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In March 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published, under its former prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Responsum that replied in the negative to the question: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?”

Just under three years later, under its new prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the now renamed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Fiducia Supplicans (FS), which asserts that the blessings referred to in the Responsum are “liturgical blessings” and introduces a new kind of priestly blessing—a “pastoral blessing”—which it claims can be imparted to “same-sex couples.” But what are pastoral blessings and what does the Declaration mean by “couples”? And can the continued backlash FS has received from episcopal conferences around the world be put down to a failure to read it carefully, or does its careful review only confirm the decision of bishops who have decided not to implement it in their diocese?

To answer these and other questions, I spoke with New York priest and canon lawyer Fr. Gerald E. Murray about the Declaration.

Fr. Murray, what is a blessing? What relationship does a priestly blessing have to the priesthood of Christ? And can a priestly blessing ever be “extra-liturgical,” as in, have no relationship to the liturgy?

The 2021 Responsum, quoting the Roman Ritual, states that “[b]lessings belong to the category of the sacramentals, whereby the Church ‘calls us to praise God, encourages us to implore his protection, and exhorts us to seek his mercy by our holiness of life.’” The Responsum also states that sacramentals are “[a]mong the liturgical actions of the Church.” Blessings are thus liturgical actions by their very nature. The category of “pastoral blessings” is unknown in the Church. This category is described in FS as an “innovative contribution” and a “real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church.” FS claims that pastoral blessings fit into the category of “popular piety” as described in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy. There is no evidence that the Church has ever contemplated priestly blessings as acts of popular piety.

The Responsum further quotes the Roman Ritual, which states that sacramentals “have been established as a kind of imitation of the sacraments.” Blessings “are signs above all of spiritual effects that are achieved through the Church’s intercession.” A priestly blessing is a ministerial act whereby God’s ordained representative seeks divine favor upon what is being blessed, thus communicating that whatever is being blessed is worthy to receive such a blessing. Any relationship being blessed must first be judged worthy in the sight of God to receive God’s favor. Sinful relationships are not worthy in God’s sight and cannot be blessed. The Responsum reminds us that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

People are blessed, oil and water are blessed, fields and homes are blessed, but crime syndicates, torture devices, and contraceptives are not. Why can some things be an object of blessing and others not?

Blessings may be conferred upon inanimate objects, upon animals (such as blessing lambs on the Feast of St. Agnes), upon people and their relationships. The priest, as Christ’s ordained minister, asks God to look favorably upon what is being blessed, meaning that he has determined that what is being blessed is deserving of God’s favor. The Responsum is clear regarding the blessing of human relationships:

Consequently, in order to conform with the nature of sacramentals, when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. . . . For this reason, 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 Church has special blessings for couples. Through the rite of betrothal, the engagement of a man and a woman, that is, a couple, is blessed by the Church. And the blessing that the parish priest gives to a married couple at their wedding is given “to sanction their union in the name of the Church and to invoke on them more abundantly the blessing of God.” The central claim of FS is that it is possible to bless—with a “pastoral” blessing—“couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.” How is it possible to bless a “couple” without blessing their “coupleness”?

It is impossible to bless a couple without blessing the relationship that constitutes the two persons as a couple. To claim otherwise is an exercise in doubletalk.

“Couple” is a word that the Church has only applied, until now, to a man and a woman who are married or are contemplating marriage. For instance, the seventeen times the word “couple” is used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church it refers to a married couple. Discarding that specification is a fundamental error of FS. Sexual immorality, contemplated or realized, cannot make two persons into a couple. Two adulterers and two cohabiting homosexuals are not couples because they cannot marry each other. At least one person in an adulterous union is already part of a couple, and thus not free to establish a new couple relationship.

The words “couple” and “copulation” derive from the same Latin root—“copulare”—meaning to unite, to join together. A man and a woman become a couple when they show by their actions that they have established a relationship that is likely headed toward exchanging wedding vows, the object of which is to consummate their marriage by the physical union of copulation. Sodomy is a debased simulation of copulation. It is not a sexual union willed by the Creator, having unitive and procreative ends. Rather, it is an unnatural misuse of the body. Adultery is a forbidden, non-marital form of copulation that offends against the existing marriage bond(s). In the logic of FS, the sexual immorality of adultery and sodomy are portrayed as producing the human good of two people forming a couple. That notion is heretical.

