A same-sex couple is pictured inside the Essen Cathedral in Germany October 30, 2021 (OSV News photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA).

Remember Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa waking his Italian parish priest on the way to his big fight: “Hey Fadda Carmine, you home?” The priest throws open his window and peers down in the dark: ma, chi é? It’s about the fight, Rocky explains. He and his girlfriend have a baby on the way, and he wonders if the priest could “throw down a blessing” on him so that, if he does get beaten up badly, “it won’t be so bad. Could you do something like that?” Fr. Carmine doesn’t hesitate: Nel nome del Padre, del Figlio, e dello Spirito Santo…. Rocky makes the sign of the cross, thanks him, says he’s late and has to go. The whole thing takes barely a minute.

That is what Fiducia supplicans, the controversial new doctrinal declaration from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), is about. It does something new with something very old. The new thing is to make a theological distinction between different kinds of blessings. On the one hand there is the liturgical, ritual kind of blessing, which the document calls “descending.” Such blessings are of the approving-endorsing kind; they bestow divine approval. On the other hand, there are “ascending” blessings, offered in response to people asking for them with “supplicating trust.” One can think of these as the Rocky kind of blessing: spontaneous, fly-by, pastoral, the kind associated especially with popular religiosity. What is being asked for here is a gesture of protection and goodness, expressing “comfort and care and encouragement.”

The old thing here is that this is what priests have always done. Fiducia supplicans states in theological terms what is obvious to any pastor. When people ask for such a blessing, the declaration states, “an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it,” nor should those seeking a blessing be required to have “prior moral perfection.” When Rocky turns up for a blessing, fearing that his upcoming fight will leave him too messed up to care for his girlfriend and his baby, Fr. Carmine does not lecture him on the immorality of professional boxing, or ask him when he’s going to make an honest woman of his girlfriend. He might do that another time—might ask Rocky to come see him after Mass, if he has that kind of pastoral relationship. But not right then, not when Rocky is about to get pulverized in the ring. Fr. Carmine does at that moment what pastors do: he sees Rocky’s need, his hunger for help, his need of reassurance. And he gives him those because the Church has given him the power to channel God’s merciful love, and, as Fiducia supplicans puts it, “God never turns away anyone who approaches him.”


If all this is so obvious, why has the Vatican’s declaration kicked up the kind of resistance to the papacy not seen since the release of Amoris laetitia in 2016—maybe even (some say) since Humanae vitae in 1968? The reason is that, like both of those, Fiducia touches on questions of sexuality and marriage, a culture-war battlefield in the West. And whereas Amoris steered clear of homosexuality, Fiducia directly addresses the question currently dividing all Christian churches—namely, the question of same-sex blessings.

Although Fiducia makes abundantly clear that the Church cannot approve same-sex relationships or unions, it says that priests may do Rocky-style blessings of people in such unions—as long as they can do so without causing scandal. In making this move just before Christmas, the DDF’s prefect, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, triggered not just the usual radical traditionalists (Cardinal Sarah declared it heretical, while EWTN’s Fr. Gerald Murray was shocked at the absence of the word “sodomy”), but the Church of an entire continent. Through its continental ecclesial body, SECAM, the Church in Africa has declared—with the agreement of Pope Francis—an opt-out, saying that it “generally prefer[s]” not to offer such blessings because they would scandalize Africans.

Although Fiducia makes abundantly clear that the Church cannot approve same-sex relationships or unions, it says that priests may do Rocky-style blessings of people in such unions.

Elsewhere, the minority of bishops who have objected have offered essentially the same argument: that in practice the distinction between liturgical and pastoral blessings is impossible to make, given that it is the same-sex couple seeking the blessing. Thus, while the French bishops’ conference said such blessings were a sign of God’s merciful love of all, the bishops of nine small dioceses in the northwest of the country said the blessings undermined the Church’s prophetic duty to promote God’s design for humanity. At the conclusion of a rather tortured statement, they declared they preferred to “spontaneously bless on an individual basis each of the two people making up the couple,” should those individuals ask for such blessings with humility and in the desire to conform ever more to God’s will.

