‘Pope says Roman Catholic priests can bless same-sex couples’ declared the BBC News website. It was not alone in this. Anglo-American newspapers, news outlets, and websites emblazoned across their banners this seemingly huge shift in the ethics and polity of the Roman Catholic Church. Liberal Roman Catholics such as James Martin SJ rejoiced; conservative Catholics were outraged. It was not long before there were voices in the Church of England who were likening the move to PLF. The Bishop of Southwark’s suggested on X that this could be seen as an Acts-like work of the Holy Spirit (I’m guessing in a reference to the Council of Jerusalem). Some Anglicans, both conservative and liberal, suggested that the timing of this document was deliberate. After all, this has happened not long after the Church of England’s General Synod had narrowly voted through their own set of prayers for same-sex couples.
When I read the headlines, I was very surprised, considering that I have been following quite closely the Roman Catholic Church over the last few years. Were the Pope declaring in favour of same-sex blessings in a PLF mould this would be a complete U-turn by the Vatican. As such, I decided to do something unthinkable and read the said document, Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings. And it is true, the Pope is saying that Roman Catholic priests can bless same-sex couples. But only in the sense that a priest can bless a boxer before a big fight.
Let me explain as briefly as possible.
First, when Fiducia Supplicans says that a priest can bless a same-sex couple, or a ‘couple in an irregular situation’ as the document itself would describe it, this is nothing new. Honestly. Nothing really has changed. A priest has always been able to do this. The document calls this ‘spontaneous’ blessings. Let me give you an example. In the first Rocky movie, before his big fight, the protagonist calls upon the priest before his big fight. He asks for the priest to ‘throw down a blessing’ as he and his girlfriend have a baby on the way and he doesn’t want ‘to get messed up too bad’. Notice that he has a pregnant girlfriend – not wife – and he’s about to get into a fight. In other words, Rocky is in a situation which the Roman Catholic Church would consider fornication and is about to enter into a situation of unjustified violence. The priest doesn’t ask for any sign of repentance for his fornication, nor try to persuade him to not to fight. He gives the blessing in a spontaneous and informal manner and goes back to bed. This is the kind of thing that Fiducia Supplicans is arguing in response to the blessings of couples in ‘irregular situations’: ‘Such a blessing may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage’ (3.40). I.e. If a same-sex couple came up to a priest on a pilgrimage to a shrine and said, ‘Can we have a blessing, Father?’, the priest can do what he has always done. Like with the example of Rocky and Father Carmine, ‘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’ (3.25).
Thus the situation remains the same as it ever was. Why then is a statement needed of such a kind? Is it a crafty way for a secret radically liberal Pope to smuggle in blessings for same-sex couples? Is it an example of Catholic fudge where the Pope tries to placate the liberals whilst keeping the conservatives on board? Is it the Pope looking at the wonders of the Church of England’s Prayers of Love and Faith and thinking, ‘My, my, this is a beacon of the future’? Well, to put it bluntly, no. Tragically, the Church of England simply isn’t that important anymore. Vatican documents are exhaustively written over a long period of time. The timing is arguably just a coincidence; if it is more than a coincidence, it is to indicate the opposite of what the media is claiming. For the Vatican the CofE is small fry. The bigger fish is Germany.
Whilst this has passed most of the CofE by, Pope Francis has initiated a massive project called synodality. In essence, this is a long-term project which is an attempt by the Pope to call together the whole Roman Church to discernment of the future. His focus throughout has been to remake the Roman Catholic Church into an evangelistic body. However, different national branches of the church have interpreted this in different ways. Particular attention goes to the German Roman Catholic Church (plus a few other Northern European Catholic churches). The bishops here have in many ways gone AWOL. They have started introducing new innovations which are not recognised by the wider church. Though the Vatican and even the Pope have given the Germans frequent warnings, these have not been heeded. Indeed, in March this year, the German bishops voted to approve blessings for same-sex couples in a process which looks remarkably like PLF. There are priests on the ground who are defying their own archbishop by blessing gay marriages. This has come up frequently in the synodal process and the German insistence has irritated even normally irenic voices such as Bishop Robert Barron. Indeed, the German church is increasingly at risk of schism from the wider church; excommunications are potentially afoot. Francis has avoided such an explosive result for good reason: not only is schism bad, and excommunication grim, but also because church taxes in Germany help lavishly fund much of the Vatican’s own finances.
We therefore must read Fiducia Supplicans as a response to this. And I really do mean read the document (which no one seems to be doing). And if this is not a put-down of the German bishops, I don’t know what is. Let’s look at some of these quotes:
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. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm. (1.4)
The Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex. (1.5)
It should be emphasized that in the Rite of the Sacrament of Marriage, this concerns not just any blessing but a gesture reserved to the ordained minister. In this case, the blessing given by the ordained minister is tied directly to the specific union of a man and a woman, who establish an exclusive and indissoluble covenant by their consent. This fact allows us to highlight the risk of confusing a blessing given to any other union with the Rite that is proper to the Sacrament of Marriage. (1.6)
It is essential to grasp the Holy Father’s concern 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, careful that they should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament. (3.36)
One should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. (3.38)
In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple. (3.39)
What then is the kind of blessing envisaged by the Pope?
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 (3.38) – italics mine.
In other words, the blessing is not a bare affirmation but rather a prayer for the persons’ humanity and the fulfilling of God’s will. Remember, the document declares that sexual relationships can only happen in the context of a male-female marriage. Therefore, the blessing is also a subtle prayer for sexual holiness as the Church has always understood this. The longest part of the document is a biblical and theological exploration of the difference between the spontaneous and informal prayers (like that given to Rocky) and liturgical rites. This is the main innovation: it gives theological grounding to indicate a distinction between various types of blessings. The Rocky-blessings cannot be given in a church service, but only in informal settings ‘such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage’ (3.40).
If this is a liberal meal, it is a thin and cold gruel indeed. The kind of blessings envisaged by the German bishops are ruled out: they cause confusion and scandal (2.30). Instead, any blessing of a same-sex couple (or a cohabiting couple, or a remarried couple) is in the same category as Rocky calling out to Father Carmine. Francis is keen not to commit everything under canon law; he’s keen that someone like Father Carmine should not be required to request Rocky’s repentance for his irregular situation before giving the blessing. What’s more, the church’s teachings remain the same. Is this the thin end of the wedge? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to be. The document says, ‘no further responses should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type’ (3.31). In other words, this remains an informal matter and the church will not be changing its doctrine or its liturgy to fit in.
Francis has often been accused of creating confusion and lacking clarity. Many conservatives have noted the documentation can potentially allow situations in which the priest can potentially bless a couple in adultery. But then again, it was always thus. More importantly, this document:
1) Rules out certain innovations in Germany as being legitimate forms of doctrinal development.
2) Gives permission Father Carmine to get the blessing of Rocky over and done with as quickly as possible and then get back to sleep.
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.