ROME – Days after nine French prelates announced they would not authorize blessings to same-sex couples as requested by a recent Vatican declaration, the Permanent Council of the French Bishops’ conference has said instead that such blessings should be given as a sign of “unconditional and merciful welcome.”

In a Dec. 18 Declaration titled “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) carefully outlined Church teaching on marriage but said non-liturgical blessings could be given to couples in irregular situation, including same-sex couples and divorced and remarried couples, so long as it was in no way similar to or confused with marriage.

In a statement dated Jan. 10 and signed by each member of the Permanent Council of the French Bishops’ Conference, including its president Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, its two vice presidents, and Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille, the prelates pointed to debates over Fiducia Supplicans, which they said, “had a certain impact on public opinion.”

Noting that the main points of dispute are the declaration’s treatment of the accompaniment of same-sex couples and divorced and remarried couples, the council said they saw the declaration, signed by DDF prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, as “an encouragement to pastors to generously bless those who approach them humbly asking for God’s help.”

The statement comes after nine French bishops earlier this month refused to allow blessings for same-sex couples, saying priests may bless homosexual individuals but not couples.

The Archdiocese of Rennes, led by Archbishop Pierre d’Ornellas, issued a statement to that effect on Jan. 1 on behalf of the bishops from the Ecclesiastical Province of Renne, which includes the Dioceses of Quimper, Rennes, Saint-Brieuc, Vannes, Angers, Laval, Le Mans, Luçon, and Nantes.

The prelates took issue with the Fiducia Supplicans’s emphasis on allowing blessings for “couples,” saying the declaration “does not explain the reasoning which moves it from ‘persons’ to ‘couples’,” and that the word “couple” in the text “has a particular meaning which deserves explanation.”

In the statement, d’Ornellas also said the declaration offers the “possibility” of blessing couples in irregular situation, saying this “is therefore not an obligation.”

The prelates said their decision to forbid blessings of homosexual couples is in line with the declaration’s instruction to avoid any confusion and scandal.

Though not presented as a specific response to that declaration, the new statement from the French bishops’ conference clearly takes a more approving approach.

Pastors accompany couples “on their journey of faith so that they discover the call of God in their own existence and respond concretely to it,” the council said.

They noted that Fiducia Supplicans upholds Catholic doctrine on marriage as an “exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.”

“This is what we receive from Jesus himself about marriage and its indissolubility. We also receive from Jesus Christ the call to an unconditional and merciful welcome, since Jesus ‘did not come to call the righteous but sinners,’ which we all are,” they said.

What the declaration makes clear, the council said, is that “those who do not live in a situation allowing them to engage in the sacrament of marriage are not excluded either from the love of God or from his Church.”

The Church, therefore, “encourages them in their desire to approach God to benefit from the comfort of his presence and to implore the grace to conform their lives to the Gospel,” they said, saying blessings can accomplish this.

“It is in particular through prayers of blessing, given in a spontaneous, ‘non-ritualized’ form, outside of any sign likely to be assimilated to the celebration of marriage, that the ministers of the Church will be able to demonstrate this broad and unconditional welcome,” they said.

In the earlier statement on behalf of the nine bishops, d’Ornellas had said marriage in modern society has been “trivialized by becoming a notion of civil law which ignores the founding specificity of sexual difference.”

In this context, the Church has “the mission to affirm in a prophetic way the great beauty of the design of God who created the human being, man and woman,” he said.

To this end, d’Ornellas said it is “therefore right, as the [Fiducia Supplicans] underlines, not to contribute to creating ‘confusion’ or ‘scandal’. This is why it is appropriate to bless spontaneously, individually, each of the two people forming a couple, whatever their sexual orientation, who ask God’s blessing with humility and with the desire to conform more and more to His holy will.”

A lengthy note dedicated largely to the pastoral nature and benefit of blessings, Fiducia Supplicans upholds traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and stipulates that while blessings can be given to same-sex couples, they must not be confused with the sacrament of marriage and must never be done as part of a ceremony or in connection with the recognition of a civil union.

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The decree came after two previous Vatican interventions on the topic of same-sex blessings, one of which is a February 2021 ban on same-sex blessings given under the dicastery’s previous leader, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria.

The second was Pope Francis’s response to a set of dubia, or “doubts,” submitted by five conservative cardinals last summer ahead of his October Synod of Bishops on Synodality, focusing on women’s ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions and the authority of the synod to issue binding teaching.

Reactions to Fiducia Supplicans so far have been mixed, with some touting the declaration as a new milestone for the church in terms of welcome and inclusion, and others calling it heretical on grounds that it opens the door for misunderstanding and the breach of Church teaching.

In a Jan. 4 press release, the DDF said it wanted to clarify the mixed reactions to the declaration and urged “a full and calm reading” of the document in order to better understand “its meaning and purpose,” while insisting that the Dec. 18 declaration was neither “heretical” nor “blasphemous.”

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The DDF acknowledged that the hesitation of some episcopal conferences to implement the declaration was understandable given local culture and laws but said bishops must still seek a prudent way to comply. They also again reiterated the difference between the sacrament of marriage and irregular unions, and offered specific instructions on what the blessing of irregular unions could entail.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen