What to actually DO with Fiducia Supplicans – a (relatively) brief Q&A

As we start the new year, questions and opinions about the late 2023 declaration Fiducia Supplicans continue to whirl about online and off. There continues to be a great deal of conversation – most of it producing more heat than light – about its value.

In addition to following CCC 2478 as best I can, I’ve been mulling over a friend’s variation of Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity – or human brokenness”. If we’re going to approach human sexuality and Church doctrine – both complicated in their own right! – it will serve us best to assume both the best about the character of others while leaving plenty of room for the limitations and foibles of their humanity.

All that to say that the one thing we ought to be determined NOT to do is lose ourselves in bitterness, despair, or self-righteousness. At the end of the day, Jesus is Lord and He has promised to safeguard & guide His Church. All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well – if not now, then in His good time.

Okay, great – but what are you actually going to DO?

When it comes to blessings, I don’t know that much has changed for me. As I mentioned in my first post about the declaration, it’s not like I’m carelessly throwing around blessings in the first place. There are plenty of examples where a blessing is inappropriate (or just weird, such as when folks ask for a blessing mere moments after Mass ‘just because’ – yes really!). Sussing that out is part of ministry – if anything this declaration offers both more opportunity AND gives me language for when I ought to say ‘no’. I’m SUPER excited about paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans, which allows for the possibility of blessings of same-sex couples & couples in irregular situations but establishes clear expectations about whether and when that might (might!) be permissible.

Isn’t the use of ‘couple’ to describe relationships (presumably) rooted in sin problematic?

If the use of ‘couple’ is assumed to somehow recognize as legitimize or approve of sinful behavior, it would be problematic. But that is clearly not the case: the document goes to pains distinguish blessing the people versus the relationship (see paragraphs 4-6, 11, 26, 30, 31, 38, 39). ‘Couple’ here is simply a way to reference those who present themselves for a blessing, regardless of whether or not that pairing is rooted in God’s plan or human brokenness.

And please note: every reference to couples (eleven in total) is coupled1 with adjectives that set apart the subjects from married couples. Do the word search yourself – there is no instance of ‘couple’ appearing without an accompanying qualifier that clearly distinguishes between married couples and the couples being discussed.

So you’d bless any couple who presents themselves – what about pedophiles, incestuous pairings, or the KKK?!?

Yes, these are all examples that have been thrown my way. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, too, weird Catholic Twitter X.

Of course I wouldn’t offer a blessing for just any two people who presented themselves expecting their favorite sin to be blessed. Again, that’s what paragraph 31 outlines for us. And in my experience, unrepentant sinners don’t present themselves for blessings. If they did, well, what a great opportunity to preach the Gospel! If they’re truly recalcitrant or confrontational, they’ll find that that preaching will get more, rather than less, fiery upon subsequent attempts.

If it’s all so clear, why is Fiducia Supplicans necessary at all?

I suspect that if you have to ask, then its not really necessary – that is, not necessary for you. For the people who DO feel marginalized by or outright unwelcome in the Church – perhaps highest among them being those who are in irregular marriages or who have same-sex attractions – this document sends an unexpected but much-needed message: even as She challenges you to a new way of life, know that you are loved and you can be blessed by the Church. It’s necessary because those who are wounded need ministering to – and that’s what the Church is for!

What about Father James Martin, the Church in German, or [insert latest scandalous example here]?

Let’s be real: those who were going to act in bad faith didn’t need Fiducia Supplicans to energize them to act badly. They have a history of bad acting and will continue to do so regardless of what the Church does or doesn’t say. What this declaration does is give concrete direction about what is and isn’t allowed. Moreover, it makes distinctions that – if actually read within a hermeneutic of continuity – emphasize rather than diminish what we believe! Have I mentioned paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans? Seriously, read paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans! Notice the language of the second and third sentences – that’s not the language of changing doctrine, but of changing hearts…which not only implies but depends on recognizing (as the declaration says) one’s destitution and need of God’s help!

In short, pray for those who are weaponizing Church teaching for their own purposes – but we can’t let their actions embitter our hearts or tempt us towards despair.

Isn’t Pope Francis/the DDF culpable for releasing a document they have to have know would be misused?

Knowing that something good will be abused isn’t necessarily reason to withhold it. The Lord had to have know that the Eucharist would be unworthily received, misused, and abused (at the Last Supper, no less!) – and yet He handed His Body over to untrustworthy and weak men…. and those were just His Apostles!

Should [insert scandalous example here] be rebuked and/or punished? Absolutely! Why that hasn’t/isn’t happening is beyond you or me – but we should 100% be praying both for those in authority and all the more for those who are acting so scandalously. May their hearts be changed and converted – soon!

So what do WE (average Joe/Jane Catholic) do with Fiducia Supplicans?

Unless you’re a priest or bishop, probably nothing directly related to blessings. But you know what would be AMAZING? If every Catholic started reaching out to those around them, especially those who have felt like they are unwelcome in church because they are divorced/remarried/gay/lesbian/whatever, we could have a real revolution on our hands.

Imagine if we actually sought out and invited others – not the indirect & generic message of ‘everyone’s welcome’ but individual invitations. You know who called people by name? Jesus! And He left US with the great commission, to go out and bring people in. At the end of the day, this is what we’re called to do. If this declaration helps you do it – great! If not, let it be. But whatever you do, go out preach the Good News to all.

