My friend Brian Flanagan described “Fiducia Supplicans,” the declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith permitting priests to bless same-sex couples and others in “irregular” situations, as “a big small step forward.” I cannot improve on his description.
In any concrete sense, the declaration has done nothing new. Nothing has been changed sacramentally or doctrinally. The formulation that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and the link “Humanae Vitae” draws between the procreative and unitive ends of sexual behavior license too many Catholics to feel like the church approves of excluding LGBTQ persons. There is no permissible way to recognize an LGBTQ couple or any couple in an “irregular” situation in a liturgical or semi-liturgical setting. So, in that sense, nothing has changed. And yet, it feels like quite a lot has changed.
By signing “Fiducia,” Pope Francis has done something arguably more important than to change doctrine or teach differently about sacramental life. He has definitively shifted the emphasis of the church from a doctrinal register into a pastoral register. Indeed, the word “pastoral” appears 20 times in the declaration. Shifting emphasis in this way, Francis has reminded us that Christianity is pastoral or it is not Christianity, and the most important dimension of Christian life is not found in the things we say or the credal commitments we claim.
Rather, Christianity is found in the smaller spaces where we live with and care for one another. In this case, Francis has made it possible to care for and to minister to LGBTQ persons in ways that acknowledge that the love they experience is real and that they are loved by God. In this way, while practically nothing has been changed by “Fiducia,” something enormous has changed. For this reason, it feels epochal.
Yet we still have to wonder whether it is enough.
We know that the Catholic Church has played a role in centuries of homophobia that has led to the marginalization of queer people, violence against them and a significantly greater risk of suicide. Of course, the church condemns these things, and Pope Francis (along with others) has spoken against them. But the church has not yet owned up to the depth of the problem.
The Catholic Church has admitted to many uncomfortable things about itself across the last several decades. “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, opened the door to a historic, new sort of relationship with many peoples but most especially with the Jewish people. In turn, it became possible for Pope John Paul II to acknowledge “the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews by Christians” and to ask for forgiveness.
The church also has acknowledged its faults in the Galileo case and its long complicity in the scourge of sexual abuse. Those acknowledgements were important moments in the life of the contemporary church. They were occasions when the church owned up to what the whole world already knew. Owning up, the church re-claims credibility to proclaim its message. The church that owns up becomes a church that can begin to minister.
“Fiducia Supplicans” could be a meaningful beginning of owning-up. With the declaration, the church calls LGBTQ people from the margins with a gesture of blessing. It is an enormous step forward in that sense. Yet the unconcealed fury that has surrounded many responses to “Fiducia” reveals the attitudes that persist and fester among Catholics. The declaration has not solved that problem. More is needed.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis have stood fast on what “Fiducia” means. There’s no doubting what the church teaches. But our church is a home for more than pastorally-enlightened theological attitudes, and all that “Fiducia” did not accomplish yet remains. Despite the teaching of the pope, the long shadow of anti-LGBTQ bias lingers—and it matters. We can assume that the critics of Francis will go on using what they call the “ambiguity” of “Fiducia” not only to deepen divisions, but to use LGBTQ people as pawns in an ugly game.
Pope Francis faces difficult choices if he wants to try to address that problem. In cases of antisemitism, wrongful persecutions and sexual abuse meaningful gestures of reconciliation went a long way. What can Francis do comparably to unwind the long history of anti-LGBTQ bias among Catholics?
A good start is a good start. But the rest of the way demands a deeper and more thorough renewal of the church. It demands a posture of listening, an attitude of mercy and a commitment to accompaniment. In these ways, I cannot separate “Fiducia” in my mind from the Synod on Synodality, in whose midst this document appeared. And we know that synodal path is not any easier than the difficulty Pope Francis faces against anti-LGBTQ bias. But we are now clearly underway.
And that is a small, big step forward in the life of the church and all its children.