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Twenty years ago, when the Episcopal Church succumbed to the sexual identity heresy, a lot of other denominations and ecclesiastical bodies wagged their heads and felt sorry for those caught up in the “Anglican trouble.” The affirmation or blessing of same-sex relationships, and all the attendant theological and biblical gymnastics, seemed an outlier, something that would never bring down a real church like the Southern Baptist Convention, or ever make its way inside the solid foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, I prayed that God would use our ruin as a warning to others. And, for a while, it seemed that God had heard me. There wasn’t a mad rush to accept same-sex marriage or ordain openly gay pastors. The first real blow against broad ecumenical orthodoxy on sexuality came with Revoice,1 and even then, the pushback was thoroughly heartening.
But 2023 saw a string of troubling events that prove no single church is immune from the corrosive effects of progressivism. The United Methodist Church suffered a formal split between orthodox and heterodox congregations;2 the Church of England went one further than The Episcopal Church and adopted “Prayers of Love and Faith,” which allows for prayers to be said over individuals “inside” same-sex relationships;3 Andy Stanley hosted his “Unconditional” conference to “pastorally” aid parents of same-sex identifying children;4 and, to round out a bad year for faithful Christians, Pope Francis signed Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez’s “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings.”5
In almost all these cases, the cleric or theologian introducing the question of same-sex blessings does not deny that the Scriptures reserve marriage for the life-long union between one man and one woman. Rather, emotional and spiritual space is created for a novel “pastoral response” for those either in same-sex relationships or who experience those desires. The ordinary pastoral work of the church, when it comes to the same-sex attracted, is judged to be insufficient.
In Fiducia supplicans (“Supplicating trust”6), to create this space, a new kind of blessing is offered that, according to the document, is spontaneous in nature and therefore more fully communicates God’s “unconditional” love.7 Unfortunately, this new kind of blessing contradicts previous teaching on this subject. Most people might assume that councils such as Vatican II8 are sufficiently authoritative on matters like these, but as lately as 2021, in a response to the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith answered “Negative.” They went on to say, plainly, that “he [God] does not and cannot bless sin.” The 2021 statement allowed that individual people in a sinful relationship can receive a blessing, that homosexual inclinations are not in themselves sinful, and that God always has the power to bless sinful people, but, nevertheless, a sexual relationship of two people of the same sex cannot be blessed by God.9
WHAT IS A BLESSING?
“Blessings are among the most widespread and evolving sacramentals,” explains Cardinal Fernandez in Fiducia supplicans (FS), “they lead us to grasp God’s presence in all the events of life and remind us that, even in the use of created things, human beings are invited to seek God, to love him, and to serve him faithfully.”10 In the contentious and politically fraught sphere of same-sex relationships, FS takes a step back and delves into the question of blessings in general. How does the church confer them? What does the Bible say? And what is the most pastoral way to bless someone? The document quotes Pope Francis: “[W]e are more important to God than all the sins we can commit because he is father, he is mother, he is pure love, he has blessed us forever. And he will never stop blessing us.”11 The posture of this pope, in other words, is toward the potential supplicant. He desires that no barriers be placed in the way of anyone desiring to encounter what he calls “transcendence”: “People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing show by this request their openness to transcendence, the confidence of their hearts that they do not trust in their own strength alone, their need for God, and their desire to break out of the narrow confines of this world, enclosed in its limitations.”12
THE BLESSING IS NOT FOR A MARRIAGE
There are still some limitations nevertheless, for the pope does not, technically, have the power to contradict magisterial dogma. FS goes out of the way to reassure skeptical Catholics that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not been undone. Cardinal Fernandez writes that “rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage — which is the ‘exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children’ — and what contradicts it are inadmissible” (emphasis added).13 That is, no cleric should create confusion between the blessings he offers over a same-sex couple and a man and woman properly married in the Church.
Anyone who encounters a post online of a Catholic priest standing before two men or two women with his hand raised and all three heads bowed must make a quick mental distinction.14 The couple might be civilly married in a state, like New York, and the priest might be wearing a rainbow stole, but he is not offering a formal liturgical blessing for their marriage as such. “From the point of view of pastoral care,” writes Cardinal Fernandez, “blessings should be evaluated as acts of devotion that ‘are external to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and of the other sacraments.’ Indeed, the ‘language, rhythm, course, and theological emphasis’ of popular piety differ ‘from those of the corresponding liturgical action.’ For this reason, ‘pious practices must conserve their proper style, simplicity, and language, [and] attempts to impose forms of ‘liturgical celebration’ on them are always to be avoided.’”15
The difference between these new blessings over a couple and marriage is crucial. “It is necessary that what is blessed corresponds with God’s designs written in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord,” he explains. “For this reason, since the Church has always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit, the Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extra-marital sexual practice.”16
The Church does not have the power, according to FS, to confer the moral legitimacy that a formal rite gives to such unions and yet Pope Francis desires that “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.”17 The assumption is that those seeking these kinds of blessings are doing so from pure motives, that they desire to “grow in fidelity to the Gospel,” that they expect to be “freed from their imperfections and frailties,” and “that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love.”18 What sort of “imperfections” or “frailties” these might be are not named, nor is it explained how the blessing might free the couple from experiencing them, especially without being able to perform “exhaustive moral analysis.”
A NEW KIND OF BLESSING
In effect, as many have pointed out, most notably Cardinal Gerhard Müller, FS creates a new kind of blessing.19 Pastors need not confine themselves to the Roman Catholic Church’s Book of Blessings.20 The reason to be careful that the blessing “should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament,” is not only to protect the integrity of a sacrament, but so that the blessing will not, through “such a ritualization…constitute a serious impoverishment because it would subject a gesture of great value in popular piety to excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives.”21 Popular piety takes precedence over the regular means of conferring blessings. Pope Francis is anxious that clerics not exercise “excessive control” over these blessings. No longer are the ordinary blessings, both inside and outside the context of liturgical worship, sufficient. Catholic priests need the freedom to invent blessings for same-sex couples as they see fit, to meet the pressing pastoral needs of said couples and the “popular” — one might say, culturally acceptable — views of those kinds of relationships.22
What kind of blessing might a pastor offer to such a couple? FS is clear that “one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing. In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance — but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.”23 Orthodox Christians at this point will search the document looking for explicit exhortation that the couple repent and cease their sexual union, but no such exhortation exists.
One should not be faulted for wondering whether same-sex sexual relationships really are morally illicit in the eyes of the Church, for why would Cardinal Fernandez suggest the priest ask God’s help for a couple living in an ungodly way to experience “peace” and “mutual assistance” when they are living in sin? FS instructs pastors never to give these blessings “in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them,”24 but at the same time the document does not prohibit civilly joined couples from seeking such blessings. Wouldn’t it be clearer to call a civilly joined couple to break off the relationship as a condition of receiving a blessing?
WHAT IS GOING ON?
In the hours after the release of FS, priest and activist James Martin posted a picture of himself offering a blessing over two gay men.25 A week or so later, another priest was photographed blessing a lesbian couple in front of a capacious Christmas tree.26 At the same time, almost the entirety of Africa and much of Eastern Europe has instructed their clergy and diocese not to implement these blessings.27
One might merely assume that various political factions are drawing up to predictable ideological lines of battle. Progressive rabble-rousers don’t much affect the spiritual habits of faithful Catholics. The more pressing question is, has Pope Francis transgressed an essential theological boundary? While it might be a stretch to say that he has, statements coming out of the Vatican, including one dated January 4, 2024, indicate a level of insecurity and defensiveness about the response to FS.28
Not being Catholic, I am loath to wade too far into foreign ecclesiastical waters, but the shape of the Declaration falls into a pattern I unhappily recognize. Trying to say that same-sex couples require a different kind of pastoral response amounts, in effect, to a different kind of gospel presentation. Is sexual orientation so essential to identity that those who hear that God cannot bless sin will suffer irremediable damage?
Cardinal Müller’s response cuts through the confusion. Addressing Cardinal Fernandez’s insistence that blessings cannot be given that are “contrary to the Gospel,” Cardinal Müller points out that FS creates a new category of blessing that is contrary to the gospel. “It is true,” he writes, “that the Church can add ‘new sacramentals’ to existing ones (Vatican II: Sacrosanctum Concilium 79), but she cannot change their meaning in such a way as to trivialize sin, especially in an ideologically charged cultural situation that also misleads the faithful. And this change of meaning is precisely what happens in FS, which invents a new category of blessings beyond those associated with either a sacrament or a blessing as the Church has understood them.”29
Lest you read FS and wonder whether it is really the case that same-sex couples in a sexual relationship might receive the blessing of the Church, your eyes are not deceiving you. “Notice that not only sinful persons are blessed here,” writes Cardinal Müller, “but that by blessing the couple, it is the sinful relationship itself that is blessed.” If, as the 2021 response said, the Lord cannot bless sin, “if this [new kind of] blessing were given, its only effect would be to confuse the people who receive it or who attend it. They would think that God has blessed what He cannot bless. This ‘pastoral’ blessing would be neither pastoral nor a blessing.” One cannot use the word “couple,” he insists, and say that the “union” is not being blessed. “What defines a couple as couple is precisely their being in a union.”30
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, so frustrated with the efforts of Judaizers to weaken the power of the gospel, wished that anyone teaching that it was possible to depend on the law to be justified before God would “emasculate themselves” (Galatians 5:12 ESV). In some sense, the Judaizers plaguing the early church were concerned about pastoral care. Those formed and shaped by the law, who found circumcision and law-keeping to be central to their Christian identity, could not fathom depending only on the grace of God for eternal life. Our generation, in other words, is not the first to deal with thorny cultural and pastoral issues.
FS says that “One who asks for a blessing show [sic] himself to be 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. To seek a blessing in the Church is to acknowledge that the life of the Church springs from the womb of God’s mercy and helps us to move forward, to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will.”31 But one has to ask, what if they aren’t asking for mercy? What if they don’t think they are doing wrong? What if they don’t go to confession, receive absolution, receive Communion, and die in right standing before God? What Pope Francis seems to be saying is that God is not the sort of God who really cares. There are no real eternal consequences for unrepentant sin. Rather, it is the pain and alienation of not getting what you want now that really matters. This is not the Christian gospel. I can only imagine what Saint Paul — or even Saint Peter — would say if he could write a response to this Declaration. Christians of every kind, no matter their sexual proclivities, are wondering who God really is. If He exists, what does He require? If He can come near to people, what can He say? When He calls a creature to Himself, what happens to that creature? Imagine a kind and gentle pastor who, rather than calling two sinners to repent and turn to the Lord, instead raises his hand over their heads and tells them to go and search for “transcendence.” The head of a Church who blesses such an action does not appear to fear God, nor the sin of pride that dooms the human soul. A true supplicant should not trust such a one but pray that God will have mercy and bless him in such a way that he finally repents.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.
- Anne Kennedy, “Identity and Obedience in Revoice 2021,” Christian Research Journal, February 1, 2022, https://www.equip.org/articles/identity-and-obedience-in-revoice-2021/.
- Jeffrey Walton, “Methodist Firesale and Creative Destruction,” Juicy Ecumenism, January 3, 2024, https://juicyecumenism.com/2024/01/03/methodist-firesale/.
- The Archbishop’s Council, Prayers of Love and Faith, The Church of England, 2023, https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-12/prayers-of-love-and-faith.pdf.
- R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Train Is Leaving the Station: Andy Stanley’s Departure from Biblical Christianity,” World, September 18, 2023, https://wng.org/opinions/the-train-is-leaving-the-station-1695036498.