  1. No, I’m NOT sorry. I’ll take my light-hearted moments of punnery where I can! ↩︎

Let every ‘no’ be joined with a ‘yes’

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about leadership – even before I was a priest (probably when I was in Boy Scouts!) – was given to me by my father. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence was that even though I might have to say ‘no’ to something, that I should always try to offer some accompanying ‘yes’.

As a priest, this has proven invaluable in pastoral care. When someone wanted ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ for their loved one’s funeral Mass, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we sang it outside the church as we processed to the hearse. When a divorced-and-remarried couple wanted to receive communion, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we talked through the possibilities laid out in Familiaris Consortio #84 and how to best pursue marriage in the Church. When my choirs wanted the Mass setting to be chosen according to their (differing!) preferences, the answer was clearly ‘no’, but we talked about how we might incorporate their desires into a larger liturgical plan.

The examples could go on and on, covering any number of situations or groups. More than the actual options at hand, the effort to find a way forward – as well as the honesty of what the options were and weren’t on the table – elicited appreciation and respectful conversation. Things didn’t always end up happily, but the effort to find something to offer rarely goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

Ministering to those wounded by the Church

Over the last several days, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released two documents: a brief letter responding to a dubia (question) from a bishop and a significantly longer declaration (titled Fiducia Supplicans1). The letter was essentially an exhortation to not deny single mothers the sacraments (or tell them they must abstain). The declaration addressed questions around blessings, particularly blessing couples living in objectively disordered lifestyles such as same-sex couples.

The first document elicited no small amount of ‘why do we need this?’ from commentators as they expressed skepticism that anyone in the Church would so mistreat single mothers. The second document has inflamed an already-polarized debate, with folks on both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ side painting it as a change in Church teaching and practice.

Lost in all of this is the real hurt of our brothers & sisters that this is all meant to address. And I must admit, I might have been right in there with the unhappy ‘why do we need these?’ crowd not too long ago. But then I started encountering people – some of them faithful Catholics – who had been told by their priest that they couldn’t receive communion because they were divorced. Not subsequently remarried, mind you, but simply because they were divorced. One woman shared an awful account of how the priest stopped her during communion at a Sunday Mass to scold her and tell her she was not free to receive due to her divorce. She obediently stopped receiving – even as she continued to faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, albeit elsewhere. It was while waiting for her daughter to finish a First Holy Communion class that she spontaneously – and tearfully – shared her sorrow at having been unable to receive in the years (!) since that encounter.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with same-sex attracted individuals – some who were couples – who desperately want to just come to Mass, but were convinced that they weren’t welcome even to cross the threshold of the church. One young man offered how he knew God was calling him back to the faith, but he didn’t know how to even start since the Church clearly disapproved of everything about him and his boyfriend. He knew that he might – probably – would have to make some hard decisions about the nature of their relationship, but he desperately wanted to know if his efforts would be met with welcome or rejection.

Lest anyone think these stories are outliers, be assured that they are not. Whether in spontaneous conversation, the sacrament of Reconciliation, or hesitant request to meet, there are many (many!) more instances where folks – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – have shared how they have been hurt by laity & clerics of the Church in the name of Church, using Church teaching as the cudgel. Even when not done with malice (though it often was), these wounds have proven to be deep and lasting.

These people need healing – and we owe it to them to actively reach out and offer what we can to assist them in that healing.

The Gospel of the Lord

It seems to me that the reactions to these latest efforts of the Church are based on a desire to get what we want – though the desires of a given ‘we’ are often at odds with those of others. Some are anxious and angry that the Church might make Herself vulnerable to being taken advantage of and abused – Her teachings twisted to permit and bless sin. Others are anxious and angry that the Church might make them vulnerable to being changed and live differently – that Her teachings would impose expectations that they don’t want to meet.

This sounds pretty Christ-like to me! He ate with tax collectors, talked with prostitutes, and gathered a group of shmucks around Himself to become His Apostles. He lovingly – usually quite gently – called out those same tax collectors, prostitutes, and shmucks – even while sharing Himself with them.

The strongest critique I’ve heard of these documents is one that is just as easily applied to the words of the Lord Himself: that people will take them and twist them to their own purposes. This has the virtue of being true….. as individuals with free will we can choose to interpret and act as we decide. Touched by sin – often clinging to it! – many will do just that.

And yet, Jesus considered that risk one worth taking. He even gave up His life on the chance that if not all, at least some might choose eternal life.

Hermeneutic of charity

Around this time last year, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote a reflection titled “One key number for the new year“. In it, he spoke about number 2478 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which starts “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way”. Remembering those four numbers has helped me immeasurably over the last year – I am certain this will continue to serve me well in the coming years.

Does that risk us making fools of ourselves? We’d certainly be in good company! Thomas Aquinas, after being mocked by his brothers for rushing to see the flying pigs they claimed were nearby, legendarily said “I would rather believe that pigs can fly than believe that my brethren could lie”.

Charity doesn’t demand that we change Mother Church’s doctrine & dogma – quite the opposite, if we truly believe that She and Her teachings are given to us by the Lord for our fulfillment & happiness! In our approach to our Mother and to those who so deeply need Her ministrations, let us say ‘no’ without compromising charity while finding the ‘yes’ that affirms the truth. Let us approach each other – both those in the Church and those wounded by the Her – with hearts open to both the yeses and no’s that the Lord presents us.

  1. In English, the declaration is titled On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings ↩︎