Rorate Caeli

"Fiducia Supplicans and the Meaning of Faith" - Major treatment of problems in Declaration by Fr Emmanuel Perrier, OP

(From the highly-esteemed Revue Thomiste: source.)

The "Fiducia supplicans" declaration of December 18, 2023 has caused quite a stir. In this article, we give the main reasons why.

As sons of the Church founded on the apostles, we cannot but be alarmed at the turmoil among the Christian people caused by a text coming from the Holy Father's entourage[1]. It is unbearable to see Christ's faithful losing confidence in the word of the universal shepherd, to see priests torn between their filial attachment and the practical consequences this text will force them to face, to see bishops divided.

This far-reaching phenomenon is indicative of a reaction in the sensus fidei. The "sense of faith" (sensus fidei) is the Christian people's attachment to the truths of faith and morals[2]. This common, "universal" and "indefectible" attachment stems from the fact that every believer is moved by the one Spirit of God to embrace the same truths. This is why, when statements concerning faith and morals offend the sensus fidei, an instinctive movement of distrust arises that manifests itself collectively. It is necessary, however, to examine the legitimacy of this movement and the reasons behind it. We will confine ourselves here to the six reasons that seem to us the most salient.

1. Blessing is only ordered to salvation

Indeed, "blessing is a divine, life-giving action whose source is the Father. His blessing is both word and gift" (CCC 1078). This divine origin also indicates its end, forcefully expressed by St. Paul: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heaven, in Christ. He has chosen us in Him, from before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His presence, in love" (Eph 1:3).

Recalling the origin and end of every blessing, it then becomes clear what grace we are asking for when we bless: it must bring divine life to be "holy and blameless in his presence". Blessing, then, is only for the sake of sanctification and freedom from sin, and thus serves to praise Him who made all things (Eph 1:12).

The Church cannot deviate from this divine order of blessing for salvation. Any intention to bless without this blessing being explicitly ordered to be "holy and immaculate", even for otherwise praiseworthy motives, therefore immediately offends the sensus fidei.

2. The Church does not know how to bless other than in a liturgy

Everyone is called to bless God, and to call upon Him for His blessings. The Church does the same, interceding for its children. But between an individual believer and the Church, the subject who acts is not of the same nature, and this difference has important consequences when considering the action of blessing. At their root, ecclesial blessings - and by this we mean the blessings of the Church itself - emanate from the mysterious and indefectible unity that constitutes her very being[3]. From this unity which binds her to her Spouse Jesus Christ, it follows that the requests she makes are always pleasing to God, they are like Christ's own requests to his Father. 

This is why, from the very beginning, the Church has never ceased to bless, with the assurance of obtaining numerous spiritual effects of sanctification and liberation from sin[4]. Blessing is thus a vital activity of the Church. It is designed to ensure the circulation of blessings, from God to man and from man to God (cf. Eph 1:3, above), in a systolic flow of divine blessings and a diastolic flow of human supplications. As a result, ecclesial blessings are in themselves a sacred work. Indeed, as historical sources testify[5], they form the very essence of Christian liturgy. For the Church, blessing according to any liturgical form is not an option; she cannot do otherwise because of what she is, because of the vital activity of the ecclesial heart. What it does have the power to do, however, is to set the terms and conditions of blessings, their ritual, just as it does for the sacraments[6].

A blessing is therefore not liturgical because a rite has been instituted, as if "liturgy" meant "official", or "obligatory", or "institutional", or "public", or "degree of solemnity"; or as if "liturgy" were a label affixed from the outside to an ecclesial activity. A blessing is liturgical when it is ecclesial, because it involves the mystery of the Church in its being and action. This is where the priest comes in[7]. When the faithful approach a priest to ask for the Church's blessing, and the priest blesses them in the name of the Church, he is acting in the person of the Church. That's why this blessing can only be liturgical, because it's the intercession of the Church that provides this support, not the intercession of an individual member of the faithful.

So it's hardly surprising that the sensus fidei is disturbed when it is taught that a priest, required as a minister of Christ, could bless without this blessing being a sacred action of the Church, simply because no ritual has been established. This is tantamount to saying either that the Church does not always act as the Bride of Christ, or that it does not assume to always act as the Bride of Christ.

3. Every blessing has a moral object

A blessing applies to people or things, to whom God freely bestows a benefit. The gift granted by a blessing therefore meets three sets of conditions. - On God's side, the gift is the effect of divine liberality, and always has its source in divine mercy for the sake of salvation. This is why God blesses according to what He has disposed to be the way of salvation, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word, who died and rose again to redeem us, but also according to what is useful for salvation.

This means, on the one hand, that the gift cannot be contrary to the created order, in particular to the primordial difference between good and evil, between light and darkness (cf. 1Jn 1:5), between perfection and the deprivation of perfection (cf. Mt 5:48). Nor can the divine gift be contrary to the order of grace, particularly insofar as it makes us just before God (cf. Rom 5:1ff.).

On the other hand, God gives according to what He sees fit to give each person when the time comes. God sees further ahead than we do, and wants to give more than we expect. This is why, among other things, He allows tribulations, trials and suffering (cf. 1P 1:3f; 4:1f) to prune what is dead and make what is alive bear more fruit (Jn 15:2).

On the recipient's side, the gift of a blessing does not presuppose that he or she is already perfect, which would render the gift useless, but rather that he or she has the faith and humility to acknowledge his or her imperfection before God. Moreover, in order for the gift to produce its effect, the heart must be disposed to conversion and repentance. Blessings are not for moral stagnation, but for progress towards eternal life and turning away from sin.

Finally, on the side of the blessing itself, there is an order: temporal blessings are in view of spiritual goods; natural virtues are supported and ordered by the theological virtues; goods for oneself are in view of love of God and neighbor; deliverances from bodily ills are in view of spiritual freedoms; strength to overcome sorrows is in view of strength to repel faults.

All this shows that blessings always have a moral object, in the sense that morality is the human way of acting for the good and turning away from evil: God gives his gifts so that man may practice justice by obeying the commandments and advance along the path of holiness following the example of Christ; man receives these gifts as a rational agent who receives the help of grace to become good; the gifts are benefits for spiritual growth.

It is therefore understandable that the sensus fidei is disturbed when blessings are presented in such a way that their moral significance becomes confused. In fact, the instinct of faith is not only attached to revealed truths, but extends to putting these truths into practice in conformity with the morals of the Gospel and divine Law (cf. e.g. Jas 2:14ff.).

This is why the sensus fidei is loathe to see the moral compass of blessings neutralized or distorted. This is the case when one condition of blessing is emphasized to the detriment of others. For example, God's mercy and unconditional love for the sinner do not preclude the finality of this mercy and unconditional love, nor do they nullify the conditions on the recipient's side or the order of blessings. - In the same way, when we talk about the pleasant effects (comfort, strength, tenderness), we ignore the unpleasant effects, even though they are the necessary paths to liberation (conversion, rejection of sin, the struggle against vices, spiritual warfare). - Finally, when we stick to general terms (charity, life) without indicating the concrete consequences that are the very reason for a particular blessing.

4. God does not bless evil, unlike man

Need we remind anyone that from the very first words of Sacred Scripture to the very last, Revelation affirms the goodness of God and his works? God is not only alive, He is Life (Jn 14:6). God is not only good, He is good in essence (cf. Lk 18:19). This is why "there is not a single feature of the Christian message that does not in part answer the question of evil" (CCC n. 309), not only because man asks himself this question, but first and foremost because God is God. Indeed, unlike God, man is divided in the face of evil. Since the original fall, he has turned away from the divine good in favor of other ends. Sacred Scripture calls this way of going astray, of losing sight of the true good in favor of an apparent good, like an arrow that misses its target, sin. Sin is imputable to man because of his fault. And in his fault, man compromises himself with evil.

The difference between God and man is that God never blesses evil, but always blesses in order to deliver from evil (one of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, cf. Mt 6:13), so that man may be forgiven for his fault and cease to compromise himself with evil, so that he is not crushed by his sins but redeemed from them. For his part, the tendency of sinful man is certainly to refuse to bless evil, but only up to a certain point, that is, until his compromise with evil wins out. When this point is reached, he prefers to "compromise or distort the measure of good and evil to suit the circumstances", "he makes his weakness the criterion of truth about the good, so that he can feel justified by it alone"[8]. In other words, the characteristic of human blessings is that they regularly tamper with the moral thermometer to accommodate a disorder in relation to the true good.

John Paul II presented the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (cf. Lk 18:9-14) as an ever-present illustration of this temptation: the Pharisee blesses God but has nothing to ask of him other than to keep him as he is; the Publican confesses his sin and begs God for a blessing of justification. The former has tampered with the thermometer, the latter is healed by trusting the thermometer.

The impression that the moral thermometer is being tampered with to bless disordered acts can only make the sensus fidei suspicious. Admittedly, this suspicion needs to be purified of any projection into an ideal morality or moral rigidity valid only for others. But the fact remains that the sensus fidei hits the nail on the head when it expresses alarm that God could be said to bless evil. What sinner wouldn't be upset if an authoritative voice told him that, after all, divine mercy blesses without delivering [from sin], and that he will henceforth be accompanied in his misery -- but also abandoned to his misery?

5. Magisterium: innovation implies responsibility

"To God who reveals, we must bring the obedience of faith"[9]. In concrete terms, since the intelligence knows by means of propositions, the obedience of faith is a voluntary assent to true propositions. For example, through faith, we hold as true the proposition: "God the Father Almighty is the creator of heaven and earth". All the truths of faith are found in the "one sacred deposit of the Word of God", made up of Holy Tradition and Sacred Scripture. This sacred deposit has a single authentic interpreter, the Magisterium. 

The Magisterium "is not above the written or transmitted Word of God". It has the responsibility, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, "to hear with piety, to keep holy and to expound faithfully" the word of God when teaching the truths contained therein[10]. 

The teaching of the Magisterium falls into two categories[11]. The "solemn" Magisterium is a teaching without possible error. Truths taught in a solemn way require the obedience of faith in a "complete homage of intelligence and will"[12]: this is the case of everything we have just said concerning the sacred deposit of the Word of God, and the function and responsibility of the Magisterium. On the other hand, the so-called "ordinary" Magisterium is a teaching aided by the Holy Spirit, and as such must be received with a "religious homage of intelligence and will"[13], even though it is infallible only if it is universal.

These reminders are important when a text, possessing all the outward forms of a so-called "ordinary" Magisterial text, intends to teach a proposition described as a "specific and innovative contribution" involving "real development"[14]. In this case, the proposal is as follows:

"It is possible to bless couples in an irregular situation and same-sex couples, in a form that does not have to be ritually fixed by the ecclesiastical authorities, so as not to create confusion with the blessing proper to the sacrament of marriage" (FS, n. 31).

As for the conclusion, it contradicts a Responsum of the same Dicastery, issued three years earlier, whose main proposition is as follows:

"It is not licit to give a blessing to relationships or partnerships, even stable ones, which involve sexual practice outside marriage. The presence in these relationships of positive elements [is not sufficient...] since these elements are in the service of a union not ordered to the Creator's design."[15]

We are thus faced with two propositions, both claiming to be true as emanating from the "only authentic interpreter" of the revealed deposit, while at the same time being contradictory. To get out of this contradiction, we must turn to the reasons given in each of the texts.

The Fiducia supplicans declaration has the privilege of being more recent[16]. In its reasons, it claims not to contradict the earlier Responsum: the two propositions would be true, each according to a different relationship, so that they would be complementary. The blessing of same-sex couples a) would indeed be illicit if done liturgically in a ritually fixed form (Responsum's solution), but b) would become possible if done without liturgical rite and "avoiding that it becomes a liturgical or semi-liturgical act similar to a sacrament" (FS, n. 36).

Reading the Responsum now, we realize that, despite the clarifications provided, the contradiction remains. Admittedly, it raises the danger of confusion with the nuptial blessing, to which Fiducia supplicans responds. But this is not its main argument. As the aforementioned text explains, the blessing of a couple is the blessing of the relationships that make up that couple, and these relationships themselves are born and sustained by human acts. Consequently, if human acts are disordered (i.e., as we have said, lose sight of the true good in order to attach themselves to an apparent good), if they are therefore sins, the blessing of the couple would automatically be the blessing of an evil, whatever the morally good acts performed elsewhere (such as mutual support). The Responsum argument therefore applies regardless of whether the blessing is ritual or not, sacramental or not, public or private, prepared or spontaneous. It is precisely because of what makes this couple a couple that their blessing is impossible.

What emerges from this comparison is the extreme lightness with which Fiducia supplicans assumes magisterial responsibility, even though the subject was controversial and, containing an "innovative" proposal, greater attention to the conditions laid down by the Second Vatican Council was required. Indeed, the text accumulates arguments in favor of greater pastoral solicitude in blessings, but this solicitude can perfectly well be fulfilled by blessings on individuals, and none of the arguments provided justify these blessings being performed on couples. More regrettably, the document sidesteps Responsum's central objection and dilutes the problems raised by its own proposal, instead of building a solid case, showing by recourse to Scripture and Tradition, a) under what conditions it would be possible to bless a reality without blessing the sin attached to it, b) how this solution would harmonize with the earlier Magisterium.

The Magisterium's inconsistency and lack of responsibility are undoubtedly a cause of great disturbance to the sensus fidei. Firstly, because they introduce uncertainty as to the truths actually taught by the ordinary Magisterium. More seriously, they undermine confidence in the divine assistance of the Magisterium and the authority of Peter's successor, which belong to the sacred deposit of the Word of God.

6. Pastoral care in an age of hierarchical disempowerment

God is the source of all blessing, and man can only bless in God's name in a ministerial way. The power of blessing granted to Aaron and his sons (Num 6:22-27), then to the apostles (Mt 10:12-13; Lk 10:5-6) and ordained ministers, is therefore a concession accompanied by a requirement to bless in God's Name only what God can bless. The history of the Church reminds us that when priests usurp their power to bless, the face of God is permanently disfigured. This seriousness calls for caution in the pastoral care of blessings.

From this point of view, the declaration Fiducia supplicans has placed both the Magisterium and pastors in an untenable situation, on three counts.

Firstly, by maintaining that blessings for irregular and same-sex couples are possible, provided they have neither ritual nor liturgy, the document promotes a pastoral approach while refusing to provide pastors with indications on the words and gestures appropriate to signify the graces dispensed by the Church[17]. The Dicastery has also explicitly forbidden itself to regulate the excesses, excesses or errors that are bound to arise, especially in this very delicate area, to the great detriment of the faithful whom these blessings are supposed to help[18]. This renunciation of ecclesiastical authority is consistent with the solution being promoted. But the very fact that it leads, in this particular matter, to the release of the Roman Pontiff, and with him all bishops, from their responsibility for the sanctification of the faithful (munus sanctificandi), to which they are nevertheless bound by the divine constitution of the Church, raises questions[19]. What is at issue here is not the margin of manoeuvre left to pastors, but the establishment of an "institutionalized clandestinity" for a whole area of ecclesial activity.

Secondly, the principle introduced by Fiducia supplicans knows no limits. Admittedly, the declaration refers in particular to "couples in an irregular situation and same-sex couples". We'll leave it to everyone to imagine the variety of situations that fall within this framework, from the most scurrilous to the most objectively scandalous, and which could nonetheless be blessed, as well as couples of good will and those wounded by life sincerely seeking divine help. Indeed, by renouncing the rites of blessing, we also renounce their preparation, during which pastors judge their appropriateness, discern intentions and help to direct them rightly. Similarly, by making the practice of blessings uncontrollable, we accept in advance all the excesses that will arise. What's more, the title of the declaration ("on the pastoral significance of blessings") and its content pave the way for a much wider application, since there is no reason to restrict it to couples. Indeed, following the principle at the heart of the document, it would become possible to bless any objective situation of sin as such, or any situation objectively established by sin as such, even the most contrary to the Gospel and the most abominable in God's eyes. Anything could be blessed... as long as there's no ritual or liturgy.