FS uses the word “couple” in a purely sociological sense to speak of two people who, though not married to each other, are united in a type of sexual relationship that is a subset of the general category of relationships involving sexual acts. The archetype of this general sociological category, at least traditionally, is the marital union of a man and a woman. The Church teaches that other sexual unions are immoral parodies of marriage. These include adulterous unions, homosexual unions, incestuous unions, polygamous unions, and polyamorous unions.

The Church cannot employ, let alone endorse, a purely sociological description of human sexual behavior and at the same time remain faithful to the teaching of Christ. FS errs gravely in doing just that by describing those who engage in adultery or sodomy as couples. This error lays the foundation for FS’s heretical assertion that the Church can and should bless adulterous and homosexual “couples.”

Cardinal Fernández has insisted that FS does not change the Church’s teaching on marriage.

This insistence is curious, and revelatory. Why would he be afraid that anyone would think that blessing a same-sex “couple” might involve “changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage”? Perhaps because many same-sex “couples” claim they are married, go through civil marriage ceremonies where that is legal, and want their committed relationship to be treated as equal to a Catholic marriage by the Church. That is why they want to have a priest bless their “marriage.” Simply stated, blessing a same-sex “couple” who are civilly married looks a lot like blessing a heterosexual couple who marry in the Church. What looks like a marriage blessing will be seen by many as the Church loosening up her opposition to same-sex marriage, or at the least as a relaxation of the Church’s prohibition of sodomy, if not an outright endorsement of sodomy as something good.

Many have argued that FS proposes blessing “individuals” and not “couples.” What is your view on this debate, and how do you read the document?

The claim that two individuals in an adulterous or homosexual relationship are being blessed as individuals and not as a couple cannot be logically sustained given the title of Part III of FS: “Blessings of Couples in Irregular Situations and of Couples of the Same Sex.” Additionally, as you pointed out in a posting on X (formerly Twitter), the English translation erroneously uses the word “individuals” for the Italian costoro, which means “they/them” (“In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace” FS 38). The other language versions published by the Holy See translate costoro accurately. The blessing is given to them, not to individuals. Whatever may be the reason for this mistake, this wrong translation cannot be the basis of any plausible claim that the author of FS did not intend to authorize the blessing of couples, just of individuals. 

The Responsum stated that its own “negative” response “does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.” Cardinal Fernández wrote in his introduction to FS that the document was a reaction of “fraternal charity” to those who “did not share” the “negative response” of the 2021 Responsum. If FS were only proposing the blessing of individuals and not authorizing the blessing of homosexual “couples,” why would the document be needed, and why should those who do not “share” the answer of the Responsum see this Declaration as an act of “fraternal charity”?

Cardinal Fernández states that FS is an act of “fraternal charity” toward those who “did not share the [Responsum’s] negative response” or did not find the “formulation of its answer . . . to be sufficiently clear.” The expression “did not share” is a euphemism for “did not accept.” Those who do not accept the response believe it to be wrong, which means that they have no doubt as to its meaning. The claim that others thought the answer and the accompanying explanation were insufficiently clear is hard to take seriously. The issue is not the Responsum’s supposed lack of clarity, but rather a rejection of the answer and its explanation.

Cardinal Fernández writes in his introduction that “some welcomed the clarity of the document and its consistency with the Church’s perennial teaching.” He does not refer to the document’s “alleged” clarity, nor does he refer to “what some claimed to be the clarity of the document.” According to Cardinal Fernández, the Responsum is clear and consistent with Catholic teaching.

Given that the mission of the DDF is to uphold and defend the Church’s perennial teaching, why would Cardinal Fernández issue a Declaration that contradicts the Responsum, yet claim that there is no contradiction, just an innovative development of doctrine? FS at first repeats the prohibition of blessing homosexual unions, then subsequently authorizes what was prohibited, claiming it can do so because a couple and their union are two separable things. The union is not being blessed, just the couple.

