“How did you like your Christmas present from Rome?” So began a phone call from a dear friend of mine on the evening of 20 December, just two days after the release of Fiducia Supplicans, the declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that offered a way for priests to offer blessings to couples living in non-marital or extra-marital relationships, including same-sex couples.
My friend’s question was meant to be sarcastic, because he knew that a document of this nature and the sensationalist media headlines that followed its release would remove the possibility of a quiet and peaceful run into Christmas for those who – like me – follow and comment on church news.
But the more I reflected on the declaration and the way it was received (or not received, as the case may be), I became convinced that Fiducia Supplicans is indeed a Christmas gift to the church because it has illustrated (and hopefully neutralised) a challenge posed by the Synod on Synodality that may otherwise have been overlooked.
The Instrumentum Laboris for the first assembly of the Synod last October asked questions about ‘decentralisation’ and the degree to which doctrinal authority could be attributed to the discernment of episcopal conferences or continental assemblies. In other words, what level of doctrinal diversity can be tolerated between Germany and Africa?
These questions were answered in the synthesis report with the consideration of the need to “search for a dynamic balance between the dimension of the church as a whole and its local rootedness, between respect for the bond of church unity and the risk of homogenisation that stifles variety” and the fostering of “forms of decentralisation.” It was proposed that “a shared framework for managing and evaluating experimentations with forms of decentralisation” be prepared.
If Fiducia Supplicans and its attempt to leave the discernment of the appropriateness of blessing same-sex couples is the first such experiment with forms of decentralisation, any honest evaluation of its utility in striking the right balance between the need for unity and the stifling of variety would have to find it wanting.
Unsurprisingly, the declaration was welcomed in bishops from European countries like Germany, Belgium and Austria, with Germany already planning to issue a text for the blessing of same-sex couples (an action contrary to the declaration.) Several US priests have undertaken very public blessings, ensuring photos were taken and – in some cases – media invited to capture the moment. This too is contrary to the declaration’s insistence that a request be ‘spontaneous,’ but it is not clear that any reprimand has been given by the relevant ordinary, nor the Holy See.
The declaration was not welcomed by all European bishops, though. Hungary’s bishops said that priests should avoid giving a ‘common blessing to couples who live together in a purely conjugal relationship’ that is not an ecclesial marriage.
In other places, Fiducia Supplicans appeared to be completely rejected, with the bishops of Zambia issuing a pastoral letter stating that the declaration was “not for implementation in Zambia.” Similar prohibitions have been made by other African bishops’ conferences, including the bishops of Malawi, Angola and São Tomé, Cameroon, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Regional guidance from the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar is forthcoming.
When it comes to Eastern Catholic churches, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Greek-Ukrainian Catholic Church said the declaration was only applicable to Latin-rite Catholics, while Bishop François Beyrouti of America’s Melkite Catholic Church told his priests that such blessings could only be given with his permission, and warned of canonical penalties for any priest who did otherwise.
Many other bishops and bishops’ conferences expressed a ‘middle ground’ view of the declaration, writing respectfully of the document and the couples it seeks to embrace, while trying to narrow its application in such a way so as to minimise the scandal and confusion it could cause.
The divide is not only apparent amongst countries and continents; there is also a generational divide. The Confraternities of Catholic Clergy from each of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States all issued statements expressing caution over, if not criticism of, the declaration. The UK confraternity statement was the most direct concluded that “such blessings are pastorally and practically inadmissible.” While these confraternities are open to priests of all ages, photos of their gatherings suggest the average age of members is younger than the presbyterate generally.
In addition to the variegated response, other commentaries have described the declaration’s timing as problematic, with bishops and priests worldwide left wondering if the pre-Christmas announcement was something they needed to address in their homilies for the fourth Sunday of Advent or even Christmas Day.
The declaration caused such confusion that in this past week, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a five-page clarification, despite initially saying that no clarifications would be provided.
Given all this, why do I think we can view the declaration as a Christmas gift to the church?
The paragraph of the Synod’s synthesis report that called for forms of doctrinal decentralisation to be fostered received an overwhelming 338 ‘yes’ votes and only found six synod delegates in opposition. Similarly, the proposal for experimentation with decentralisation drew 333 ‘yes’ votes and only 11 noes. At the time of voting, there was no concrete examples of what this decentralisation would look like and one could imagine that those voting on decentralisation were not aware of how such a proposal could play out. [I note that some will argue that Fiducia Supplicans is not a doctrinal document and so unrelated to proposals for doctrinal decentralisation, however, it was issued by the church’s doctrinal office.]
In light of the clear example of the mess and scandal such a document can cause, it is possible that in the Synod’s second assembly this October, there will not be such blasé acceptance of concepts like decentralisation. While it is too much to say that the second assembly will be a referendum on Fiducia Supplicans itself, it could be a referendum on whether documents like this are helpful for the mission of the church and the proclamation of the Gospel and that each member – particularly those from countries that have forbidden the implementation of Fiducia Supplicans – will be asking themselves whether voting in favour of a particular proposal will enable Rome to give more Christmas gifts like the one the church received in 2023.