Classical Sacramental Theology and <i>Fiducia Supplicans</i>
Dec 27, 2023

Classical Sacramental Theology and Fiducia Supplicans

The December 18 Declaration Fiducia supplicans (FS) has generated no small amount of moral, pastoral, and doctrinal debate—and confusion. There has been no shortage of commentary from all sides. But many who have read opinion pieces have not read the actual document. Rather than having others form our opinions—even when their insights are helpful—the process should engage the text itself.

Still, this is no easy task. Despite the Declaration’s intent to offer clarification to an otherwise confusing situation, it often yields more misunderstanding. Part of this unfortunate outcome may originate from the authors themselves, but another source of misinterpretation stems from an incomplete understanding of the nature of sacramentals, blessings, and popular piety. Indeed, many pieces about the Declaration ignore basic elements about sacramental theology, thus exacerbating an already perplexing situation.

While there is certainly much to say about the Declaration and its consequences, this brief analysis will at least point us in the right direction in terms of the sacramental theology relevant to this controversial document. Here are three considerations based in the Church’s sacramental theology, as well as from the text of Fiducia supplicans itself.

First, the Declaration is said by the Dicastery’s Prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez, to offer an “innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings” (FS, introductory “Presentation”; italics in original). Before looking at what is novel and “innovative,” it is helpful first to know what the Church’s “classical understanding of blessings” is. Briefly, a blessing is a type of “sacramental” (consecrations and exorcisms are the other forms of sacramentals [see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1671-1673]). As a sacramental, blessings take the form of a ritualized liturgy, where signs, symbols, words, actions, and other sacred elements are used in an ordered way to convey grace through the action of the Church. The “blessings” encouraged by FS are not of this kind.

Rather, outside of liturgical prayer exists another form of prayer variously called “pious exercises,” “popular piety,” and “pious practices” (see FS, 24). These more properly “devotional” prayer forms are not liturgical, not actions of the Church (at least not in the same way as liturgical prayer is), and not ritualized to the same extent as sacramentals. The “blessings” mentioned in FS are of this latter kind. They are non-liturgical, non-ritual, and non-sacramental; in fact, FS strictly prohibits ritualizing these kinds of “spontaneous” blessings (a fact already overlooked by some). Rather, this new category of “blessings” is called “spontaneous blessings” or “pastoral blessings” in the document, and could also be called “devotional blessings” or “pious blessings.” As the document itself states, these non-liturgical blessings “are given not through the ritual forms proper to the liturgy but [are] similar to those that emanate from the core of popular piety” (FS, 40).

The “innovation” of FS regarding blessings, then, is that they can be either liturgical or devotional—rather than strictly liturgical.

A second element of the Declaration of interest to sacramental theology is the object of the blessings. In two separate responses to dubia prior to FS, the Holy See confirmed that since the Church does not have “the power to give the blessing to unions” of persons of the same sex, such attempted sacramental blessings of “relationships or partnerships” are not licit (Dubia of February 22, 2021). The current Declaration shifts—perhaps too subtly—its treatment from discussing “unions, relationships, and partnerships” to the persons in same sex relationships or those persons in irregular situations.

It may seem like distinguishing between the sin and the sinner is splitting hairs, but it is an operative distinction elsewhere. The reason that we seek salvation in the sacramental life of the Church is that we need the grace that the sacraments offer in such abundance. We are not members of the Church because we are perfect; we are members of the Church because we are not. All members of the Church are sinners, and we seek sacraments and sacramentals—or, in this case, “non-liturgical blessings”—so that we can be saved. But we “degenerate creatures” (as Pope Francis calls us in his December 2020 catechesis on blessings) cannot expect our sins to be blessed. To adapt a phrase: the Church blesses the sinner, not the sin. Many commentaries speak as if the document allows the blessing of sinful unions, but the text says otherwise.

So, while it may appear that the Church has changed her position on the question of blessing same sex unions, or has contradicted her previous documents, she has not. Sinful unions, relationships, or partnerships—just like anything else that is sinful in our lives—can never be blessed, while sinners can be blessed. How the distinction between blessing unions and blessing the persons in them is to be maintained when giving a blessing is unclear.

This brings us to a third contribution from “classical theology” (FS, 31) relevant to the current question. While one need not have attained “moral perfection” to receive a blessing (FS, 25), the recipient must be properly disposed to seek moral perfection. When considering sacraments and sacramentals (insofar as these latter resemble the seven primary channels of grace), traditional theology considers the disposition required for reception of grace so that sacraments and sacramentals will be truly fruitful. Sacraments are efficacious because Christ works through them, and sacramentals work because of the action of Christ’s body, the Church. But neither will be fruitful for the recipient if he or she erects obstacles—principally sin—before them. Sacraments, sacramentals, and (presumably) “devotional blessings” don’t work like magic: they require “humble and contrite hearts” (see Psalm 51) seeking to turn away from sin and toward God.

FS suggests (although not strongly) the same proper disposition: “when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better” (21). If the person receiving a “spontaneous blessing” is not sincerely open to conversion and disposed to seek holiness, but is seeking such a prayer for ends other than conversion and salvation (at least implicitly), the non-liturgical blessing is a fruitless gesture. In short, one thing that has not changed in the “blessing” Declaration is the necessity of proper disposition.

These distinctions between liturgical and devotional, between blessing unions versus persons, and the necessary dispositions for a blessing’s reception may seem inconsequential to many, but they are realities in the world of sacramental theology. And there are even more contributions that the classical understanding of blessings can offer to the new document, such as the minister’s intention. Classically, for validity, a sacramental minister must have “the intention of doing what the Church does” when celebrating a sacrament or sacramental—does he need a similar intention for “pastoral blessings”? Also, what words and signs ought the minister of a “spontaneous blessing” use? After all, some liturgical blessings in the Book of Blessings don’t even use the word “bless,” and often the sign of the cross is not employed (a matter addressed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2002). If these elements don’t appear in the Book of Blessings, must or should they be a part of spontaneous, non-liturgical blessings?

There is more, of course, to evaluating the Declaration Fiducia supplicans than classical sacramental theology, such as pastoral considerations (How should a priest exercise “prudent and fatherly discernment” (FS, 41) when requested to offer such blessings?), ecclesial impacts (witness the irreconcilable reactions to the document among bishops’ conferences), and moral consequences (what message does FS send about “irregular relationships”?). But an essential aspect of an evaluation should include truths from the nature of sacramental and popular prayer.

Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.

Image Source: AB/The Walters Art Museum. 13th century (Gothic)