If you're a Catholic on social media, you've probably already seen mention of the latest publication on the Vatican website regarding Pope Francis's response to recent dubia (questions regarding the blessing of couples in "irregular situations.")
We heard rumblings of this coming out of the Synod on Synodality, but the last thing we expected was to have in writing, on the parchment yellow Vatican website, the words "blessing" and "same sex couples" in the same affirming and alarming sentence.
Did the Church just change Her teaching on same-sex "marriage"? Should Catholics revolt and form a new Church? Has God abandoned us??
No, No, and No. But what then? Here's my take.
First, let's talk about what's really wrong and misleading about the way this particular "declaration" is worded. (Even with all the different language translations on the same page.) Here's one missing distinction and three false dichotomies to sum up the issues at first glance.
1. The difference between blessing a person and a "couple" is not explained.
While there is ample justification for blessing any single person throughout the document, the heading that clarifies the purpose of this document is very clear in pointing to a supposed blessing for "Couples in Irregular Situations and of Couples of the Same Sex."
This is an incredibly dangerous conflation and a seriously grave omission on the part of any teaching body. What does it mean to bless a "couple"? Does that mean each person is individually receiving a blessing, or is there some reality for the relationship itself to be seen as deserving of and the recipient of a blessing?
As a psychologist providing couples therapy, I've often made the point that the relationship between a husband and wife is actually the "client" I am treating. This is how some marriage therapists create a boundary between what is said directly for or against one of the individuals in the relationship in service of treating the "relationship" itself.
When a marriage therapist "chooses sides" for the sake of one particular person or the other, it becomes very difficult to help the relationship overall. Therapists who treat individuals are very seldom also in a good position to treat the relationship. We often have to recognize that experientially, you are either on the side of a person or the side of a relationship.
It would seem that the writer of this declaration would also benefit from similar sophistication in understanding the nuances of language and boundaries. If this document is about providing blessings to individuals who happen to also be sinners, it would be good to state this as the intended purpose (of which I would certainly agree with). If it intends to open the door to blessing same-sex and irregular relationships as such, that would also be important to state.
For example, couples who are engaged to be sacramentally married can receive a blessing on their engagement. Is this the type of relational blessing intended here? Is this what the Holy Father intends to state? Has the "development" of our understanding of blessings entered into the realm of blessing the relationship itself between people of the same sex (which is also by definition, sexual)? Nothing in the content seems to point to this conclusion even if the section heading reads as such.
I think there's a whole new can of worms (serpents?) opened up if it was the case. The point of blessing an engagement is the proper attainment of the end of that specific kind of relationship. What's the particular end of a same-sex romantic relationship?
As a side note not unrelated, I am also reminded here of the fact that Jesus not only blessed, but also cursed. Remember when he passed by the fig tree, which had sprouted leaves and therefore donned the appearance of fruitfulness, and yet had produced no fruit? Did he offer a blessing to the fig tree, in the hopes that it would come around somehow as a result of his pastoral compassion? No. He cursed the fig tree and it withered up and died. It was masquerading as something that was otherwise created to bear fruit, but was not bearing fruit, and therefore was cursed and cast out of existence.
2. This poorly written declaration attempts even poorer philosophical justification for its position.
As many things that seem to come from Papal statements of late, there is a false dichotomy set up between "sinners" and the "righteous." This is an age-old dichotomy of course, and we love to see the way Jesus constantly pulled the rug out from under the Pharisees. We are accustomed to learning how the exhausting laws of the Old Testament needed new life breathed into them, so why is this recent return to pitting the law-enforcers against the rule-breakers a "false" dichotomy.
Precisely because, as Pope Francis wants us to understand, we actually are all in the same boat now. The difference between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus was... JESUS. Supposedly, we all have access to the Holy Spirit now, a life united in Christ, moved by the will of God. So why does every pronouncement and declaration from the top down seem to perseverate on the idea that the desire to maintain some sense of objective moral norm must come from a pharisaical false righteousness?
Is it not possible that some of us recognize the fullness of truth in that "Jesus came to reveal man to himself," and that by following the path of Jesus, including the sexual moral norms that he taught, we can find our deepest and greatest happiness? Might it be that we believed St. John Paul II when he said, "It is Jesus that you seek when you long for happiness" and that by fixing Jesus in our sights, we can actually be happy? Might it also then be that we want that happiness for others, and so we hold fast to what is true, good, and beautiful - even to the truth of men and women keeping their pants on around each other unless in the privacy of one's own sacramental marriage?
