Dublin, and the president of the Austrian bishops’ conference, obligated priests to give such blessings to any who asked for them; others, especially in Africa, adamantly refused to do so. 

Most bishops’ conferences have remained silent, given ambivalent responses, or stressed what is faithful to the magisterium in the document.

Compounding the confusion beyond the Church were mainstream media headlines applauding Fiducia Supplicans for allowing same-sex blessings while omitting its limitations. The document also drew opposition from non-Catholics, such as the evangelical Protestant Franklin Graham and Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Supporters and Opponents

Those who welcomed or accepted the declaration fell into several groups: some bishops’ conferences, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which accepted the assurances that it was coherent with doctrine and merely involved non-liturgical “pastoral blessings”; others such as Jesuit Father James Martin who rejoiced at the development, seeing it as a “step forward” in ministering to LGBTQ people (he publicly blessed a ‘married’ same-sex couple the day following its release); and Belgian bishops and others who viewed the decision as part of a process towards recognizing same-sex sacramental “marriage.” 

Sister of Loretto Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, a Church advocacy group banned by the Holy See in 1999 for its position on homosexuality but received in private audience by Pope Francis in October, said the hope of “so many Catholic lesbian and gay couples has now “materialized.” The group’s website gave a celebratory summary Jan. 6 of many reactions, quoting “married” homosexuals and others under the headline: “[LGBT] advocates keep rejoicing over Vatican approval of same-gender blessings.” 

Some have held back from voicing their full support, most notably Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who said the document had “touched a very sensitive point” and will require “further investigation.”

Critics, meanwhile, have taken issue with the document for a variety of reasons. 

Cardinal Fernández’s predecessor at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, called it “sacrilegious and blasphemous,” “self-contradictory” and “requiring clarification.” Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect emeritus at the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said the declaration was “a heresy that seriously undermines the Church, the Body of Christ, because it is contrary to the Catholic faith and Tradition." 

Almost all the bishops’ conferences of Africa and several other countries in the global south — what Francis has collectively called the “peripheries” — have rejected it not only because blessing same-sex couples is opposed to their cultures and laws, as Cardinal Fernández had said, but because they recognized it as giving the appearance of approving something contrary to the natural law and sacred Scripture. Writing on behalf of the bishops’ conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa said the language used in the document is “too subtle for simple people to understand” and that bishops in Africa could not carry out such blessings “without exposing themselves to scandals.”  

Critics also came from Central Eastern Europe and Asia with at least one Hungarian bishop calling it a “falsifying of the Gospel.” 

Confraternities made up of hundreds of priests in Britain, the U.S. and Australia rejected the document as essentially unworkable, and because they are concerned it conveys a message at odds with Church teaching. Meanwhile, some opposed it for not going far enough, with at least one Church leader in Germany calling the declaration “misanthropic and discriminatory” for failing to approve same-sex acts.   

Undeterred by the opposition, Italian media reported that on Jan. 14, the Vatican was training its clergy in how to offer blessings to same-sex couples, possibly in St. Peter’s Basilica.


Clarification Attempt

In an attempt to clarify Fiducia Supplicans following this global backlash, Cardinal Fernández issued a press release insisting that the declaration be read calmly, that it was neither heretical nor blasphemous, that a blessing should only take “about 10 or 15 seconds,” and he gave some examples of how it could be carried out in a “non-ritualized form.” 

In Jan. 12 comments to the Register, he said his clarification had “certainly helped because of the simplicity and examples it offers,” and that this was “noted by many bishops.”

Cardinal Müller and others, however, were unmoved. The blessings allowed by Fiducia Supplicans “are an invention” that have “no foundation in reality,” Cardinal Müller told the Register Jan. 12. A “10-second blessing” of same-sex couples or those in “irregular relationships,” he added, is “none other than a general blessing anyone can receive in an encounter with a pastor in whatever situation.” 

The Register put a series of questions to Cardinal Fernández on Jan. 2 seeking clarification on the document’s wording and other aspects. They included defining the meaning of “couple” and how it differs from a “union,” what obstacles exist for blessing groups of other people engaged in sexually immoral activities, whether apparent abuses of the document by Father Martin and others will be condemned, and why consultation on the document was not more widespread and how that can be squared with synodality. 

The cardinal has, to date, not responded to these questions, despite repeated requests. He has responded at other times when the Register has sent him questions.


