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Frequent & spontaneous blessing

Dec 29, 2023

Fiducia supplicans presents itself as “an innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening & enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings” (emphasis original). I have already said something about how this “innovation” might fit into a Catholic theological project, particularly where doctrinal development is concerned. I’d like now to comment more broadly on the document itself & what it has to say about blessings of couples. My main takeaway from Fiducia supplicans is that all persons & couples, including but not only those couples whose relationships do not conform to the church’s expectations, stand in need of God’s love & mercy, & so spontaneous, frequent, & abundant blessing of all persons & couples ought to be a regular feature of the church’s life as “sacrament of God’s infinite love” (§43).1

As I read it, the key portion of Fiducia supplicans & its theology of blessing is this:

One who asks for a blessing show himself to be in need of God’s saving presence in his life & 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 & helps us to move forward, to live better, & to respond to the Lord’s will. … This request [for a blessing] should, in every way, be valued, accompanied, & received with gratitude. People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing show by this request their sincere openness to transcendence, the confidence of their hearts that they do not trust in their own strength alone, their need for God, & their desire to break out of the narrow confines of this world, enclosed in its limitations. (§§20–21)

In short, one who seeks a blessing recognizes their own need for God’s love & mercy in their lives, & they recognize the church as a means by which God conveys that love & mercy. Such a recognition is always good & so should always be affirmed. One needn’t be morally perfect to receive a blessing (§12), & so it is not necessary or even appropriate for a priest to perform some “moral analysis” on the petitioner before performing such a blessing (§25). Rather, a priest should respond to a plea for blessing with a blessing.

What’s more, though Fiducia supplicans focuses its attention on blessings for couples who do not conform to the church’s ideal for marriage, this account of blessing does not apply only to those couples. Rather, Fiducia supplicans recognizes that all persons & couples require God’s love & mercy, & so the church & its ministers ought to be prepared to offer frequent & spontaneous blessings when approached. The “spontaneity” of blessing finds a striking emphasis in Fiducia supplicans; see §§21, 23, 28, 35, 36, & 38.

In addition to a recommendation of frequent & spontaneous blessing, I also noted the way the document characterizes the blessing that descends from God upon couples. Such a blessing

descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute & in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, & humanly valid in their lives & their relationships be enriched, healed, & elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. (§31)

Fiducia supplicans, here as elsewhere, is careful to note that asking for & receiving a blessing does not “legitimate” the “status” of the relationship. I take it this mention of “status” refers to the “irregular” situation (that’s Fiducia supplicans’s language) of couples who do not conform to the church’s ideal for marriage. Blessing a couple, Fiducia supplicans clarifies, does not necessarily entail recognizing in that couple the sacrament of marriage (see §§24, 39). I have more to say about this, hopefully in a future post.

Though Fiducia supplicans turns quickly from that clarification to the couple’s recognition that they are “destitute & in need of God’s help,” that recognition needn’t be a recognition that their relationship is somehow illegitimate because it does not conform to the church’s understanding of marriage. Instead, I read this line as simply repeating what Fiducia supplicans has already affirmed: all humans sin—all humans, often in spite of themselves, alienate & dehumanize others, even those very close to them—& so all humans stand in need God’s grace. All couples, married “regularly” or not, need God’s love & mercy.

But I am more interested, anyway, in the latter half of that quotation: Fidcuia supplicans affirms that when a couple seeks a blessing, they are asking “that all that is true, good, & humanly valid in their lives & their relationships be enriched, healed, & elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). Fiducia supplicans affirms that there is truth & goodness in a couple whose relationship does not conform to the church’s ideal for marriage, including in the relationship itself, & God can “enrich, heal, & elevate” those relationships by God’s presence. A little later Fiducia supplicans states that a request for a blessing “expresses & nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, & closeness of God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life” (§33). To ask for a blessing is to be open to God’s nearness in the specific situation of the couple, that is, in their relationship.

In other words, Fiducia supplicans affirms that God is present to queer couples in their relationship! That God can be present to a couple whose relationship does not conform to the church’s understanding of marriage is, of course, obvious to any loving couple & to those who know & love such couples. But for a document signed by the pope to recognize this, too, is significant—this, I take it, is what is innovative about Fiducia supplicans.

Fiducia supplicans wants to be clear that blessings of couples who do not conform to the church’s understanding of marriage are pastoral, not liturgical, blessings (see §§24, 33, 38, 39). But this is a perplexing distinction: as my friend & colleague, an expert on Catholic liturgy, sacramental theology, & ecclesiology, observed, Lumen gentium identifies the liturgy as “the source & summit of the whole of Christian life” (§11). Indeed, Víctor Manuel Cardinal Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his prologue to Fiducia supplicans observes that “the broadening & enrichment” of blessings that Fidcuia supplicans accomplishes “is closely linked to a liturgical perspective.” How can any pastoral activity of the church be divided from the liturgical origins & destination of the church?

There is, of course, much more to say about Fiducia supplicans & its implications for the life of the church. But on the whole I am pretty encouraged by its theology of blessing & its recognition that God’s love & mercy is available to all couples who seek it.

  1. Parenthetical references point to paragraph numbers in Fiducia supplicans↩︎