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Bishops say outreach to people in ‘irregular’ relationships needs to go beyond blessings

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Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, Wis., delivers a homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Jan. 26, 2020. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Tyler Orsburn)

Controversy sparked by a recent document from the Holy See on blessings for people in “irregular situations,” including same-sex relationships, “gives all of us an opportunity to go deeper in our concern and outreach to individuals who are living in irregular/sinful relationships,” said Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, in a recent letter.

“Transcending the vexed question of whether to offer a blessing to such a person/couple or not is the more important need to engage such persons in conversation, prayer, support and accompaniment, towards an understanding and living of the Church’s beautiful and necessary teachings on sexuality and marriage,” Bishop Hying wrote in a Jan. 5 pastoral letter to Catholics in his diocese. “Offering someone a blessing or not does not truly get to the heart of the matter at hand.”

Since the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith issued “Fiducia Supplicans” (“Supplicating Trust”) on “the pastoral meaning of blessings” Dec. 18, which proposed “to broaden and enrich the meaning of blessings,” including the extension of non-liturgical blessings to individuals in “irregular” extramarital sexual relationships — especially same-sex couples and cohabiting heterosexual couples — bishops around the world have distilled its pastoral guidance for their specific flocks.

Their reception to the declaration has varied wildly, from an enthusiastic welcome in some dioceses in Germany and Belgium, where priests have allegedly been offering blessings for same-sex couples for years, to bishops in Africa stating they cannot implement the instruction without causing scandal. The patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said the document does not legally apply to the Catholic faithful outside of the Latin Church.

“Fiducia Supplicans” states that only people in irregular situations can be blessed, not their unions, in keeping with an instruction the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published in March 2021 confirming the church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions. In September 2023, Pope Francis indicated his openness to blessing individuals in same-sex relationships if it didn’t misrepresent the church’s teaching on marriage.

The dicastery’s declaration follows public blessings of same-sex couples by Catholic priests, such as a September event near the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, which drew about 600 people.

In the U.S., many bishops released statements in the days immediately following the document’s release. Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, issued a statement in his role as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.

“‘Fiducia Supplicans’ is very much congruent with Pope Francis’s long-held conviction that those who do not live up to the full demand of the Church’s moral teaching are nevertheless loved and cherished by God and invited to accept the Lord’s offer of forgiveness,” he wrote in the Dec. 21 statement.

Other bishops shared responses after Christmas, using the dicastery’s declaration as a teaching moment in their own dioceses, both to explain the document and to articulate church teaching around human sexuality.

Later reflections had the benefit of following the Jan. 4 press release signed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarifying “Fiducia Supplicans.” The clarification noted that some episcopal resistance to the document “cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition, because the document is clear and definitive about marriage and sexuality.” However, it conceded that the pastoral application of the document is difficult in some places.

“Each local Bishop, by virtue of his own ministry, always has the power of discernment ‘in loco,’ that is, in that concrete place that he knows better than others precisely because it is his own flock. Prudence and attention to the ecclesial context and to the local culture could allow for different methods of application, but not a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests,” the clarification stated.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, is seen during the annual March for Life rally in Washington Jan. 24, 2020. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas underscored that “Fiducia Supplicans” does not change church teaching in a column posted Jan. 12 to the website of The Leaven, the archdiocese’s newspaper. He said that he refrained from commenting to media about the document until he had adequate time to study it, and “was pleased when I did serenely and carefully read the declaration to discover that the secular media’s description of the document was incorrect.”

“The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith went to great lengths to make clear that it is not possible for the church to recognize the so-called marriages of same-sex individuals. The church cannot give a liturgical blessing to a union of persons who lack the ability or the freedom to enter into marriage,” he said.

“Actually, what ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ proposes has been common Catholic pastoral practice,” he said. “No priest worthy of the title ‘Father,’ would refuse to offer prayers for an individual or individuals who are sincerely asking for spiritual help in changing their lives in a way that conforms to God’s will.”

He said the confusion around “Fiducia Supplicans” is partly rooted in “the dicastery having an entire section in ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ on the ‘Blessing of Couples in Irregular Situations and of Couples of the Same-Sex.'”

“The use of the term ‘couples’ can be understood as an acceptance of these relationships as being equal to or approximating marriage. The term ‘blessing of same-sex couples’ appears to embrace what radical gay activists have been seeking,” he said.

