Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

On December 18, the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith (DDF) released Fiducia Supplicans. That Declaration stated that priests may spontaneously bless couples in “irregular” situations—e.g., “remarried” or same-sex couples—within certain limits. Those limits were supposed to protect the Church’s witness to her teachings on sexual ethics and marriage, truths knowable by reason and divine revelation. Yet many bishops and episcopal conferences have expressed concern that providing such blessings would impede that witness, undermining the Church’s teachings that (1) marriage is the indissoluble union of husband and wife and that (2) all non-marital sexual acts are gravely sinful.

In response, the DDF has issued a press release attempting to clarify Fiducia Supplicans. But the press release is grossly inadequate. Heeding it will not begin to prevent the grave harm that the DDF says it had hoped to head off. The twelve paragraphs below explain why we urge that bishops and priests should not authorize or provide the blessings at issue: The circumstances in which they will avoid doing grave harm are rare, if not practically non-existent—at least without the set of conditions we will mention. 

1. With one minor exception, discussed below, the press release only accentuates aspects of Fiducia Supplicans that make it an obstacle to handing on, defending, and living by the gospel’s teaching on sexual morality.

2. The press release insists that Fiducia Supplicans, being a Declaration, “is much more than a responsum or a letter.” But both documents neglect a centrally relevant gospel teaching that was reaffirmed in a previous Declaration of the same dicastery, Persona Humana (December 29, 1975): 

The observance of the moral law in the field of sexuality and the practice of chastity have been considerably endangered, especially among less fervent Christians, by the current tendency to minimize as far as possible, when not denying outright, the reality of grave sin, at least in people’s actual lives. . . .
A person . . . sins mortally not only when his action comes from direct contempt for love of God and neighbor, but also when he consciously and freely, for whatever reason, chooses something which is seriously disordered. For in this choice . . . there is already included contempt for the Divine commandment: the person turns himself away from God and loses charity.  Now according to Christian tradition and the Church's teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious. . . .

Pastors of souls must therefore exercise patience and goodness; but they are not allowed to render God’s commandments null, nor to reduce unreasonably people’s responsibility. “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls. But this must ever be accompanied by patience and goodness, such as the Lord Himself gave example of in dealing with people. Having come not to condemn but to save, He was indeed intransigent with evil, but merciful towards individuals.”

Like Fiducia Supplicans, the press release scrupulously avoids using the word “sin,” let alone “grave sin” or “mortal sin,” when speaking of “irregular unions.” The press release mentions sin only when referring to the request for a blessing that anyone might make. These references suggest, if not affirm, that there is no crucial moral or pastoral difference between (a) blessing people who happen to be sinners, and (b) blessing people as parties to a relationship expressed in sinful acts. Never has the Church authorized a blessing under a description that identifies the recipients by reference to their sin (e.g., a blessing for pornographers as such). 

3. The press release (like Fiducia Supplicans) thus ignores what Persona Humana had made central: that Christian doctrine on sex ethics faces unprecedented threats in our time. Persona Humana noted (1) the disappearance of legal, social, and cultural norms that once supported that doctrine; (2) the emergence of norms that undermine it among the faithful, their children, and anyone they might evangelize; and (3) the spread within the Church of theological opinions and pastoral practices that defy that doctrine. These threats are far more intense now. And to them one can add a factor undreamt of by Persona Humana: (4) the Holy See’s favors toward—and appointments of—people in the Church who are notorious for their open or insinuated rejection of that doctrine.

4. Under these circumstances, many readers of Fiducia Supplicans have thought that in real life it will be imprudent to try to draw, and impossible to sustain, the distinction on which the Declaration hinges: between (a) blessing sinful relationships and (b) blessing the couples in such relationships. Or at least, many have doubted that couples or onlookers could actually make and appreciate this distinction unless bishops who approve (or priests who offer) such blessings set several conditions:

  • that the minister must have no intention to legitimize anything and must ensure that the blessing does not even resemble a liturgical one (FS §§39-40);
  • that the minister must clearly state to those present that he, like the Church, has “no intention to legitimize anything”;
  • that the minister must designate the prayer not as a blessing of the union but as something like an “Invocation and Intercession” for God’s guidance and grace, including the grace of conversion from sin;
  • that the couple must not intend the blessing as any legitimizing of their status (§31); and
  • that they must first make clear to the minister that neither they nor anyone helping them sees the blessing as legitimizing their union.

Such conditions would be fully supported by the reasoning of Fiducia Supplicans, even though the Declaration itself can be read as instructing pastors not to set conditions. Without conditions like these, the blessings at issue would give scandal above all to the couples seeking them, who stand most in need of catechesis on the very truths obscured by such blessings. To forgo conditions like those above is thus an act of grave pastoral irresponsibility.

