Friday, December 29, 2023

Same-sex blessings are about welcoming, not changing Church teaching, Canadian bishops say

Archdiocese of Vancouver

The Archdiocese of Vancouver is considering how the Pope’s declaration on the blessing of irregular unions can contribute to making the Church in Vancouver “an ever more welcoming community,” says Archbishop J. Michael Miller.

On Monday, the Vatican released the declaration Fiducia Supplicans on the pastoral meaning of blessings. 

The document on blessing same-sex attracted people was approved by Pope Francis and says priests can bless couples in irregular situations as an expression of pastoral closeness without condoning their sexual relations. 

Archbishop Miller said the document aims to “broaden” and “enrich” the concept of “blessing” in the Catholic Church, encompassing the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations, such as same-sex couples or those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.

The Archbishop said Fiducia Supplicans allows priests to consider “very precise pastoral situations” for blessing couples in irregular situations, “without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

“The declaration clearly affirms the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage between a man and a woman,” he said, and excludes “any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that could create confusion about the sacrament of matrimony.”

The blessing of sinners is an important element of Catholic theology, said the Archbishop, noting that the faithful acknowledge their sinfulness and ask for blessings in the Lord’s Prayer, in the penitential act at Mass, and receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday.

The Vatican declaration also quotes from the “beautiful collect from the Roman Missal” for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, which says, “Almighty ever-living God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.”

Archbishop Miller said the Archdiocese of Vancouver is now “discerning how the declaration might impact how we can serve all people in our Catholic community.”

The synodal process underway globally and in the Archdiocese means “we are always striving, in keeping with the Gospel and Tradition, to become an ever more welcoming community,” the Archbishop said.

The “reflection process” will take time, he said, but “we pray that this Vatican document will open new doors through which we can share God’s love and mercy.”

Deacon Hilmar Pabel, coordinator of the Courage Ministry for same-sex attracted individuals in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, urged Courage members to read the document for its “insightful and inspiring teaching on blessings” and for what it says about blessing members of a same-sex couple.

He commended the document for explaining the types of blessings and their importance and for making it clear that blessing couples in irregular situations should not become a liturgical ritual so as to avoid confusing it with the liturgical blessing for a married couple.

The document presents the Church as a community of inclusion, he said, welcoming “all who approach God with humble hearts” and accompanying them with spiritual aids to help them “realize God’s will fully in their existence.”

“This world needs blessings, and we can give blessings and receive blessings,” says the document, so every member of the Church can feel “they are always pilgrims, always beggars, always loved, and, despite everything, always blessed.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops also said the document makes clear that blessings for those in irregular situations “must be directed to the persons themselves rather than their situation” and that blessings “must be spontaneously requested” as opposed to “ritual or liturgical actions.”

CCCB President Bishop William McGrattan said the statement “explicitly” affirms the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage, while allowing pastors to bless people “who freely request a blessing, seeking divine help to live in fidelity to God’s will.”

Bishop McGrattan said that the very act of requesting a blessing “represents an openness to God’s mercy and can be an occasion for greater trust in God.”

Fiducia Supplicans underscores that blessings cannot be offered in a way that causes any confusion about the nature of marriage, which the document affirms is the only “context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning.”

The Vatican’s guidance is its latest – and most authoritative – intervention on an issue that has embroiled the universal Church in recent years.

In September 2022, the bishops of the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium published a blessing ceremony for same-sex couples in their dioceses. 

The move appeared to be in stark contrast to an affirmation from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in February 2021 that the Church did not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.

This past March, the controversial German Synodal Way approved a resolution to establish a formal liturgical blessing of same-sex unions as well as divorced and remarried Catholics. 

In August, the archbishop of Berlin said that he would not discipline priests who provided such blessings and published a roster of clergy willing to offer them.

A group of cardinals wrote to the Pope in July requesting clarification on the Church’s stance on same-sex blessings, among other issues.  

Fiducia Supplicans builds upon many of the themes Pope Francis laid out in his response to the cardinals, which was published by the Vatican in October.