This is a deceptive word game designed to satisfy the complaints of those who “did not share” the Responsum’s rejection of such blessings. Adulterous and homosexual “couples” do not believe that their union is not being blessed when they are blessed as a couple.

This failed attempt at verbal engineering seeks to impose a change in the Church’s doctrine and practice without appearing to do so. It is a tactic that counts upon the predisposition of faithful Catholics to accept whatever comes from a Roman dicastery. In this case, such a predisposition must be displaced by the primordial duty to reject whatever is contrary to the faith handed down from the apostles.

FS wrongly claims that it represents an “act of fraternal charity” toward those who want their union as a same-sex “couple” to be blessed. In fact, no Christian charity is being shown when two people involved in a gravely immoral relationship are not told to terminate that relationship, but rather are instructed to come forward to be blessed as a “couple” by a priest.

FS 31 states: “Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex. . . . In such cases, a blessing may be imparted that . . . involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.” What’s your reaction?

A relationship based upon the mutual promise to commit sodomy is incapable of being “enriched.” The mortal wound to the souls of the two persons who commit sodomy with each other can only be “healed” by the relationship being terminated. Remaining in such a relationship is a near occasion of mortal sin. It cannot be “elevated by presence of the Holy Spirit,” as the Holy Spirit condemns and forbids such a relationship. “Human relationships” based on sodomy cannot “mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel,” as that section later states, and cannot “be freed from their imperfections and frailties.” Only by the relationship ceasing to exist do the two people formerly involved in such gravely immoral behavior gain the possibility, by God’s grace, to “mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel” and “be freed from their imperfections and frailties” as persons who seek forgiveness for their sins.

FS 39 posits that when “couples” in what it euphemistically calls “irregular situations” and “same-sex couples” request a blessing, there could arise “confusion and scandal” if the blessing were to be “imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them.”

The issue is not primarily the timing of the blessing. Confusion and scandal will arise precisely because people who have entered into an adulterous civil marriage or a same-sex civil marriage consider themselves to be married and want the Church to treat them as married. Specifically, they want the Church to bless the union established by their civil marriages just as the Church blesses those who are united in marriage in a Church wedding. Advocacy groups and various activists want the Church to change her teaching and recognize second marriages and same-sex marriages. For the time being they are largely happy with what is seen as a first step concession, as is shown in this compilation of reactions by The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

FS 40 states that “through these blessings . . . there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness.”

A priest cannot know for certain that “there is no intention to legitimize anything” on the part of the “couple,” since, the document states, “an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring” the blessing (FS 25).

The word “legitimize” means to make legitimate. “Legitimate” means lawful in a strict sense. More broadly it means permitted, sanctioned, approved, admissible, allowed, or allowable. The plain intent of the Holy See in this Declaration is to legitimize something, namely the giving of blessings to adulterous “couples” and homosexual “couples” who publicly reject the teaching of the Church concerning the proper use of the sexual faculty within a lifelong permanent bond of marriage, which can only be entered into by a man and a woman. There can be no doubt that practically every single same-sex or irregular “couple” that asks for such a blessing does so for the purpose of demonstrating to themselves, to their families, and to the rest of the world that the Church, in blessing their relationship, no longer rejects their behavior as gravely sinful, and is no longer opposed to their continuing to live in that relationship.

I wonder how Cardinal Fernández would respond, in the light of FS, to this question: “Is it the case that the Church only instructs her priests to bless couples in relationships that the Church finds to be legitimately bless-able because they are good?” If he agrees, he must then believe that adulterous and sodomitical relationships do not offend God. If he disagrees, then he must believe that sin is bless-able. Either answer is contrary to the Doctrine of the Faith.

FS is a manifest disaster that should be revoked and withdrawn by the Holy See. Until that happens, it should be ignored by all bishops, priests, and deacons.

You may read the full interview here.

Diane Montagna is an American journalist in Rome accredited to the Holy See.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, JCD, is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York. 

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