This article was first published in the Japanese Theological Quarterly. Publishing kindly allowed by Mary McAleese.

The Declaration Fiducia Supplicans promulgated by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith with Papal approval in December 2023 has provoked controversy and an unusual number of post-publication curial and papal explanations about its content.  For all that its subject matter deals with access of Catholics in irregular unions to simple, spontaneous,  informal blessings, in fact its import for the universal Church is far from simple. It deals with an issue that had been discreetly nudging some European dioceses, notably German, Austrian, Swiss and Flemish,  towards a new culture of inclusion of gay Catholics which countenanced priestly blessings for gay couples who were civilly married as jurisdiction after jurisdiction in the West made provision for gay marriage and traditional hostile attitudes to homosexuality gave way to acceptance, dismantling of oppressive laws, and the assertion of equal rights.  In the global south the opposite was happening as resistance to gay rights provoked tighter laws against homosexuality (sometimes with the encouragement of Catholic bishops).

 The issue flared when the German Catholic Church’s Synodal Way proposed to permit Church blessings for Catholic gay civilly married couples. Their plan was decisively dashed when in February 2021 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published, with papal approval, its Responsum to “a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex”. It concluded that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex”. The reasons advanced included that they would constitute “a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing”; homosexual unions are in no way “similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”; such relationships are not “objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace”: God “does not and cannot bless sin”. If the responsum was designed to end all debate on the subject it had the opposite effect. Its judgmental language chimed badly with what had been widely perceived was a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality evident in a statement of Pope Francis made in an interview in 2013. There he had said: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” However often overlooked was the fact that he had prefaced his remarks by restating Church teaching that homosexual acts are regarded as sinful. Indeed more recently he had echoed Pope Benedict’s opposition to admitting homosexual men to the priesthood when in a private session, he advised the Italian Bishops’ Conference on the subject of admitting gay men to seminaries to train for the priesthood saying: “If in doubt, better not let them enter”. 

There can be little doubt but that in the clamour of disappointment that greeted the Responsum as Dubium,  Pope Francis came under enormous pressure to bring some kind of reconciling clarity to his views particularly as the reports from Synodal discussions at diocesan level by then were indicating strong support for reform of Church teaching on homosexuality among other things. Shortly before the October 2023 Synod of Bishops met, a small group of conservative cardinals pushed Pope Francis for that clarity. He did not give the answer they wanted. Instead according to Fiducia Supplicans the possibility was opened up of  revisiting  the Responsum ad dubium  and “offering new clarifications“in light of Pope Francis’ fatherly and pastoral approach”. The Declaration was presented as an explanatory update on the Responsum ad Dubium rather than what it actually was, a contradiction which still leaves a lot of doubt about where the Pope is steering the bigger debate on magisterial teaching on homosexuality.  

   At one level the Declaration  can be seen as little more than a limited concession to gay Catholic couples which permits a priest, if asked,  to give informal “short and simple pastoral blessings (neither liturgical nor ritualized) of couples in irregular situations (but not of their unions)”. The Declaration “remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion”. To avoid confusion, the blessing must be free of all “wedding” context including “any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding”. The Declaration suggests “Such a blessing may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage”. At this level the Declaration slaps down the more liberal, advanced dioceses which had moved towards formal liturgical blessings for gay couples while also slapping down the narrow view of blessings and even narrower view of God’s grace presented in the Responsum ad dubium which offered precisely nothing to gay Catholics.  I remember my own reaction to the Responsum and in particular the realisation that it had been published with the full acquiescence of Pope Francis. As the sister, mother and mother-in-law of three deeply Christian gay men I was horrified to the point of despair, enough to send a scathing letter to Pope Francis in which I quoted  (in my own translation) the final stanza from the famous Irish love poem Donal Og.

You took my North, you took my South,

You took my East, You took my West,

You took the sun from me and you took the moon

And I do believe you even took my God from me.

Nowhere in that awful document could I see Christ, nowhere could I see God’s love and worse still nowhere could I see a place to be part of a loving God’s complex family where grace flowed freely. I imagine I was not alone. I imagine Pope Francis was the recipient of a lot of letters from the faithful who felt they had reached the end of the road of faith in the Church and faith in him as its leader. The Declaration when it came was very much an act of putting a finger in that disintegrating ecclesial dyke. If that is all it is it will not be enough. 

At another level, the most critical level, the Declaration has to be potentially the first step on a Damascene road to  the “fundamental revision” of Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality called for by Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg, then President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE)  and current Relator General of the Synod on Synodality. He believes that “that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer true” and that “we are thinking ahead in terms of doctrine. The way the pope has expressed himself in the past can lead to a change in doctrine.”

That doctrine is mostly set out in the Catholic Catechism. It says: tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved…This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection…

A Church humbled by serial, systemic, embedded clerical physical and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of little children entrusted to its care, and by  the routine episcopal cover-up and denial of their victimhood, would do well to think long and hard about its priorities in terms of pathways to Christian perfection. That and a litany of Godawful historic teachings which favoured slavery, anti-semitism, sexism, sectarianism  and homophobia, all with countless victims, should make us much more sceptically careful of our stewardship of the gift Christ left us. Obedience to Christ trumps obedience to a fallible and weakened magisterium. The world needs love to triumph and we are far from that day still.

On the subject of doctrinal changes to church teaching on homosexuality, Cardinal Hollerich fortunately is not a lone voice though he has many, many episcopal and other opponents within the Church. They have to be faced down. If synodality is to mean anything, if God’s love is to mean anything, then accompanying each other, listening to one another, standing in the shoes of the other, in charity and in love has to end in an admission of the  profound damage done to so many good people by a judgmental, law-bound, sex-obsessed, self- righteous magisterium. Fiducia Supplicans could signal the beginning of a long overdue end. 

Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, won the Alfons Auer Ethics Award from Tübingen University for her PhD thesis on children’s rights in Canon Law. As a professor at the University of Glasgow, she examined how the 1983 Code of Canon Law relates to children, particularly in light of the Catholic Church’s role in education and care services. Her thesis, significant for its unique approach and set to be published by Brill, also analyzes the Holy See’s changing stance towards its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially after the clerical sex abuse scandals. The award, named after a renowned professor of Moral Theology, recognizes contributions in theological ethics.


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