Although critics have worked hard to prove that these expressions of resistance have made the declaration a failure, Cardinal Fernández pointed out in a press release on January 4 that opt-outs were anticipated. In their “practical aspects,” documents from his dicastery “may require more or less time for their application depending on local contexts” and that each bishop has the power of discernment in loco. In some places, they can be immediately applied; in others, it may take time to read and interpret them; in still others, they might not be applied at all, as the African case showed. What mattered was to accept the doctrinal point that the non-ritualized blessing is not intended to justify what is not morally acceptable; and that in blessing two people who approach him together, a priest is no more approving all aspects of their relationships than he would be approving all aspects of the character of an individual who approached him.

In making this distinction, Fernández has considerably moved the debate. The genius of Fiducia supplicans, wrote the theologian James Alison in the Tablet, is to establish the real basis of our unity as a Church. All of us are sinners, but all of us are capable of being transformed by God’s grace. Leave Church teaching where it is, but never use it to judge others, for that is the way to hell. “Meanwhile, learn to perceive people you might have despised as ‘blessable’ rather than ‘contemptible,’ and then let God’s subtle grace sort out the efficacy of blessing in their—our—lives.”

The document also offers a practical way of reining in the Church in Belgium and Germany, which have been moving toward liturgical same-sex blessings. In the Church, liturgical blessings are always of the endorsing-approving kind, involving authorized texts and rituals in the so-called “Book of Blessings.” As Fiducia supplicans notes, such blessings require that “what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church.” That means, at least, that ministers should avoid blessing what contradicts the law or the spirit of the Gospel.

This was the rationale for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s March 2021 “Responsum ad dubium”: because only sexual relations lived out in marriage are morally licit, and same-sex relations take place “within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” the Church does not have the power to liturgically bless “a union that presumes to be a marriage or…an extra-marital sexual practice,” even if the relationship includes positive elements (fidelity, for example). God, declared the Responsum, “does not and cannot bless sin.”

Pope Francis was deeply unhappy with that answer, and by the way it had been pushed through by the CDF’s then-secretary, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi. In January 2022, Francis made Morandi a bishop in the far north of Italy and the following month revamped the CDF’s internal procedures. Then came the appointment last July of the pope’s longtime theological collaborator, Cardinal Fernández, as head of the reformed CDF, which is now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. When some conservative cardinals challenged Pope Francis on the eve of October’s synod assembly in Rome to answer a question about same-sex blessings, the pope and Fernández took the opportunity to make up for the defects of the 2021 responsum.

In their responses of September 25 (known as the respuestas because they were in Spanish), Francis and Fernández underlined that the Church must avoid any rite or sacrament that contradicted its teaching on marriage, or that involved blessing as marriage something that was not marriage. But the respuestas added three key points which would be developed by Fiducia supplicans. First was the importance of “pastoral charity,” which required much more than the defense of objective truth. It wasn’t enough to be judges who condemned and excluded; patience, understanding, and encouragement were also needed. Second, “pastoral prudence” might allow for forms of blessing to be given to people whose relationships did not conform to the Church’s teachings about sex and marriage, as long as these blessings didn’t communicate an erroneous understanding of marriage, for behind the request for a blessing can be a trusting call for God’s help. Third, faced with situations that are, objectively speaking, morally unacceptable, pastors should keep in mind the many circumstances that might be influencing or constraining people’s moral choices.

Fiducia supplicans develops “a broader understanding of blessings” in line with the points the pope made in the respuestas, setting out the relevant pastoral and doctrinal issues. Cardinal Fernández makes clear that, unlike the 2021 responsum, Fiducia supplicans is the result of a broad and careful consultation involving the DDF’s full standing body, the congresso, and the pope himself. As a “real development from what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church,” it has the status of a “declaration”—about as high a level of teaching authority as a Vatican document not written by the pope himself can have. (The last was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Dominum Iesus, issued twenty-three years ago.) It reflects theologically what has long been known and done on the ground, catching the magisterium up with lived faith.   