My position doesn't seem to be covered by the pronouncements and assumptions made within this scandalous document, as I am someone who both counts myself a sinner in need of a Savior (daily) as well as one who holds fast to the truth about the goodness of marriage between one man and one woman, till death do them part.
Here's just one example:
32. Indeed, the grace of God works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else. This grace can orient everything according to the mysterious and unpredictable designs of God. Therefore, with its untiring wisdom and motherly care, the Church welcomes all who approach God with humble hearts, accompanying them with those spiritual aids that enable everyone to understand and realize God’s will fully in their existence.
How could someone argue with this? Those to receive these blessings are humble and God's grace is unpredictable. Of course Holy Mother Church is wise and motherly. Anyone who argues against this position must certainly be "righteous," undeserving of God's grace, and misaligned with the understanding and accompanying Church.
Of course, the only exclusion from God's grace offered here is for those who are "righteous." It makes the assumption that this document, opening the door for blessings on "irregular and same sex couples" is speaking to a world in which the same sex and irregular couples are the humble ones who believe they are in need of God's saving grace, and anyone else who does not offer these allowances must be "righteous."
I for one, would LOVE to meet the same-sex couple, or ANY couple in "irregular" circumstances showing up to their local priest, seeking God's blessing, because they know they are living in sin and wish for the strength for conversion in their life. The very idea that a document like this needs to be "declared" for this infinitesimally small demographic of humans, if any even actually exist, is beyond absurd. At the same time, the number of faithful, actually humble, struggling Catholics who seek the truth and daily conversion in their lives that this document offends is astronomical.
I'm not even being sarcastic with the first line in the above paragraph. I will personally accompany any couple who reaches out to me, who, living in a sinful circumstance, truly and humbly desires to change their hearts and open up to a deeper conversion that may actually require the sacrifice of said human relationship in lieu of a deeper relationship with Christ, in which one gives in response to what one has been given.
Instead though, I think it's a safe bet that the number of people who will grasp at this document as so much straw for the purposes of further justification for their sinful and disordered relationship will outweigh the number of the people "humbly seeking God's grace" as the stars outnumber the moon.
3. A second false dichotomy set up between sacramental and non-sacramental "blessings."
At least in the case of marriage as a sacrament, there is a straw-man argument set up here. By relegating everything good and holy about marriage to the fact of it being a sacrament, and therefore allowing for "relational blessings" to exist as something good as long as it's not a "sacramental blessing," there is a total denial of the normal, regular, human goodness of the relationship between man and woman as worthy of elevation in and of itself.
In fact, St. John Paul II went so far as to call marriage the "primordial sacrament," meaning that it was good before Christ elevated it to the level of sacrament. "Man and woman He created them," from the beginning, in the image of God, before the Incarnation, and even before sin or the need for salvation. There is a natural, inherent goodness to the sexual dimorphic nature of our humanity and the call to be "fruitful and multiply" through sexual union. It is not simply the fact of being a sacrament that sets marriage between man and woman apart from other "couples."
And it is not sacramentality alone that makes a "blessing" of something sexual between two people either appropriate or inappropriate.
Why is this so hard to understand? The sexual organs of man and woman are made by God for a purpose- to draw man and woman together to be fertile. Fertility means new life, and new life requires commitment and stability - in other words the institution of marriage that pre-exists the individual passing desires of any individual person. There is nothing even remotely similar to what two men or two women, or any other combination of persons engaging in sexually (or emotionally) satisfying behaviors, are signing up for.
The sacrament of marriage then elevates this human reality to the level of something salvific - a channel for transformative grace that accompanies and empowers participants to live a life of union with Christ.
4. A final dichotomy - Normative liturgical rituals and non-normative, spontaneous blessings.
This is perhaps the sloppiest dimension of reasoning present in this declaration, and likely one of the most harmful. There seems to be implicit recognition that a blessing falling under the category of "irregular" should never be construed as "normative" or "liturgical."
37. In this regard, there come to mind the following words of the Holy Father, already quoted in part: “Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm. That is to say, it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially establish procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters […]. Canon Law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should the Episcopal Conferences claim to do so with their various documents and protocols, since the life of the Church flows through many channels besides the normative ones.” Thus Pope Francis recalled that “what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule” because this “would lead to an intolerable casuistry.”
38. For this reason, one should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. At the same time, one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing. In a brief prayer preceding this spontaneous blessing, the ordained minister could ask that the individuals have peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue, and mutual assistance—but also God’s light and strength to be able to fulfill his will completely.
