I have just read two fascinating pieces about Pope Francis’ recent and controversial document Fiducia Supplicans, which officially allows Roman Catholic priests to bless persons in same-sex relationships, one by an Orthodox and the other by a Roman Catholic.
The Orthodox piece is by Benjamin Cabe, entitled "Pope Francis & Same-Sex Unions: An Orthodox Christian Perspective"; the Roman Catholic piece is by Dr. Christopher J. Malloy, a professor of theology at the University of Dallas. It was published in the Catholic World Report and entitled, "Fiducia supplicans: a chimerical hope". Oddly enough as an Orthodox priest, I found myself soundly on the side of Roman Catholic Dr. Malloy.
Mr. Cabe’s piece is thoughtfully written, and (mostly) irenic in tone, though describing the international dust up caused by the papal document as “the fetishization of Christian drama” and “pseudo-celebrity Orthodox Christians sensationalizing the Pontiff’s pastoral point to fuel clicks and engagement” was perhaps not as irenic as it could be. Presumably the profound disagreements offered by Dr. Malloy were not motivated by fondness for fetish or to fuel clicks. Anyway, what follows is intended not to fuel clicks, but to answer questions put to me at coffee hour by my parishioners and others like them. As a parish priest, I am too busy to worry about clicks. Rather than respond to Fiducia Supplicans directly, I will respond instead to Mr. Cabe’s thoughtful piece as well as that of Dr. Malloy in an attempt to join a discussion currently ongoing.
If I correctly understand Fiducia Supplicans (hereafter “FS”), that document does not purport to alter previous Roman Catholic teaching on marriage or homosexuality, but to offer to homosexual couples an informal blessing as a couple. It is asserted by the Pope and by Mr. Cabe that when a homosexual couple asks a priest to bless them as a couple, the blessing itself does not thereby legitimize their homosexual relationship, but rather to “opens one’s life to God, to ask for His help to live better and also to invoke the Holy Spirit so that the values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness” (thus FS).
In other words, though the blessing is for the couple as a couple, it says nothing about their relationship and does not thereby approve of it. According to Mr. Cabe, refusing to give the blessing to the homosexual couple would be tantamount to “moral gatekeeping”, since the Church does not demand “moral perfection” (thus FS) from those whom it blesses. Indeed, we are told we must “shy away from … narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (again FS).
Mr. Cabe also offers a “thought experiment” for Orthodox clergy: “if an individual in a same-sex relationship, who has a rudimentary knowledge of Orthodoxy, runs into an Orthodox priest at an airport and asks for a blessing, should the priest bless him and give him his hand?”—i.e. his hand to kiss, after giving the requested blessing.
I will begin my response by answering his question. I answer: Yes, if an anonymous individual in a same-sex relationship who knew enough about Orthodoxy to recognize me as a priest asked for my blessing in an airport, I would give it. That is because: 1. I would have no clue whether he was homosexual, heterosexual, married, shacked up, a serial killer, or a nice guy; and 2. What was requested was a general blessing on an individual, and clergy should assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the one asking for a blessing was a devout Orthodox Christian trying his best to live according to the principles of the Orthodox faith.
Blessings always presuppose something; they always have a life context. Thus, for example, if a homosexual asked for my blessing on his trip to Australia, and I would happy to give it, for blessing him meant only that I was asking God to bless his travel so that his plane did not crash and that he arrived safely. The blessing of his journey would imply nothing about his sexual relationship with his partner. Malloy: “If the blessing targets a special activity, it gives wings, so to speak, to the person in that activity, approving it and assisting it. …To petition a blessing upon someone for some special purpose or activity is to cooperate formally with that person in that purpose or activity.” It all depends upon what the person is asking to be blessed. Travel for an individual, for example, can be blessed.
It would be otherwise if he showed up with his partner and asked me to bless them as a couple. Being “a couple” means precisely having a sexual relationship as one aspect of life together, and it is just this sexual component that the Church regards as sinful—and which makes the blessing of their “couple-ness” impossible. There are of course other aspects of their “couple-ness”—harmless things, such as their walking their dog and tending their garden. Those things could indeed be blessed. But—and this is the point to which FS and Mr. Cabe seem to be willfully blind—those things cannot be isolated from the totality of their “couple-ness”. As Dr. Malloy wrote, “Does the existence of morally good acts in the context of a sinful relationship give sufficient grounds to bless the relationship? It does not. …To bless the relationship is to bless the precise aspect under which the persons are partners in the relationship”.
In other words, blessing a homosexual couple as a couple involves blessing their union—a union which is inherently sinful. Malloy again: “To act as though a blessing could target the members as members but only insofar as their sinful relationship happens to have good elements in it, all the while wearing blinders with respect to the sin integral to the relationship as sexual, would be like trying to play Milton Bradley’s [game] ‘Operation’ with pliers too big for the task”.
We see this when we transpose the debate to other situations to escape the inevitable heat generated by the topic of homosexuality here in the West. In the (rather lurid) example given by Dr. Malloy, “The Nazi doctor can tuck his children into bed at night. This act is not evil, although his work as a Nazi doctor is”. If therefore the said doctor asked for a blessing on his work, one would have to decline, even though there were elements in his life, such as tucking his children into bed, that were worthy of a blessing.
The impossibility of blessing a homosexual couple as a couple remains, regardless of whether or not the blessing is classified as a sacrament or a sacramental (i.e. an object or rite used as a source of grace). What matters is that the blessing gives tacit approval to the homosexual relationship, however it is defined. It is unlikely that the couple will care supremely whether the blessing is a sacrament or a sacramental, or whether the Church regards their relationship as a marriage or a civil union. They are not theologians or lawyers; all they know and care about is whether the priest/Church will bless them as a couple. They will regard this as tacit approval of their union, regardless of what theological hair-splitters will say. And that is what counts for their salvation or damnation. All other fine and microscopic distinctions (such as that between a “same-sex couple” and a “same-sex union”) fade and dissolve before this reality. The couples regard this as official ecclesiastical approval of their sexual relationship—which of course it is.
Refusing to give the blessing is not “moral gate-keeping” but simple integrity. Certain standards have always been demanded from Christians—not just before they can receive sacraments, but for their life in general. We see this as early as the Apostolic Tradition document, dating from about 215 A.D. in Rome: If a person had a certain job such as charioteer, he was rejected from being a catechumen, not because the Church demanded “moral perfection”, but because it insisted on its members possessing a moral compass. Saying, for example, that a charioteer could not be baptized but could be blessed, would be regarded as casuistry. The charioteer would not be eligible for a “sacramental” or for receiving a blessing, but would be told to repent and get another job.
Part of the problem with many discussions of Fiducia Supplicans is that the document is read as if it were a precise academic paper, something produced by scholars for other scholars. It is nothing of the kind. Whether intended or not, it is a contribution to an ongoing war between those pushing for a homosexual agenda in the Church and those resisting it.
It is being read by most people, liberal and conservative, as a shot fired in a battle, and it is willful blindness to ignore this. Liberal Roman Catholics applaud it as a step toward a fuller embrace of homosexuality in the Church (from a Pope who famously quipped about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?”) and conservative Roman Catholics rightfully regard it as a step away from the Church’s traditional views on homosexuality.
For if it was not the latter, why was it issued? Did the Roman Catholic Church really need a papal document to tell its clergy that a priest could give a blessing to gay parishioner to travel? Why would a homosexual couple ask a priest to bless them if not to attain a measure of legitimacy for their union? It is billed as “pastoral” and compassionate, but a truly pastoral and compassionate approach would be to gently and quietly urge the homosexual couple to repent of their homosexual union. The “values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness” only by those striving to repent of their sins.
The Roman Catholic Church, with its famous commitment to papal authority, will of course not do a 180-degree turn in its policy about something so basic and controversial as homosexuality. Any sea-change in such policy of course must occur incrementally—as it has been happening in other churches. Fiducia Supplicans in one such step in a future trajectory towards liberalization.
The proof of the pudding will occur within the next generation. Either the Roman Catholic Church will pull back from the liberal abyss and quietly consign the document to the rubbish heap of history, or it will take the next step. Old fossil that I am, I may not be around to see. But one way or another, the next few decades will tell the tale.