It is not enough to say that God does not bless sin. What about the people involved, the same-sex couple themselves? Is grace denied them when they seek God’s help? Are they cut off from God’s merciful love? At least Rocky and his girlfriend could get married in the Church. But that is not an option for the divorced-and-remarried who cannot get an annulment, or for the same-sex couple. Fiducia supplicans does not create a new sacramental option for them. The declaration could not be clearer on this point, and Fernández underlines it again in the press release. Marriage is marriage, and no blessings should be “fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities, to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage.” This would seem to exclude the kinds of prayers approved by the Flemish bishops in Belgium in September 2022 (although their own view, sources close to the Flemish episcopate tell me, is that these prayers are not a “ritual” but a prayer for God to accompany a same-sex couple, and are therefore within the limits set by Fiducia supplicans). In any case, the Flemish prayers involve blessing the commitments the same-sex couple make to each other, and so sail close to the wind.

The genius of Fiducia supplicans, wrote the theologian James Alison in the Tablet, is to establish the real basis of our unity as a Church.

In the German case, there is no doubt. Cardinal Fernández has said that the declaration is a “clear answer” to plans by the German Church’s so-called synodaler weg, or Synodal Path, to approve liturgical guidelines for same-sex blessings. Fernández says he is planning “a trip to Germany to have some conversations” about this and other matters. For Francis, this is key. Fiducia supplicans says the pope insists that “these non-ritualized blessings never cease being simple gestures that provide an effective means of increasing trust in God on the part of the people who ask for them,” and that they not become “a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament.”


Although many tensions remain, Francis and Fernández appear to have pulled off a remarkable feat, avoiding the kind of bitter divisions that have bedeviled other Christian denominations over the issue. (The Church of England last year finally agreed to same-sex ritual blessings after five years of deepening divisions, provoking Anglican bishops across the developing world to declare they no longer recognize Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as their leader.) The achievement can also be understood as the first fruit of synodality. 

The early diocesan stage of the Synod on Synodality showed clearly the desire of Catholics for the Church to hold in better tension truth and mercy. The global synthesis of the national reports, known as the Frascati document, quoted England and Wales’s call for the Church to “boldly proclaim its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment.” The inclusion of gay people was given as a specific example; the inclusion of the divorced-and-remarried was another. People were not asking for a new doctrine of marriage. They were asking that the doctrine not be used to exclude those who could not marry from God’s love and mercy. The working document of last October’s synod asked the assembly how to make credible the promise of Psalm 85 that “love and truth will meet.” That is what Fiducia supplicans does. One of those present at the synod, Alan McGuckian SJ, Bishop of Raphoe in Ireland, says the declaration contains “the tension between Truth and Mercy,” clearly affirming both, reasserting Church teaching while reminding us that “God’s love never leaves us, while it always calls us to conversion.”

Fiducia supplicans reflects synodality in another way, too. The African Church’s statement choosing to opt out of the blessings was the result of a December 20, 2023, letter from the president of SECAM, Cardinal Ambongo of Kinshasa, to the presidents of Africa’s bishops’ conferences. Ambongo’s letter quoted the October assembly’s synthesis report (n.19), which stressed the importance of bishops’ discernment of local realities and of collegiality at a continental level. The SECAM statement of January 11, 2024, was the fruit of those consultations. Just as importantly, Ambongo, who sits on the pope’s council of cardinals, issued the statement with the agreement of Francis and Fernández. It was, in other words, an example of the healthy decentralization that a multipolar Church needs, agreeing on the relevant doctrines—that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that gay people have dignity and should not be discriminated against—but allowing for cultural differences in its practical application.

Put simply, in large parts of Africa homosexuality remains a social scandal, to be dealt with in private, whereas in the West homosexuality has been socially normalized in the past two decades to the point where it is now the social exclusion of homosexuals that is the greater scandal. Fiducia supplicans allows for both social realities. But the doctrine itself remains clear, and the SECAM statement promised that the bishops in Africa “will continue to reflect on the richness of spontaneous blessings in everyday pastoral care.” As Rocky might say: amen to that.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

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Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents
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