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Does the Vatican’s recent declaration Fiducia Supplicans contain teachings contrary to the divine and Catholic faith? The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) addressed this question in a press release issued on January 4, in response to concerns from many bishops and entire Episcopal Conferences. The press release defends the orthodoxy of Fiducia Supplicans by quoting it, arguing that the declaration does not change the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and does not state anything heretical. It argues that Fiducia Supplicans concerns not doctrine, but practical matters, and that it simply needs to be adapted to different contexts and sensitivities. 

But is it that simple? In reality, the criticism from concerned bishops is not that the declaration explicitly denies Church teaching on marriage and sexuality. Rather, the criticism is that by permitting the blessing of couples who have sex outside of marriage, especially same-sex couples, it denies Catholic teaching in practice, if not in words. The criticism is based on a solid traditional principle: lex orandi, lex credendi—the principle that the way the Church prays reflects what the Church believes. As the Catechism puts it: “When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles.”

There are, in fact, Catholic practices that cannot be altered without rejecting Catholic doctrine. Think, for example, of what the Council of Trent calls the substance of the sacraments, that is, those elements of the sacraments that were established by Christ himself. A change that affects this substance, even if it is a practical change, would be a rejection of Catholic doctrine. For example, if someone were to affirm in words the Catholic teaching on baptism, but then admit to the Eucharist those who are not baptized, he would be rejecting Catholic teaching. St. Thomas said that such contradictions created “falsehood in the sacramental signs.” 

The question, then, is whether to accept the “pastoral” and non-liturgical “blessings” proposed by Fiducia Supplicans for couples in irregular situations is to deny Catholic doctrine—not in explicit affirmation, but in practice. The press release issued by the DDF does not answer this question. It is therefore necessary to examine it in detail.

First of all, we must consider the distinction between liturgical blessings and purely pastoral blessings, for it is on this distinction that Fiducia Supplicans relies. Fiducia Supplicans argues that these new “pastoral blessings” for couples in irregular situations are not liturgical. Now, this distinction between blessings is a novelty that Fiducia Supplicans introduces, which has not the slightest basis in Scripture, the Holy Fathers, or the Magisterium. Fiducia Supplicans claims that “pastoral blessings” are not liturgical. Yet they have a liturgical structure, according to the example given in the DDF’s press release (a prayer accompanied by the sign of the cross). And in any case, what is liturgical in Christianity is not measured, as in other religions, by objects, vestments, or altars. The fact that it is a priest, representing Christ, who imparts this “pastoral blessing” makes it a liturgical act in which the authority of Christ and the Church is at stake. The Second Vatican Council emphasizes the inseparable link between all the priest’s actions and the liturgy (see Presbyterorum ordinis). 

Moreover, every blessing, whatever its solemnity, implies the approval of what is being blessed. This is what the constant tradition of the Church, based on Sacred Scripture, has taught. In fact, the Greek word used in the New Testament for “blessing” is eulogein, which, like the Latin benedicere, literally means “to say that something is good.” Moreover, in Scripture, to bless something is not just to declare it good, but to say that it is good because it comes from the Creator. Blessings are addressed to God’s creation, which he saw as very good, so that God himself may bring it to maturity and fullness. For this reason, a blessing cannot be invoked over relationships or situations that contradict or reject the order of creation, such as unions based on homosexual practice, which St. Paul considers a consequence of denying the Creator’s plan (Rom. 1:21–27). This need to be in harmony with the order of creation applies to every kind of blessing, regardless of its solemnity.

We should note that the DDF implicitly recognizes that these blessings (including pastoral blessings) approve what is being blessed. That is why the press release takes pains to distinguish between the blessing of the couple and the blessing of the union. If it were true that these pastoral blessings do not legitimize anything, there would be no problem in pastorally blessing the union. The DDF’s effort to clarify that the union is not blessed betrays that the DDF considers the “pastoral blessing” an approval, and therefore insists that it is the couple and not the union that is blessed.

Consequently, given the impossibility of distinguishing between liturgical and pastoral blessings, one must conclude that Fiducia Supplicans is doctrinally problematic, no matter how much it affirms Catholic doctrine in words. It cannot be said, therefore, that the question is merely practical and that it depends on the sensibilities of different regions. We are dealing with an issue that touches on both natural law and the evangelical affirmation of the sanctity of the body, which are no different in Malawi than in Germany.

But the DDF has also used two other distinctions to avoid admitting that Fiducia Supplicans implies approval of homosexual unions. The first distinction is between the blessing of the union and the blessing of the couple. Is this distinction possible? Indeed, if one blesses the couple qua couple, that is, as united by a sexual relationship other than marriage, then one is approving that union, since it is the union that constitutes them as such a couple. It would be a different matter if the couple were blessed not as a same-sex couple, but, for example, as a couple of pilgrims approaching a shrine. But this is not what Fiducia Supplicans means, and that is why it speaks of blessing couples in an irregular situation, including same-sex couples. 

Let us now examine a second distinction: Could it be said that what is blessed is not the couple as united by the sexual relationship, but the couple as united by other aspects of their life, for example, by the help they give one another during an illness? This distinction does not change the fact that the couple is blessed as a couple that is united by sexual relations outside of marriage. For what continues to constitute the couple as such is the sexual relationship that unites them. The other aspects of their life as a couple are not what constitutes them as a couple, nor do all these aspects succeed in making good the sexual lifestyle that makes them a couple, as the 2021 Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith already affirmed. 

When Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the DDF, discussed how to give these blessings, he implied that it is not a matter of blessing the couple. For example, he suggested that the sign of the cross should be made on each person, not on the couple. However, the cardinal did not want to clarify that the couple cannot be blessed, and continued to accept signs—such as the common prayer over the two persons—that give legitimacy in the eyes of the Church to the existence of the couple as a good for the persons united. The cardinal has also refused to condemn certain blessings, such as the one that Fr. James Martin gave publicly, which are clearly addressed to the couple.

Recently, we have noticed a new semantic change in the official explanations of Fiducia Supplicans. They no longer speak of giving the blessing to “couples,” but to “persons,” adding that it is about persons who are “together.” Now, to bless two people together who are together precisely because of the homosexual relationship that unites them is no different than to bless the union. No matter how much one repeats that one is not blessing the union, that is exactly what one is doing by the very objectivity of the rite being performed.

Having established that the basic question is doctrinal, how should we describe the error of Fiducia Supplicans? Is this heresy?

Consider the classical teaching on the various objects of magisterial teaching and of the believer’s adherence to it. This doctrine is contained in John Paul II’s motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem, which presents three “paragraphs” of the Profession of Faith made upon assuming various ecclesiastical offices. The first paragraph refers to the truths contained in revelation; the denial of these truths constitutes heresy. The second paragraph refers to truths that, while not contained in revelation, are intimately related to it and necessary to the preservation of the revealed deposit. These are truths that, because of their historical or logical connection with the revealed truths, must be accepted and held firmly and definitively. Those who deny such truths are in opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church, even if their assertions cannot be considered heretical in themselves. The third paragraph of the profession of faith refers to the truths taught by the ordinary Magisterium, to which religious assent of mind and will must be given. 

How does this apply to our case? The affirmation that homosexual acts are contrary to the law of God is a revealed truth; to deny it would violate the first paragraph of the Profession of Faith and would be heretical. This denial is not found in Fiducia Supplicans. It would also be heretical to accept a nuptial blessing for same-sex couples. This is likewise not found in Fiducia Supplicans. Thus, Fiducia Supplicans does not seem to violate the first paragraph. Then how do we classify its affirmation that sexual unions outside of marriage can be blessed with a non-nuptial blessing? Even if one were to argue that this affirmation is not explicitly rejected in revelation, this affirmation violates, at least, the second paragraph of the Profession of Faith, for, as we have seen, to bless these persons as same-sex couples is to approve their unions, even if they are not equated with marriage. This is therefore a doctrine contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, since its acceptance, even if not directly heretical, logically leads to heresy. 

For all these reasons, Fiducia Supplicans must be considered doctrinally problematic, for it contains a denial of Catholic doctrine. For this reason, it is also problematic from a pastoral point of view. In fact, a good pastor approaches every person in difficulty as a teacher of God’s commandments, recommends him to God’s prayer, and, in the case of grave sin, leads him to repentance, confession, and renewal of life through forgiveness in sacramental absolution. What he will never do in the pastoral care of Catholics in irregular sexual relationships is to draw analogies between God’s blessing for the marriage of man and woman and a so-called non-liturgical blessing for persons in sinful relationships. In the case of two persons living in an irregular situation, what pastoral reason is there for blessing the persons together rather than as individuals? Why would these persons want to be blessed together, if not because they want God’s approval of their union? To bless them together, therefore, is to confirm them in their sin and thus alienate them from God.

Nor does the principle that we are all sinners, and that therefore no distinction can be made between some sinners and others, befit a good shepherd. Scripture distinguishes between types of sin, as we read in John: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 John 5:17). The Church’s teaching, based on Scripture, distinguishes between venial sins (which do not necessarily require sacramental absolution to be forgiven) and mortal sins (which do). It also distinguishes those sins that are public from those that are not, as well as sinners who stubbornly persists in their sins from sinners who are open to repentance. These distinctions are important, not for judging people, but for offering them healing. Similarly, a good doctor needs to offer different diagnoses for different cases, for not every illness can be treated in the same way.

In conclusion, as long as the DDF does not correct Fiducia Supplicans by clarifying that blessings cannot be given to the couple, but only to each person individually, the DDF is approving statements that are contrary to at least the second paragraph of the Profession of Faith—that is, it is approving statements that are contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which, without being heretical in themselves, lead to heresy. This means that these pastoral blessings for irregular unions cannot be accepted by the Catholic faithful, and especially by those who, in assuming an ecclesiastical office, have taken the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity, which calls first of all for the preservation of the deposit of faith in its entirety.

This refusal to accept Fiducia Supplicans, which can be expressed publicly insofar as it concerns the common good of the Church, does not imply any lack of respect for the Holy Father, who signed the text of Fiducia Supplicans; on the contrary. For service to the Holy Father is due to him precisely insofar as he is the guarantor of the continuity of Catholic doctrine, and this service is honored primarily by exposing the grave defects of Fiducia Supplicans.

In short, the exercise of the Magisterium cannot be limited to giving dogmatically correct information about the “truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Paul openly and unhesitatingly opposed the ambiguous exercise of the primacy by Peter, his brother in the apostolate, because the latter, by his erroneous conduct, endangered the true faith and the salvation of the faithful, not precisely with regard to the dogmatic profession of the Christian faith, but with regard to the practice of Christian life.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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