- Víctor Manuel Fernandez, “Dichiarazione Fiducia supplicans sul senso pastorale delle benedizioni del Dicastero per la Dottrina della Fede” [“Declaration Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings”], Bollettino, December 18, 2023, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2023/12/18/0901/01963.html#en.
- Cindy Wooden, “Doctrinal Dicastery Explains How, When Gay Couples Can Be Blessed,” Catholic News Service, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, December 18, 2023, https://www.usccb.org/news/2023/doctrinal-dicastery-explains-how-when-gay-couples-can-be-blessed.
- Fiducia supplicans, 27–30.
- The Second Vatican Council, “Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family,” Gaudium Et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), December 7, 1965, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/catholic-teaching/upload/Gaudium-et-Spes-NFP-Notes-on-Marriage.pdf.
- “Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex,” February 22, 2021, The Holy See, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20210222_responsum-dubium-unioni_en.html.
- Fiducia supplicans, 8.
- Pope Francis, “General Audience: Catechesis on Prayer: The Blessing,” December 2, 2020, quoted in Fiducia supplicans, 27.
- Fiducia supplicans, 21,
- Fiducia supplicans, 4.
- See endnotes 25 and 26 below.
- Fiducia supplicans, 24.
- Fiducia supplicans, 11.
- Fiducia supplicans, 25.
- Fiducia supplicans, 31.
- Gerhard Müller, “‘Fiducia supplicans’ Is ‘Self-Contradictory,’” The Pillar, December 21, 2023, https://www.pillarcatholic.com/p/muller-fiducia-supplicans-is-self.
- Fiducia supplicans, 35.
- Fiducia supplicans, 36.
- To gain a fuller sense of what American Christians are up against, I recommend three articles available at the Christian Research Journal: Matthew M. Kennedy, “Marriage Is about the Gospel: Clarifying the Boundaries of Christian Orthodoxy,” Christian Research Journal 45, no. 2/3 (2022), https://www.equip.org/articles/marriage-is-about-the-gospel-clarifying-the-boundaries-of-christian-orthodoxy/; Ann Kennedy, “Spiritual Friendship: Temptation or Belonging?,” Christian Research Journal, November 9, 2022, https://www.equip.org/articles/spiritual-friendship-temptation-or-belonging/; Anne Kennedy, “A Helper Like Me: A Review of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage by David and Constantino Khalaf” Christian Research Journal, November 4, 2019, https://www.equip.org/articles/a-helper-like-me-a-review-of-modern-kinship-a-queer-guide-to-christian-marriage-by-david-and-constantino-khalaf/.
- Fiducia supplicans, 38.
- Fiducia supplicans, 39.
- James Martin, (@JamesMartinSJ), “Dear friends: I was honored to bless my friends Jason and Damian this morning in our Jesuit residence, according to the new guidelines laid out by the Vatican for same-sex couples. But before this, I’ve been blessed by their friendship and support.” December 19, 2023, 7:33 pm, https://x.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1737269909476790568?s=20.
- Outreach, (@OutrchCatholic), “History continues to be made in the church: a priest blesses a same-sex couple, according to the guidelines set out in ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’ in the Diocese of Lexington,” December 31, 2023, 9:31 pm, https://x.com/OutrchCatholic/status/1741648288883904923?s=20.
- Luke Coppen, “‘Fiducia supplicans’: Who’s Saying What?” The Pillar, December 19, 2023, https://www.pillarcatholic.com/p/fiducia-supplicans-whos-saying-what.
- See Víctor Manuel Fernández, “Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith: Press Release Concerning the Reception of Fiducia supplicans,” Vatican News, January 4, 2024, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2024-01/dicastery-for-the-doctrine-of-the-faith-on-fiducia-supplicans.html.
- Müller, “‘Fiducia supplicans’ Is ‘Self-Contradictory.’”
- Müller, “‘Fiducia supplicans’ Is ‘Self-Contradictory.’”
- Fiducia supplicans, 20.