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In a by now familiar sequence of events, the Vatican released a document on Monday which caused instant confusion. “Pope says Roman Catholic priests can bless same-sex couples,” the headlines announced. Optimistic Catholic apologists said the media had misunderstood the document, which permitted no such thing. Pessimistic Catholic apologists said the headlines were, alas, correct, and that the pope had erred. Part-time ultramontanists said that the document could only be read in a conservative manner and that it was an outrageous insult to the pope to think otherwise. Full-time ultramontanists said that the document could only be read as a “development of doctrine” and that it was an outrageous insult to the pope to think otherwise. The liberals rejoiced, with a slight undertone of impatience. The world took a brief interest, concluded that the Church was at least making some slow progress, then yawned a little and moved on to the next headline.

I have spent what feels like years parsing these much-debated Vatican documents, checking the exact translation of Italian words, badgering learned canonists and theologians for comments, comparing one sentence with another. And to be honest, I am thinking of retiring from the game. Because in the era of Pope Francis, such “controversial” statements are generally less statements than black holes. 

A black hole, according to NASA, is “a great amount of matter packed into a very small area—think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City.” That slightly exaggerates the density of Fiducia Supplicans’ five-thousand-word text, but the point is the result—which, as NASA explains, “is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.” 

So it is with Fiducia Supplicans. Usually one can cast light upon a document by asking what the Church has said before. In this case, the document itself cites the last Vatican statement on the subject, issued in 2021. That text decreed, with the signed approval of Pope Francis, that “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.”

But a few thousand words after invoking the previous document, this new one suddenly announces that “Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex.” Naturally, you search the text for where it explains why the previous document was wrong. You find nothing. You have been sucked into the black hole, where the light of reason cannot penetrate.

So, in a spirit of generosity, you try to take the document on its own terms. Apparently, everyone has previously had an inadequate understanding of blessings. This new text offers “a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” (Italics in original.) There follow 2,800 words of musings about blessings—blessings in the Bible, why people asking for blessings show a “sincere openness to transcendence,” the observation that sometimes priests bless pilgrimages as well as “volunteer groups and associations.” None of this is noticeably innovative, or indeed specific. Again, we advance in total darkness to a confident conclusion: “Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations,” etc. Which horizon would that be? Too late do you realize: It’s the event horizon. You’re back in the black hole.

Well, if the document seems incoherent with Catholic teaching and even with itself, maybe one should consider whether the problem is with one’s own assumptions. The document, after all, sternly corrects what is apparently a frequent misconception. “Those seeking a blessing,” it informs us, “should not be required to have prior moral perfection.” So who has been spreading this falsehood? Who has claimed that only morally perfect people can be blessed, and, come to think of it, what does that have to do with the matter at hand? But already you start to lose your footing, and feel yourself being dragged, helplessly, towards the edge . . . 

Given that there are now two contradictory papal teachings—the 2021 document and the 2023 one—it is clearly logically impossible to deny that popes, when not speaking ex cathedra, can sometimes err. And of course this was already common knowledge, from the embarrassing cases of Popes John XXII and Liberius, and most spectacularly Pope Honorius, condemned by three ecumenical councils—“To Honorius, the heretic, anathema!”—and by a later Pontiff, St. Leo II, as “Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.”

St. John Henry Newman argued that such incidents should not make us abandon the Church as untrustworthy or corrupt. A bad pope, said Newman, is like a train crash: a truly spectacular event, bound to horrify and absorb the mind. But it is an overreaction when people conclude “that steam travelling is perilous and suicidal, and that they never will travel except by coach.” Statistically, rail travel is still safer than the alternatives; and it should hardly shock us, Newman pointed out, that “in a long line of between two and three hundred popes, amid martyrs, confessors, doctors, sage rulers, and loving fathers of their people, one, or two, or three are found who fulfill the Lord’s description of the wicked servant.”

My astronomical analogy could be similarly extended. A black hole is still a star—just as Pope Francis is still the Vicar of Christ—even if it appears to have collapsed in on itself. Such a spectacle is mesmerizing, mysterious, and frightening. But it does not mean that we should give up on the papacy in general—let alone the saints, the sacraments, the traditional doctrine of the Church. These remain the stars to steer by, the stars which will guide us to the Christmas crib.

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.

Image by Republic of Korea licensed via Creative Commons. Image edited and cropped. 

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