Unprecedented Crisis

A clear characteristic running through the document, said professor De Mattei, is “modernism” that “affirms fidelity to the Church’s magisterium while, with unscrupulous intellectual acrobatics, it overturns it.” 

Africa, he pointed out, is experiencing the greatest growth of baptized Catholics and, quoting Cardinal Robert Sarah, he said the bishops of Africa are “the heralds of divine truth in the face of the power and wealth of some episcopates of the West” who “believe themselves to be evolved, modern and wise in the wisdom of the world.” De Mattei also said the gravity of the revolt is heightened because it follows Francis’ wish to “democratize” the Church through synodality, giving bishops “a higher authority than the Roman one.” 

Asked by the Register if the reaction to Fiducia Supplicans is unprecedented in Church history, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, did not give a definitive answer and recalled that during the fourth century Arian crisis, “almost all Byzantine bishops were heretics.”

But De Mattei was more certain. He acknowledged that previous “schisms, divisions and clashes,” both “doctrinal and pastoral in nature,” have existed “even in recent times.” As examples, he said bishops split into two groups during the French Revolution, there was the Petite-Eglise schism in 1801 during Pius VII’s reign, and in 1871 the schismatic church of “Old Catholics” formed. He also noted divisions during the Second Vatican Council, and over Humanae Vitae in 1968 when cardinals and bishops led an open revolt against the papal encyclical that upheld the Church’s teaching on contraception. In both those cases, he explained, the positions were “reversed” and the dissent was led by the “liberal wing of the episcopate.” 

This crisis, however, is “deeper” than all those that have gone before it, according to De Mattei. 

Professor John Rao, a Church historian and director of the Roman Forum, which was founded by Dietrich von Hildebrand in 1968, similarly cited other examples of revolts against papal acts, either when a pope was doing his duty, unaware of the nature of a problem, or “tormented like Pope Vigilius” over the Three-Chapter Controversy in the sixth century that led to the “Three Chapters Schism.” But he said none of these examples are “like this disaster,” adding that they were all “totally different.”  

Veteran pro-life campaigner Dr. Thomas Ward, president of the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family, sees some similarities between this affair and the dissent from Humanae Vitae but he said that, unlike with that encyclical, with Fiducia Supplicans “you have Rome undermining its own teaching” because, he believes, it is a document of modernism containing both “heresy and truth.” 


What Happens Next?

Looking to the future, observers believe the fallout from Fiducia Supplicans will have ramifications both for how the Church is governed and for the next conclave. 

One notable point is how the document squares with synodality, since the issue of such blessings was not agreed upon at the first assembly of the Synod on Synodality last October. Asked by the Register whether this issue will become a major point of discussion at the concluding synodal assembly in the autumn, and whether complaints have been received that it was imposed outside the synodal process, synod secretariat spokesman Thierry Bonaventura pointed to a Dec. 11 paper issued by the synod secretariat. That document offers general guidance on “deepening reflection” but nothing specific about same-sex blessings. 

Sources say the chances of cardinals issuing a new dubia (formal questions seeking clarification) on this issue is unlikely as cardinals such as Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Sarah have already given their thoughts on the issue, and their request for further clarification on same-sex blessings, sent to Francis as part of a resubmitted set of dubia last summer, has still to be answered.

Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, a moral philosopher who teaches at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America, expressed hope that more bishops would follow Cardinal Ambongo’s example and “clarify that Fiducia Supplicans and Pope Francis maintain the faithful teaching of the Church” and avoid "any scandal” deriving from "misinterpretations” of its contents. “Priests need to be assisted by the bishops in their efforts to maintain clarity of doctrine and to invite to conversion by offering the beauty of pure love within faithful marriage,” he said. 

Confusion and division, however, seem likely to continue. Cardinal Müller told the Register that “the resulting chaos and the self-inflicted danger to the unity of the Church should be taken as a lesson to refrain in the future from such antics by newcomers who want to do everything differently from their predecessors, and to impose their subjective and not well-thought-out opinions on the whole Church in an authoritarian manner.” 

Criticism of an “ambiguous declaration” is necessary, he said, if one is to show “obedience to God’s truth.” 

Pope Francis, meanwhile, remains undaunted.

Speaking to Roman clergy on Jan. 13, he said sometimes when a decision is not accepted, “it’s because you don’t understand.” 

“The danger is when I don’t like something and I set it in my heart, I become a resistance and come to ugly conclusions,” he added. “This has happened with this last decision about blessing everyone.”