Archive, Letters

On Fiducia Supplicans

Letter to the Priests of the Prelatures of Trondheim and Tromsø

21 December 2023 
O Oriens

Dear Brethren,

I have been asked to clarify the right practical application of Fiducia supplicans, a Declaration published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on 18 December 2023 in the form of a meditation. Detailed clarity is explicitly not the document’s priority (cf. n. 41). Thus the Dicastery fraternally (n. 3) invites us to find such light as we can by closely reading what is said and what is implicit, that we, as priests, may pursue what is ever the Church’s supreme purpose and law, the salvation of souls (cf. Code of Canon Law, c. 1752).

First we may note what is explicit in the text:

1. The declaration presents itself as a statement ‘on the pastoral meaning of blessings’. Its subject matter is not moral theology. 

2. Regarding moral theology, specifically the theology of marriage, the declaration says nothing new. It consolidates the Church’s perennial teaching. It explicitly forbids any gesture that might give the appearance of relativising this teaching or be apt to produce ‘confusion’ (n. 31). 

The pastoral concern of the declaration is ‘for couples in irregular situations’ (n. 31). From the Instrumentum Laboris for the First Session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, popularly known as the Synod on Synodality (B 1.2), we know that these couples fall into three main categories: divorced and remarried Catholics; Catholics in polygamous marriages; Catholics in relationships not made up of one biological man and one biological woman. 

The declaration asks us, as priests, to show pastoral sensibility in such situations. It is my experience that such sensibility is indeed shown. I thank you for your ability to combine responsible theological intelligence with Christian charity and pastoral tact. I say to you what the bishops of the Nordic countries declared about themselves in their Letter on Human Sexuality, published on 25 March this year: ‘we are here for everyone, to accompany all. The yearning for love and the search for sexual wholeness touch human beings intimately. In this area we are all vulnerable. Patience is called for on the path towards wholeness, and joy in every forward step.’ 

Can believers who live in irregular situations be blessed? They can of course. It is a long established custom in our Church that, at the moment of Holy Communion, those who for one reason or another cannot receive the sacrament approach the priest and ask for a blessing: this is never withheld unless the supplicant, God forbid, manifests a sacrilegious attitude. It is edifying and touching to see a brother or sister in the faith, a person dear to us, acknowledge: ‘Here and now, the circumstances of my life are such that I cannot receive the sacraments; still, I believe in God and trust that God believes in me, so I invoke his blessing and declare my will to remain a part of this community of faith.’ 

There is sincerity, humility, and strength in such a posture. Where those three qualities are present, grace can work. 

What, then, about the blessing of couples in irregular circumstances, notably ‘couples of the same sex’ (n. 31)? In a Responsum addressing this question on 15 March 2021 — a text likewise issued by the Dicastery (at the time called ‘Congregation’) for the Doctrine of the Faith, likewise asserting the ‘assent’ of the Holy Father, Pope Francis — it was declared that such relationships cannot be ‘legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing’. Since this authoritative statement from the Holy See has not been revoked, we are not at liberty to ignore it. Nor does the present Declaration contradict it. It lays down that where an ‘ecclesial blessing’ is impossible, a ‘pastoral’ blessing may be envisaged. 

What is the difference between an ‘ecclesial’ and a ‘pastoral’ blessing? 

An ‘ecclesial’ act takes place publicly, following a ritual approved by the Church; a ‘pastoral’ act is personal, intimate, pertaining to the inner forum. Here, then, we have a criterion for the application of Fiducia supplicans: if couples living in irregular circumstances request a ‘pastoral’ blessing, the appropriate setting is away from the public eye, following the example of the Lord in the Gospel who, when approached by a blind man begging to touch him, took the man ‘by the hand and led him out of the village’ (Mark 8.23), there to lay his hands on him, that the healing of divine grace might touch that in him which was broken, without the brokenness becoming a public spectacle. This condition of privacy and confidentiality corresponds to what the Declaration indicates in nn. 31-41. 

A second criterion concerns the intention of couples asking to be blessed, so the divorced and remarried; those in polygamous marriages; or those in relationships not made up of one biological man and one biological woman. Presupposed is a will to conversion and an attitude of faith by virtue of which they ‘acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners’ (n. 32). There is to be, so Fiducia supplicans declares, ‘no intention to legitimise anything, but rather to open one’s life to God, to ask for his help to live better’ (n. 40). A blessing, we are instructed, may never be instrumentalised as a pawn for a political or ideological purpose (cf. nn. 32, 39). Should such an intention be in evidence, the priest is not free to bless; he must instead invite the supplicants to pray together the Lord’s Prayer. No one is to be precluded, in principle, from blessing (cf. n. 29). At the same time we are bound by this eternal, non-culturally conditioned precept: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Exodus 20.7). 

‘The last image of Jesus on earth’, states Fiducia supplicans, ‘is that of his hands being raised in the act of blessing’ (n. 18). This we must never forget. Even as we must not forget that those hands still bore the marks of the nails by which he had been nailed to the cross (cf. John 20.27), put forward ‘as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood’ (Romans 3.25), bearing the sins of the world. His act of final blessing (Luke 24.51) was simultaneously an act of commission, charging the disciples to go ‘and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28.19-20).   

Fiducia supplicans invites us to reflect on the meaning of blessings in Scripture. One thing is clear: a Biblical blessing is rarely an affirmation of a status quo; rather, a blessing confers a call to set out afresh, to be converted. Sometimes a blessing confers an acknowledgment of hardship, as when Isaac blesses Esau and says: ‘Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother.’ (Genesis 27.39-40). This state of affairs is not idealised; it is recognised before God. A blessing cannot be based on an illusion. By means of a blessing, Isaac tells his son: ‘Your life will not be an easy life.’ In the case of Esau’s brother, Jacob, the blessing of God that sealed his call was accompanied by a wound causing him, for the remainder of his days, to limp. The blessing itself was mysteriously contained in his new name ‘Israel’, that is ‘The one who strives with God’ (Genesis 32.26ff.). The God of Scripture is not a God who leaves us in peace; he calls us ever to step out of limited self-perception and designed comfort zones in order to become new women and men (Revelation 21.5). 

The declaration stresses that ‘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’ (n. 20). We know what is his will for us: ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thessalonians 4.3). The Second Vatican Council exhorts us: ‘All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 42.)

‘God never turns away anyone who approaches him!’ (n. 33). This is true. In the Gospel, we find Christ receiving all mercifully. But his mercy was always salted with truth. Sometimes he manifested sternness in order to rescue people from misconception and to teach them to ‘guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul’, which are apt to go astray. To the rich young man he said, ‘If you would be perfect, leave everything, all that now weighs you down and restricts you, and come follow me’. When the other demurred, Jesus did not run after him; he let his words do their secret, slow work in the young man’s soul (cf. Matthew 19.16-22). In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her. He rebuked the self-righteousness of those who did. Nonetheless, he sent her away with the instruction: ‘Do not sin again’ (John 8.11). These encounters, too, must count as paradigms of pastoral blessing. 

Today, on 21 December, we invoke Christ, the Lord coming to save us, with the title: O Oriens. ‘O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.’ May we tend towards him with chaste integrity of faith, with supernatural courage illumined by hope and warmed by charity, that his holy Church may ever be a credible witness to the grace won for us.

+fr Erik Varden ocso

Bishop of Trondheim &
Apostolic Administrator of Tromsø

Stained glass window from Downside Abbey