Also problematic, he said, is the document’s “attempt to expand the understanding of blessing.”

“What the church previously might describe as a brief, spontaneous intercessory prayer asking the Holy Spirit to assist individuals seeking to conform their lives more perfectly to the Gospel and the church’s moral teaching is now termed a pastoral blessing,” he said. “Who would object to praying for an individual or individuals as described by the dicastery? It is the insistence that this prayer of intercession be called a pastoral blessing of a same-sex couple that has created controversy and confusion.”

“I believe the great legacy of the papacy of Pope Francis will be his pushing and prodding the church to seek to bring Jesus to those on the peripheries and for Catholics to expect to encounter the living Jesus in those on the margins of society,” he continued. “This priority of Pope Francis has been a blessing for the church. Personally, I think that attempting to force a redefinition of blessing in a way that can be interpreted to be an accommodation to woke culture does not help to advance this great pastoral priority.”

Archbishop Naumann urged his priests and deacons to treat everyone with “the respect due to one created in the divine image” and “to pray with and for anyone seeking to conform their lives to the Gospel of Jesus and the clear and consistent moral teaching of his church.” He also urged clergy “to be vigilant in striving never to cause confusion about the true nature of marriage or the church’s moral teaching on authentic love.”

“In our overly sexualized culture, wounded by the tragic consequences of the so-called sexual revolution, we must strive to be witnesses to the joy and beauty of chaste love consistent with our state of life,” he said, pointing to Courage and Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministry as “excellent resources for those with same-sex attraction striving to live chastely.”

Bishop Robert M. Pipta — who in November was ordained a bishop for the Ohio-based Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, which covers 12 states in the central U.S. — wrote a letter published to the eparchy website in early January reflecting on the use of blessings in the Byzantine liturgical and spiritual tradition.

Titled “An Abundance of Blessings,” Bishop Pipta’s letter notes, “It is assumed that those who request a blessing from the Church do so to assist in growth toward holiness, to be assisted in the ascetical life and in conforming to God’s will, and to be successful in the performance of good works.”

“Concern regarding some interpretations of the declaration has arisen in regard to those who may seek a blessing not for growth in holiness but to affirm an attempted deviation from the Church in its teaching on same-sex relationships,” he said.

“The declaration guides us by stating that those who seek blessings only do so appropriately when they, ‘recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of (God’s) help — do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit,'” he said.

While commending clergy blessing people “asking for the grace to continue to live a chaste and holy life,” like Archbishop Naumann, Bishop Pipta expressed concern about the document using the phrase “same-sex couples.”

“Important to note is that, in our society, the word ‘couple’ has come to be understood as two people who have entered a relationship that is either one of dating, engagement, or marriage. According to Church teaching, two people of the same sex cannot be in any of these types of relationships. There can never be a Church blessing for these,” he said.

Echoing the document, he said that priests should guard against a blessing’s meaning being misconstrued. “When any misunderstanding is possible, spontaneous prayer that leaves no doubt about the truth of the matter according to the Church’s teachings on faith and morals and no doubt about the blessing’s goal of growth in salvific holiness is the only option,” he said.

Bishop Pipta encouraged pastors in his eparchy to print “Fiducia Supplicans” in parish bulletins and to “assist their faithful in understanding the teachings of the declaration in light of the abundant blessings that we are graced by in our Byzantine Catholic Church.”

In his pastoral letter, Bishop Hying said that with the release of “Fiducia Supplicans,” “Church leaders on all levels need to clearly affirm our rich magisterial teaching regarding the gift and sanctity of marriage, as the Lord constituted it from the beginning of the human race.”

“The sinful nature of any human sexual expression outside of a valid marriage remains the case, for any such expression falls short of what the Lord intends for us as embodied human persons, both in our sexual complementarity and fertility,” he wrote. “Therefore, any blessing offered by a minister of the Church cannot sanction or be interpreted as sanctioning a sinful situation.”

Meanwhile, he asked, “Can we invite, engage, and befriend folks who are not living according to the doctrines of the Church, in order to allow the Holy Spirit to move them in a different and saving direction?

“Giving or withholding a blessing in a spontaneous moment are easy and immediate responses which require little from us,” he said, “whereas pastoral engagement, evangelization and catechesis are long-term commitments to the happiness and salvation of our brothers and sisters.”

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.