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Fiducia supplicans & church teaching

Dec 23, 2023

I’ve seen a fair amount of hand wringing over Fiducia supplicans where the consistency of church teaching & papal authority are concerned. The concern goes something like this: Fiducia supplicans, signed by Pope Francis, reaffirms the Catholic church’s historical teaching on marriage (as possible only between a woman & a man) while allowing for blessings of couples who do not conform to that teaching of marriage. This means the Catholic church will have to either forge ahead, perhaps revising its understanding of marriage to include partnerships between persons of the same gender, or pull back from Fiducia supplicans to reaffirm its historical understanding of marriage. Either way, the concern is the consistency of Catholic teaching. How can the church claim authority in matters of faith & morals if its positions on those matters change?

While these concerns are understandable, they seem to suppose this is the first time the church has found it necessary to revise its position on matters of faith & morals. The historical record is not so tidy. Even looking at something like the reception of the Council of Nicaea, it’s not at all clear that the church’s position always was that the Son is consubstantial with the Father (see David Bentley Hart’s Tradition & Apocalypse on this point). Similarly, it was only in 1965 that the Catholic church affirmed the individual’s right to religious freedom in Dignitas humanae; previously, popes had been pretty comfortable with the use of the power of the state to compel religious practice (see, e.g., Pope Leo X’s 1520 Exsurge Domine). So here are two examples, one pertaining to faith & the other to morals, of development (to put it mildly) in Catholic doctrine. The late Rick Gaillardetz, an expert on church teaching & authority, discusses some of these developments in his last interview, on the October 25, 2023 episode of the Jesuitical podcast.

I point to these examples not to suggest that Fiducia supplicans is no big deal—it very obviously is—but rather to say that this is not the first time a pope has issued a statement in tension, even at odds, with magisterial teaching. Far from it, in fact. (I haven’t even raised the infamous case of Pope Honorius I.) Theologians & historians will have to figure out how to understand Fiducia supplicans alongside the 2000 years of tradition which, together with Scripture, comprise the deposit of faith. This is one of the reasons the Catholic church needs professional theologians, & lots of them—it’s no small thing to develop expertise on 2000 years of tradition. Indeed, I would say this making-sense-of-tradition is a central task of Catholic theology (as distinct from other forms of Christian theology). Sometimes, this making-sense requires something that looks a lot like revision, if not outright reversal.

But, in any case, Fiducia supplicans is not the first time Catholic theologians will have to renarrate that tradition to account for new chapters in the church’s life & practice, nor, dare I say, will it be the last time. If you’re interested in how Catholic theologians have attempted to do this renarration, I’d recommend looking into:

  • the Tübingen school (Drey, Möhler);
  • Maurice Blondel, History & Dogma (1903);
  • John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Dogma (1909);
  • nouvelle théologie/ressourcement (Henri de Lubac, M.D. Chenu, etc.);
  • Philipp Rosemann, Charred Root of Meaning (2018); &
  • Anne Carpenter, Nothing Gained Is Eternal (2022).