A pride flag in front of the spires of the Cologne Cathedral on July 9, 2023 (OSV News photo/Jana Rodenbusch, Reuters)

On Monday, the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) issued the doctrinal declaration Fiducia supplicans, granting priests permission to bless couples in same-sex relationships. The document, signed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández and “based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis,” also grants priests permission to bless other couples in so-called “irregular situations,” including those in civil unions, divorced and remarried couples who have not obtained an annulment, and unmarried partners who live together.

Fiducia supplicans, which closely mirrors the pope’s response to the dubia of five conservative cardinals presented just before the October opening of the Synod on Synodality, breaks no new doctrinal ground. It repeatedly reaffirms the Church’s “perennial” teaching that marriage is an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” while stressing that same-sex unions “cannot be compared in any way to a marriage.”

It also takes pains to limit the scope and nature of the blessings priests can now offer same-sex couples—a fact many liberal media outlets initially failed to acknowledge. The document makes clear that the new blessings must not resemble a liturgy, ritual, or civil-union ceremony. Nor can they be “performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.” Instead, such blessings are to be “simple gestures” preceded by a “brief prayer” and offered spontaneously in informal contexts like “a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage.” The Church, the document insists, cannot legitimate the “status” of a same-sex couple’s union. But it can petition God to enrich, heal, and elevate “all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships.”

The unprompted outpouring of divine grace cannot be limited to the sacraments or the liturgy alone.

Clearly, Fiducia supplicans does not go as far as many LGBTQ advocates would like. The permissions it grants fall far short of the kinds of public blessings approved, for example, by the German and Flemish bishops’ conferences. Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss this doctrinal declaration—the first since 2000’s Dominus Jesus—as inconsequential, as some Catholics, both liberal and conservative, have already done.

For starters, the document really does offer a “real development from what has been said about blessings up until now,” allowing for a broader, richer understanding of the practice, one less tied to ritual and liturgical formulas and more receptive to the free outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As Fiducia supplicans explains, the unprompted outpouring of divine grace cannot be limited to the sacraments or the liturgy alone: “the world needs blessings,” and the fact that these newly permitted blessings cannot occur within a ritual context does not make them any less powerful as expressions of God’s abiding love for all people, including same-sex couples: “every brother and every sister will be able to feel that, in the Church, they are always pilgrims, always beggars, always loved, and, despite everything, always blessed.”

Francis’s critics often complain that the pope’s gentler, more “pastoral” approach to neuralgic ecclesial issues like same-sex relationships creates confusion and sows division. Fiducia supplicans, written with doctrinal precision and spiritual charity, does neither. It affirms, rightly, what too many Catholics often forget: that the Church is not primarily a redoubt for the perfect, but a community of flawed human beings humbly committed to serving a merciful God. It should therefore be as generous as possible in dispensing blessings, and less anxious about the purity of those who receive them.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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