39. In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple.
40. Such a blessing may instead find its place in other contexts, such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage. Indeed, through these blessings that are given not through the ritual forms proper to the liturgy but as an expression of the Church’s maternal heart—similar to those that emanate from the core of popular piety—there is no intention to legitimize anything, but rather to open 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.
Essentially Pope Francis is creating an expectation that pastoral situations may call for actions that would otherwise be imprudent to standardize or make official with procedures or rituals. This is called moral relativism and has already been denounced as a modern heresy.
This declaration reads more like a handbook for mass-confusion or a rulebook for manipulative narcissists. "Never record your actions; make choices that can be explained away; gaslight when necessary."
"The life of the Church flows through many channels besides the normative ones."
WHAT?! The life of the Church IS THE NORM! The Holy Spirit is normative. God is Truth, and Goodness, and Beauty. There is no inconsistency in God. If something is good and holy - then PROCLAIM IT. RITUALIZE IT. MAKE IT A NORM.
So the author of this document recognizes that ritualizing a blessing for couples in irregular situations would be casuistry (which is defined as "the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; sophistry"), but then goes on to justify these blessings in one-off situations based on what - the personal discernment of pastoral care in recognition of the "maternal heart" of the church? Sounds like a lot of clever but unsound moral reasoning to me.
Meanwhile, there are "norms" and "rituals" for blessing everything from pets to inanimate household objects. The book of blessings is almost without bounds. So if blessing "irregular couples" is important enough to warrant a declaration, why not add it to the book of blessings? The answer is obvious.
Let's be absolutely clear. If I came across a mother who treated two children, one who follows the rules and one who doesn't, with this level of inconsistency, circuitous self-justification and defensive manipulation in relation to why she favors one over the other, I would let her know in no uncertain terms that she is emotionally abusing both of her children. And oh, by the way, there are PLENTY of mothers like this in the world. This level of self-absorbed narcissism is not uncommon. This is a tired overplayed story, and always ends up with estranged children.
So then what are we to do?
I have till now avoided getting into the Pope Francis debate. This has surprised some of my readers because in the past, I have not shied away from voicing my opinion regarding the failings of our Church leaders. Admittedly it's taken some time to go through my own parts and reactions having grown up in the "JP2 Generation," loving everything from Pope Benedict, and even appreciating much of what Pope Francis has contributed to the Church.
There's a deeper reason, though, why I have hesitated in this area.
Essentially I see the divide over Pope Francis as a major distraction from the genuine call to holiness God is issuing to each one of us. The Holy Father's actions are so divisive that to levy an opinion is to become immediately polarized in our current social environment. Till now I've explained away the controversy as mostly media driven, misinterpreted, or overplayed.
Something about seeing this clarity in print on the Vatican website changes everything. And yet, we are still not called to division, nor polarities. We are called to the One, True, Good, and Beautiful. We are also called to daily and deep conversion. If something is wrong with the Church, it is I who must change, because as Mother Teresa famously said, "I am the problem in the world."
It's really this simple. Most people in the world, including many - if not most - members of the hierarchy of the Church, are ignorant to God's plan for human sexuality. As a 42-year-old faithful son of the Church, this has taken me some time to come to grips with, and then process in a way that I'm not simply venting my anger through my writing. Sure they may know the "rules" and the "norms," but they don't know what integration means.
What makes us holy is what makes us happy. If you love someone and you want them to be happy, you want them to be holy. If you want someone to be happy, you help them understand how to be holy. If you want someone to understand how to be holy, you help them understand how to act with moral goodness. And if you really want to move someone, you apply everything you can to yourself first. Goodness and Holiness are the same as Happiness and Wholeness.
This is what Jesus came to reveal to us. "Jesus Christ reveals man to himself." This is what integration means, and this is what the world is longing for. Anyone who thinks it's an act of compassion to offer a "blessing" on a homosexual relationship is so ignorant of what it means to be human that we can only offer prayers that he or she might come to know Jesus.
And at the same time, we can take this as a giant megaphone calling to us in the wind - "GET BETTER AT UNDERSTANDING AND TEACHING THE BEAUTY OF THE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY."
Whatever your position, whoever you are, and whatever you think you know of the teaching of St. John Paul II - I don't care if you're Christopher West or Mikael Waldstein reading this - each one of us has to go deeper in incorporating the truth and goodness of our human sexuality. Not until the "faithful" Catholics left in the Church eat, drink, breathe and sing the fullness of God's plan for our sexuality will the world stand a chance to find what it is so desperate for. That's not self-righteousness, it's a humble plea for prayers and courage to follow Jesus.
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