5. In opposing such conditions, the press release speaks as if the minister’s (or the DDF’s) bare intent not to send a message of approval will prevent any such message from being received by others: Because the “non-ritualized form of blessing” of the DDF’s idealized depiction (§5.2), with its “simplicity and brevity,” “does not intend to justify anything that is not morally acceptable” and is “solely the response of a pastor towards two persons who ask for God’s help,” therefore, “the pastor does not impose conditions. . . .

6. By rejecting conditions that could make that depiction a reality, the press release all but guarantees that people will miss the distinction between blessing couples and blessing their sinful unions. Yet that distinction is avowedly crucial to the Declaration, not to mention the 2021 Responsum (which the Declaration claims to leave intact) affirming that the Church cannot bless same-sex and other sinful unions. 

7. The one exception to the press release’s accentuation of problematic aspects of Fiducia Supplicans is its statement that “the blessing must not take place in a prominent place within a sacred building, or in front of an altar, as this also [i.e., like any likeness to wedding ceremonies] would create confusion.” But this condition, too, does not even begin to face up to the real-world circumstances that will powerfully undermine any attempt to distinguish blessing persons from blessing their openly immoral unions.  

8. Such circumstances include the following: The DDF neglects or refuses to insist that the couple and minister expressly disavow any intent or hope that the blessing will in any way legitimize the sexual relationship. The DDF also fails to consider that events not occurring in a “prominent place within a sacred building” may nevertheless occur in a sacred building, and that what happens “privately” may be photographed or recorded and made widely known. The DDF says and repeats that the blessings at issue will be “spontaneous”; it fails to address the countless cases in which they will be pre-planned. And its press release keeps conspicuously silent about the response to the Declaration by clergy who have already vividly undermined its distinction between blessing couples and blessing unions. These include clergy who have arranged for worldwide photographic publicity for their blessing of a same-sex couple in circumstances that expunge the distinction—e.g., while the minister wears a rainbow stole or the couple romantically hold hands.

9. In trying to assuage bishops’ concerns, the press release considers only one of many different scenarios in which a blessing might be sought. And it is an example far removed from the real-world cases envisioned by those who had pressed the Church to make new blessings available. In the “concrete example” considered (§ 5), nothing about the couple indicates to onlookers (present or on social media) that the relationship is “irregular” or immoral, and the couple never so much as hints that they are seeking a blessing of their sexual partnership (as opposed to help from God to find work and overcome illness, etc.). Real-world cases, by contrast, are largely concerned with couples whose demeanor or other circumstances make it obvious that they have a sexual relationship and, in the case of same-sex couples, one identifiable as immoral because of the obvious impossibility for the sexual relationship to be marital.

10. The press release demands that bishops and episcopal conferences (after due reflection) add their authorization to that given by the DDF, and without setting further conditions. Yet the few conditions allowed by the DDF are meant to avoid confusion only with weddings. Those conditions are not designed to sustain the distinction between blessing persons and blessing the sinful acts that they present themselves as willing to engage in. And the press release does not demand that bishops and pastors stop suggesting (or expressing the hope) that the Declaration marks a step toward the Church’s morally approving of same-sex and other non-marital sexual relations. This, too, seriously undermines the distinction asserted by Fiducia Supplicans.  

11. All these silences and complacencies, while not denying Catholic doctrine on sexual activity, tend to suggest that that doctrine does not matter very much. They suggest that it is at most a matter of ideals, rather than moral absolutes knowable by reason and confirmed by divine revelation. But true mercy and the eminent charity extolled by Persona Humana—the charity that never diminishes the saving teaching of Christ—requires pastors to teach forthrightly what St. Paul taught (see 1 Cor. 6:9-11): To find salvation, a person must hold fast to the sanctification received at baptism by avoiding or repenting of all grave sins, including sexual sins. The truth at stake, which it is a serious responsibility of pastors to communicate, is that sexual acts are gravely immoral unless they express and actualize a committed and exclusive marital union, the kind of union within which new human beings are entitled to be born and raised.

12. By commending a practice that, without all the needed conditions, will obscure that truth of faith and reason, the DDF’s pair of documents creates a large new obstacle to fulfilling a pastoral responsibility that is also an imperative of evangelization.

John Finnis is Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Oxford and served on the Dicastery (then Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith’s International Theological Commission from 1986 to 1991.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

Peter Ryan, S.J., is the Blessed Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and served as executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2013 to 2016. 

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Jebulon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles