OSV News photo/CNS file, Nellie Williams

De-coupling the Church from Fiducia Supplicans

By  Pascal Bastien, Catholic Register Special
  • March 28, 2024

Much has been written in a short time on Fiducia Supplicans issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on Dec. 18, 2023. The backlash it has provoked is unprecedented in the post-conciliary Church. I wish to respond here to those who suggest that the faithful ought to absorb its teaching by evoking three perspectives.

Some bishops have underlined that this document causes great confusion among the faithful. Some cardinals have clarified that the document “must be considered doctrinally problematic,” contains elements “contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church” and have underlined their “firm opposition to Fiducia Supplicans,” “thereby not opposing Pope Francis, but firmly and radically opposing a heresy that gravely undermines the Church, Body of Christ, as it is contrary to the Catholic Faith and Tradition.”

In an historic move, the episcopal conferences of an entire continent, Africa — likely to be the most vibrant Catholic continent for the foreseeable future — rejected Fiducia Supplicans. In parallel, Patriarch Sviatovslav of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church promptly issued a communiqué indicating that Fiducia Supplicans did not address questions of Catholic faith or morals, and thus, on the basis of Canon 1492 of the CCEO, did not concern any of the 23 sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches.

It would nonetheless appear that these strong reactions have not spread to much of the Church hierarchy in the Catholic West. Surely, they were not to be expected among Belgian and German bishops who, months ago, had already approved liturgies aimed at blessing same-sex couples. Other hierarchs, however, though faithful to the traditional teaching of the Church, have issued only the most subdued comments; they give the impression it is not licit for them to present open criticism to a document that has received the seal of the Roman Curia and the tacit approval of the Pope. This cautionary reserve is likely multifactorial and stems in part from a unique respect owed to the papal office. For many among the laity, however, it is also tied to an erroneous perception of the Petrine ministry.

St. Paul (Galatians 2:11-14) and St. Catherine of Siena both remind us that Peter and his successors do err (and that it befalls other members of the Church to offer a fraternal correction). Even the most expansionist view of papal infallibility, as defined by the Roman Church, could not claim to have the slightest bearing on Fiducia Supplicans, which lacks all the customary conditions. These are made clear in the 1870 Vatican I Dogmatic Constitution Pastor aeternus, and clarify that this notion could only ever apply to declarations made by the “Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra,” that is, when speaking explicitly as “Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority” and only in areas of “faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church.” It is generally accepted that this infallibility has been evoked twice, when Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and when Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Fiducia Supplicans was not issued by the Pope but by a Roman dicastery; its author does not speak as the Vicar of Christ to the whole Church; there is no clear statement indicating an intention to invoke the fullness and finality of the Pope’s supreme Apostolic authority. Catholics would thus be gravely mistaken in approaching it as infallible.

More than 1,500 years ago, from his monastery off the coast of Cannes, St. Vincent of Lérins coined a “universal rule” to help the faithful distinguish Catholic truth from falsehood. Joining others before him, he pointed to “the authority of the Divine Law” and “the Tradition of the Catholic Church.” Seeing that problematic interpretations would still arise, he clarified that “all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

“Universality, antiquity, consent,” St. Vincent teaches, are thus the fundamental marks of the Catholic faith. Any fulsome appreciation of the office of the bishop of Rome not only can but should reject an exaggerated vision of the papacy which could pave the way to a rupture with tradition and orthodoxy.

Still, some wish to echo the attempts at reassurance provided by the dicastery’s own press release, emphasizing the document’s explicit upholding of traditional doctrine on marriage and sexuality, suggesting that the confusion stems not from the document but from its coverage by secular media and skipping over the contradiction it contains. To be clear, the issue in Fiducia Supplicans is not that a blessing be given to sinners — for no blessing is ever bestowed on anyone but sinners. The issue is that to bless a “couple” is to accept that there is in fact such a unit of two persons to bless, i.e., that they have been united — be it through legal proceedings, cohabitation or sexual intimacy. Such an action contradicts what is otherwise professed, and the fact that this novel practice is wrapped in the nomenclature of “non-liturgical blessings” has no bearing on its central incoherence.

If the Holy See had wanted to repeat its admonition to overly scrupulous clergy who deal with sinners with insufficient grace, it should have done so. It is no secret that today most baptized Catholics (whether same-sex-attracted or not, whether married licitly or not) fall far short of what the Church teaches on human sexuality (anyone who doubts this should re-read Humanae vitae or more ancient writings on contraception by St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Athanasius). Two adults living together in a sinful state and feeling drawn towards the fullness of Christian life should be able to approach a priest without fear, receive encouragement and — yes! — even a blessing on their path to conversion. In such a case, it is not a couple that is blessed, but rather their journey back to the Father.

This document, however, is no more merciful than truthful. In speaking of “couples in irregular situations,” it employs crafty euphemisms and works hard to set aside the lexicon of sinfulness and repentance. By piping down the call to conversion and ascetic discipline, Fiducia Supplicans betrays the men and women who have sought to remain chaste in difficult situations, and notably to those who have done this in the face of same-sex attraction, often despite chastisement from both religious and progressive zealots. It makes light of the work of those who have offered a defense of liberating teachings of Christian anthropology, and particularly of the rich theology of the body. It is deflating to catechumens and those who are journeying towards the Catholic Church, the “pillar and mainstay of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and universal sacrament of salvation.

It has often been said of late that the Church prefers discussion to rupture. On that basis, grave defiance to dogmatic orthodoxy is tolerated. Yet here again, facing the worthy goal of unity, the Roman Curia may have led us to take one step forward and two steps back.

The Catholic Church remains — officially and for now — in union and thus in dialogue with European bishops who go much further than Fiducia Supplicans and insist that “same-sex sexuality — also practised in sexual acts — is thus not a sin that separates a person from God,” thereby formally rejecting the integrity of the deposit of the faith as found in Holy Scripture and tradition. Fear of rupture is used to justify this overstretched stance. Yet this very stance, crystallized in Fiducia Supplicans, is having a very real and most deleterious impact on ecumenical dialogue, most notably with the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox who do, in fact, uphold Holy Scripture and tradition. Justice demands that unity with these Apostolic Churches not be relegated to the second row.

Let us pray that the Church share ever more clearly the truth, mercy and the unity that it has received freely from the Bridegroom.

(Pascal Bastien is an ordained reader of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church; he is married with three children and works as a physician.)

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