Thirdly, when superiors offload responsibility onto inferiors, the inferiors are left to carry the whole load. In this case, Fiducia supplicans invites pastors to greater pastoral solicitude, and the indications the text provides are invaluable to them. From this point of view, the Magisterium helps ordained ministers to exercise their office. On the other hand, by institutionalizing clandestinity in the most thorny cases, it will give rise to new requests for blessings, while leaving these same ministers completely helpless. Priests will no longer be able to rely on the support of liturgical and episcopal norms to decide what they should or can do. In the face of pressure or blackmail, they will no longer be able to hide behind the authority of the Church and reply: "that's not possible, the Church doesn't allow it". They will no longer be able to rely on well-considered criteria for judging the appropriateness or the direction to take. In each difficult case, they will have to carry on their conscience the weight of the decision they have been forced to take alone, asking themselves whether they have been faithful servants or corrupters of God's face to mankind.

This triple abandonment can only be painfully felt by the sensus fidei, by pastors and by the faithful, as the impression that the flock is left to its own devices, without guidance. Such a lack is certainly counterbalanced by the encouragement to greater charity, attention to the weakest, welcoming those most in need of divine help. But was it necessary to oppose and sacrifice one to the other? Are they not rather destined to support each other?

Fiducia supplicans has taken place. Even going back several centuries, this document has no equivalent. Trouble among God's people has arrived, and it cannot be undone. We must now work to repair the damage, and to ensure that its causes, including those we have identified, are resolved before the conflagration spreads. This will only be possible by remaining united around the Holy Father and praying for the unity of the Church.

Fr. Emmanuel Perrier, o.p.


[1] Declaration Fiducia supplicans on the pastoral significance of blessings, by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved December 18, 2023 [hereinafter FS]. We use two other abbreviations: [CEC] for Catechism of the Catholic Church; [CIC] for Code of Canon Law.  

[2] Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, n. 12.

[3] Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, n. 8: the Church is a community constituted by Christ and sustained by him, "a single complex reality which brings together a human and a divine element" in order to bring salvation. 

[4] Cf. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 60; n. 7.

[5] The Didache is a remarkable witness to this. More broadly, Louis Bouyer's study of the earliest Eucharistic prayers showed that they all took the form of blessings, inspired by the pattern inherited from Judaism (cf. L. Bouyer, Eucharistie, Paris, 1990). Similarly, the earliest defenses of ecclesiastical blessings present them as liturgical. Cf. Saint Ambrose, De patr. II, 7 (CSEL 32,2, p. 128): "benedictio [est] sanctificationis et gratiarum votiva conlatio". Saint Augustine, Ep. 179, 4. Synods of the Councils of Carthage and Milev of 416 (cf. Augustine, Ep 175 and 176).

[6] There is a parallel here between sacraments and blessings: the Church only has the power to regulate the discipline of the sacraments that Christ instituted; similarly, the Church, being constituted by Christ, only has the power to regulate the discipline of the blessings that she gives as an extension of this constitution. Today, blessings are commonly classed as "sacramentals", and this says a great deal about their proximity to the sacraments. 

[7] Cf. Vatican II, Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2.

[8] John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, n. 104. 

[9] Vatican Council II, Dei verbum, n. 5.

[10] Vatican Council II, Dei verbum, n. 10.

[11] A third category was added by John Paul II, Ad tuendam fidem (1998), but is not considered here.

[12] Cf. Vatican Council I, De fide cath. c. 3, taken up by Vatican Council II, Dei verbum, n. 5.

[13] Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, n. 25 §1.

[14] "Presentation" of Fiducia supplicans. It could be argued that, by proposing only a "contribution" to a field described as "pastoral", this text does not claim to commit itself to the truths of the faith. Or that, despite appearances, the conditions of the ordinary Magisterium (cf. CIC 750) have not been met. If this were the case, the text would not belong to the Magisterium and could be ignored. The fact remains, however, that the sensus fidei reaction shows that it touches, at least indirectly, on truths about faith and morals. 

[15] Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, February 22, 2021. 

[16] It also has a higher degree of authority, but this is of no consequence, since it is intended to complement rather than replace the Responsum. 

[17] FS, n. 38-40, provides a few points of reference, for guidance only and in very general terms. 

[18] FS, n. 41: "What is said in the present Declaration on the blessing of same-sex couples is sufficient to guide the prudent and paternal discernment of ordained ministers in this regard. In addition to the above indications, therefore, no further responses are to be expected on possible provisions to regulate the details or practicalities as to blessings of this kind." 

[19] Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, n. 26; Christus dominus, n. 15.