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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

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Faculty, students weigh in on Vatican document allowing same-sex blessings

Under Pope Francis, the Church office that prosecuted Galileo welcomes LGBTQ+ Catholics

When the Vatican issued a rare declaration allowing priests to bless same-sex couples Dec. 18, Notre Dame theology professor Ulrich Lehner posted a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, calling it the most unfortunate public announcement from the Church in decades.

“It is — and I hate to say it — an invitation to schism,” the historian of Christianity wrote.

Lehner’s statement was mentioned in articles about the declaration by the Associated Press and Reuters, which were both featured on the University’s news service.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported the declaration, which Pope Francis signed off, was the pope’s “most definitive step yet” to make the Church more welcoming to LGBTQ+ Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and can be approved under no circumstances.

Senior Ryan Wachter said he appreciated how Francis has moved the Church to be more open to people like himself who struggle identifying as both queer and Catholic.

“The fact he’s identifying us is really a huge first step,” Wachter said.

From the Roman Inquisition to a ‘creative’ dicastery

The declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” was issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The dicastery is a direct successor to the Roman Inquisition, which Pope Paul III established in 1542 to watch over matters of the faith, according to the Vatican. The Roman Inquisition famously put Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei on trial in 1633 for believing in heliocentrism.

Notre Dame theology professor David Lantigua said in the 20th century the dicastery would weigh in on doctrinal questions and problematic theological reflection — for example, aspects of Latin American liberation theology.

Lantigua, who studies the current pope and Catholicism in the Americas, said the role of the dicastery has shifted further under Francis. When Francis gave the summons to Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who was appointed to lead the dicastery in July 2023, Lantigua added, the pope stressed the office should take on more of a “creative” role of wrestling with difficult Church questions.

“Now it’s sort of meant to open up things,” Lantigua said. “Or open up a can of worms perhaps.”

Fiducia Supplicans, which in English means “supplicating trust,” was the first declaration issued by the dicastery since 2000. A declaration is the most important type of document the dicastery can issue, according to the Pillar. The office also issues letters, vademecums, responses and other kinds of documents.

Under its previous prefect in March 2021, the dicastery issued a response that stated the Church did not have the power to bless same-sex unions.

The response stated relationships cannot receive God’s grace unless they are “positively ordered,” and it wasn’t licit to bless any relationship that involved sexual activity outside of marriage — an “indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.”

The good elements in relationships involving such activity cannot “render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” according to the response.

Blessings of same-sex unions also amount to an imitation of nuptial blessings, despite there being no grounds for considering such unions to be “even remotely analogous” to God’s plan for marriage, the response added.

Seed of the Holy Spirit or confusion?

In a Jan. 18 article about Fiducia Supplicans for the McGrath Institute’s Church Life Journal, Notre Dame theology professor Fr. Paulinus Odozor, a moral theologian, wrote the declaration directly opposed the dicastery’s 2021 response.

According to section 31 of the declaration, blessings may in fact be imparted to same-sex couples who “do not claim a legitimation of their own status” and beg God to elevate the good elements in their lives and relationships.

To be very clear about the difference between a same-sex blessing and the marriage sacrament, the declaration stated same-sex blessings can neither occur in a liturgical setting nor be performed with any clothing, gestures or words that are proper to a wedding.

Odozor wrote the declaration “rightly insists” people seeking blessings shouldn’t be subject to exhaustive moral analysis. The declaration explained the request for a blessing is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured — not hindered.

“No priest worth his ordination would ever turn away people who come for blessings as individuals or as groups of people or even simply as sinners on any grounds, including those living in a same-sex relationship,” Odozor wrote.

For all the rich theology of blessings contained in Fiducia Supplicans, Odozor wrote he worried it would inflame passions on both sides of the debate.

On the one hand, the declaration could appear to have little regard for the Church’s perennial doctrine about marriage. On the other, the document might be viewed as callous and lacking in sympathy for those whose lifestyles go against Church teachings.

Odozor added he was concerned a priest would be cooperating in sin if he blessed a same-sex couple seeking validation, on some level, for their “sinful” union.

“When such a couple is openly known to be living together as a same-sex couple, should the priest, even in private and a non-liturgical setting ‘bless’ them as a couple, knowing that they are not seeking for guidance to get out of their relationship but for God to help them lead a happy and fulfilled life as a couple?” he wrote.

Lehner wrote on X some clergymen would use Fiducia Supplicans as a pretext to do what the declaration explicitly forbids.

Vatican News reported more than 100 Catholic churches in Germany held services to bless same-sex couples on May 10, 2021 — in defiance of the dicastery’s 2021 response. And in March 2023, 67 bishops at a German synod voted 38 to nine, with 11 abstentions, in favor of allowing liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Lehner signaled out German clergymen in his statement, writing Fiducia Supplicans does not permit same-sex blessings in a liturgical setting and “explicitly rejects the actions of German priests who performed such blessings.”

Both Odozor and Lehner wrote they thought the declaration would mislead members of the Church in any number of directions.

Exposing the Church’s fault lines

Lantigua said the purpose of broadening of the Church’s classical understanding of blessings and reform in general isn’t to make the Church “relevant.” He added reform wasn’t tied to a politically progressive outlook either.

“Reform is a big word for Francis, and it’s a scary word for some,” Lantigua said.

The Church has always performed self-examination through reform movements, Lantigua said, citing the Benedictines, the mendicant orders and the Jesuits.

Lantigua explained reform movements called the Church to a deeper holiness and discipleship in Christ, so it could be more “attentive to the cries of the world today.”

According to Lantigua, Francis’ vision for reform came from his experience seeing the reform of the Second Vatican Council play out around the world and especially in his home, South America. Lantigua said the theologians who shaped Vatican II and its reforms desired to renew the Church by going back to its sources, such as scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers.

Many traditionalist Catholics who don’t like Francis’ vision for reform, Lantigua added, disagree with the pope about whose cries the Church should listen to.

Very soon after Fiducia Supplicans came out, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was prefect of the dicastery from 2012 to 2017, wrote same-sex blessings were “blasphemous.” Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò dubbed Francis a “servant of Satan” for approving the declaration.

Notre Dame provost John McGreevy, a historian of American and global religion, told the Washington Post he was stunned at the criticism of Francis by conservatives over the declaration.

In the middle of January, Vatican News reported the symposium of African bishops published a letter that stated they would prefer not to offer same-sex blessings because the practice could lead to confusion and scandal in Africa, a continent where homosexuality is illegal in most countries.

Lantigua said Francis, a “spiritual master” trained in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, doesn’t have a problem with a little bit of destabilization in the Church because crisis is a normal posture of the spiritual life.

“A characteristic of the pastoral life of the Church for far too long has been avoiding the tensions and the conflicts rather than really trying to address them,” Lantigua said.

On the pastoral meaning of blessings

Senior Buddy Williams, who is president of a club that supports the Latin Mass, Children of Mary, said the dichotomy between the dicastery’s 2021 response and Fiducia Supplicans stuck out to him.

“They’re from two different prefects,” Williams said. “They both have to be true. They both have to be consistent with Church teaching in the past.”

Why Francis would sign both documents, Williams said, was puzzling.

“I think the main line that Cardinal Fernández was trying to push to develop the doctrine a little bit while keeping it the same is the idea of blessing people without blessing unions,” he added.

Junior Nathan Desautels, vice president of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative activism club, said he supported Francis and valued a consistent Church. Desautels added he believed homosexuality was a disordered inclination and prefers a Church that is also loving.

“The Church is open in that it’s a universal religion and that we love all people regardless of what they struggle with,” he said. “We’re always inviting them to join us in worship.”

Notre Dame Right to Life president Kylie Gallegos, a senior, wrote in an email the declaration was straightforward if read with a genuine understanding of Catholic teaching, while Kathryn Schneider, a sophomore at Saint Mary’s and president of Belles of Life, wrote via email the Church should be careful about how it approaches welcoming groups of open sin.

Senior Elijah Mustillo, a transgender Catholic, wrote in an email he thought Christians have the duty of creating an approachable Church.

“If there are barriers to entry, people aren’t going to want to come in. Sometimes we end up welcoming people into our house and telling them at the same time they must leave part of what they are carrying outside. I think a blessing is a Christian way of extending welcome to two people coming inside together,” Mustillo wrote. “It says, ‘We are glad you both are here.’”