In its new declaration, the DDF asserted that its guidance would preclude any subsequent attempts to formalize such blessings.

“What has been said in this declaration regarding the blessings of same-sex couples is sufficient to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard,” the DDF wrote. “Thus, beyond the guidance provided above, no further response should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type.”

But the ruling – the latest in a flurry of documents published by the DDF since Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, Pope Francis’ longtime theological adviser, took over as prefect in September – is likely to generate further controversy on the issue, with both proponents and critics seeing it as a possible opening to additional changes down the road.

A ‘real development’

Titled “Supplicating Trust,” the DDF’s 5,000-word document is classified as a “declaration” because, as the text states, it “implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the magisterium and the official texts of the Church.”

The basis for the DDF’s guidance on blessing same-sex couples is grounded in an apparently novel distinction between the liturgical and “pastoral-theological” understanding of blessings.

The DDF said that pastoral blessings, as opposed to those that take place according to formalized liturgical rites, can be more “spontaneous” and less bound by “moral prerequisites.”

“It is precisely in this context that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage,” Cardinal Fernandez, Prefect of the Dicastery, wrote in the text’s introductory note.

The declaration, which was reviewed and signed by Pope Francis, offers “new clarifications” on the DDF’s 2021 guidance on the topic.

The DDF said its new guidance is in continuity with the 2021 text because the previous guidance applied only to “liturgical blessings,” which require “that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church.”

Because of the Church’s clear teaching that sexual relations only “find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning” in the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman,” the DDF underscores that “when it comes to blessings, the Church has the right and duty to avoid any rite that might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion.” 

Liturgical vs. Pastoral

But the DDF states that blessings should not be reduced to the liturgical “point of view alone.”

“Indeed, there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing.”

With regard to these less formalized blessings, the Church “must shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal and disciplinary schemes,” the DDF says.

“Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.” 

The DDF also describes blessings “outside of a liturgical framework” as part of a “realm of greater spontaneity and freedom” that, while optional, are a valuable “pastoral resource.”

In a passage that reflects on the use of blessings in Scripture, the DDF states that the practice is “a positive message of comfort, care, and encouragement. The blessing expresses God’s merciful embrace and the Church’s motherhood, which invites the faithful to have the same feelings as God toward their brothers and sisters.”

A person who asks for a blessing, the DDF said, indicates that he is “in need of God’s saving presence in his life, and one who asks for a blessing from the Church recognizes the latter as a sacrament of the salvation that God offers.”

“Such blessings are meant for everyone,” the DDF states. “No one is to be excluded from them.”

Pastoral blessings of same-sex couples

“Within the horizon” of the pastoral understanding of blessings, the DDF states that there is “the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex.”

This understanding of blessings “may suggest that the ordained minister join in the prayer of those persons who, although in a union that cannot be compared in any way to marriage, desire to entrust themselves to the Lord and his mercy, to invoke his help, and to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and of truth.” 

The DDF states that couples seeking a blessing from God in this context “do not claim a legitimation of their own status” but instead ask 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.”

Guidance for blessings

The declaration offers several qualifications for blessing same-sex couples and those in “irregular situations” in order “to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the sacrament of marriage.”

For one, these blessings should be “non-ritualized” and should not be expressed in any formal rite by ecclesial authorities. 

“Indeed, such a ritualization would constitute a serious impoverishment because it would subject a gesture of great value in proper piety to excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives,” the DDF states, explicitly stating that no one should “provide nor promote a ritual” for such blessings.

Additionally, to “avoid any form of confusion or scandal,” these blessings “should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them,” nor with any “clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”

Instead, the DDF envisions that blessings of same-sex couples and those in irregular situations would happen “spontaneously,” suggesting that they could take place in the context of “a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage.”

The DDF states that with such 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.”

The “pastoral sensitivity” of ordained ministers should be formed to offer these kinds of spontaneous blessings, the DDF declared.