Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fiducia Supplicans and the defense of ritual purity

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 21, 2023

At my all-boys Catholic high school, one day’s religion class during senior year devolved into a discussion of an issue that was apparently on the mind of at least one student: “How many buttons can I undo on my girlfriend’s blouse before it’s a mortal sin?”

Readers can make their own judgments about the prudence of the adult teacher who let that conversation take place in a classroom full of teenagers. For now I want to focus on the attitude behind the young man’s question—an attitude which is unfortunately widespread. What is the minimum that I have to do in order to avoid damnation? How much can I get away with? How far can I indulge myself without risking my immortal soul?

Bad news: If you are asking those questions, your soul is already in danger. If you are trotting happily down the path of temptation, confident that you will know when to stop, that confidence is sadly misplaced. If you are planning to sin in small ways, you are very likely to sin in a big way. You know that, if you’re being at all honest with yourself.

What does all this have to do with Fiducia Supplicans? Only this: The lusty young men in that classroom could still claim that they did not intend to sin—at least not mortally. The teacher could claim that he did not encourage his students to laugh off the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. They preserved a bizarre sort of ritual purity: an attitude very close to plausible deniability. And the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) maintained the same sort of ritual purity in its document on offering blessings for same-sex unions.

We have seen this sort of ritual purity on display in the Catholic hierarchy for years. A Catholic politician endorses abortion on demand, and his diocesan bishop responds by issuing a statement reiterating the Church’s condemnation of abortion. The local pro-life group applauds. The bishop maintains his ritual purity, but he has not done his duty, grasped the nettle, and confronted the wayward politician. A retired cardinal-archbishop is exposed as a serial molester, and his colleagues profess their shock—although reports about his offenses had been in circulation for several years—and their dismay. So they can claim ritual purity, but still decline to press a vigorous inquiry into the question of how that now-disgraced prelate rose to a position of such influence.

With Fiducia Supplicans the DDF has refined the defense of ritual purity to a new level of sophistication. The Vatican document does not endorse church blessings for same-sex couples. Quite on the contrary, the text repeatedly insists that the Church cannot give a blessing to a homosexual union. Ritual purity thus secured, the DDF goes on to deliver a message that all the world interprets as a step toward recognition of same-sex unions.

Is all the world wrong, then? Should we blame the uproar on irresponsible media reports? Or should we recognize that the DDF is sending an artfully coded message?

If the document is merely confirming what the Church has always taught—if there is nothing new here, as so many earnest defenders of the Vatican hope to assure us—then Fiducia is not the “specific and innovative contribution” that Cardinal Victor Fernandez, the prefect of the DDF, claims it to be. If the text is only saying that someone involved in an irregular union can seek a priest’s blessing, then it is only repeating the message of a 2021 statement from the same Vatican office, which stated quite unequivocally that the Church cannot bless a homosexual union.

If there is nothing new in the statement, why bother issuing it? The DDF claims that the document provides a new understanding of what a blessing means. Does it? Anyone, anywhere can ask a priest for a blessing; that has never been in question. And any good priest will oblige. Unless…

Unless the priest understands that he is being asked to bless something immoral. A pair of mountain-climbers might ask a priest for a blessing before their expedition. A pair of bank robbers cannot ask for a blessing on their planned heist. If the priest is asked to bless a partnership, he should inquire about the basis for that partnership.

Or else he can deliberately choose not to ask about the basis for the relationship—especially if he already knows—and proceed to give his blessing. Which is what Fiducia Supplicans recommends.

This carefully crafted Vatican document gives liberal Catholic priests a way to show their sympathy for homosexual unions without actually contravening Church law. It even helps irresolute clerics, who might hesitate to bless same-sex partnerships, to go along, cautioning them against a stand “on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes.”

Yet the DDF knows exactly how far to push its argument. By repeatedly saying that it does not intend a change in Church doctrine or discipline, the document ensures that many loyal Catholics will take that claim at face value, and even lash out at critics of Fiducia Supplicans. Never mind that informed people see it as ground-breaking. Never mind that critics of Catholic teaching are rejoicing. They are all wrong, according to the defenders of the Vatican statement. There is nothing in the document that directly contradicts the teachings of the Church.

And that is precisely the point. There is no direct contradiction of Church doctrine, no revolutionary change in Church discipline. Yet the unmistakable thrust of the document is to encourage greater acceptance of homosexual behavior, to discourage the admonition of sinners. The DDF has emboldened those Catholics who are working for a change in Church teaching, while including just enough restatements of orthodox teaching to placate more conservative Catholics, giving them a way to maintain their own ritual purity—(“Nothing has changed!”)—even as the ground shifts under their feet.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Dec. 22, 2023 4:20 AM ET USA

    Excellent commentary! Fiducia Supplecans is a wink-wink, I-never-said-that, let's pretend, backhanded heresy that fools no-one. It is breathtakingly dishonest. Do they take us for fools? Yes, of course. And they also corrupt priests and faithful by tricking them into going along with the scam. Not to mention homosexuals who are tricked into believing that homosexual acts are not only permitted but holy. Why would PF do this? To complete the rebellion against the Church as it exists.

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 21, 2023 10:25 PM ET USA

    "Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one." [Matthew 5:37] FS is one giant 5000-word loophole in pharisaic style, written and interpreted to mean either ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ It's a horrible piece of instruction that opens wide the possibility of leading souls astray, toward damnation. That's where local bishops must step in. A healthy Church promotes knowledgeable and holy men to the hierarchy. A troubled church promotes McCarricks. All the way to the top.