ROME – Less than a month after issuing an instruction outlining the reasoning and method for giving non-liturgical blessings to same-sex couples and those in irregular unions, the Vatican has published a clarification amid a flurry of backlash and confusion.

In a Jan. 4 press release, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) said it wanted to “help 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.”

After Pope Francis last year opened the door in certain circumstances to giving blessings to same-sex couples, the DDF in December published a Dec. 18 declaration titled “Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” signed by the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, and the dicastery’s secretary, Father Armando Matteo.

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A lengthy note dedicated largely to the pastoral nature and benefit of blessings, the declaration 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.

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 Catholics divided over whether the document signals a new milestone for a church of welcome and inclusion, or opens the door for misunderstanding and a potential breach in church teaching.

Most episcopal conferences in Africa, where many countries maintain anti-homosexuality laws, have refused to implement the decree, while reception of the decree has been varied throughout the rest of the world.

Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church became the first eastern communion to explicitly state that the decree does not apply outside of the Latin rite, with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk citing canon law to this effect in a statement.

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With debate ongoing, Fernández has given several media interviews attempting to clarify various aspects of the decree and its implementation. His press release Thursday is the first formal clarification the DDF has issued since Fiducia Supplicans was published last month.

While acknowledging that the cautious reaction of some episcopal conferences is “understandable” and as highlighting the need for “a more extended period of pastoral reflection,” the DDF insisted that any rejection of the decree “cannot be interpreted as doctrinal opposition,” as the decree itself dealt with pastoral practice, and not doctrine.

The decree was “clear and definitive” as regards church teaching on marriage and sexuality, the statement said, insisting that blessings for couples in irregular situations are for the individuals, not the union, and are pastoral, but must not be “liturgical or ritualized.”

“Evidently, there is no room to distance ourselves doctrinally from this declaration or to consider it heretical, contrary to the tradition of the Church or blasphemous,” the new statement asserts.

In terms of pastoral reception, the DDF noted that documents such as Fiducia Supplicans require different time frames of implementation, depending on the local context and the “discernment” of individual bishops.

Noting that some bishops have ordered priests to discern the implementation of Fiducia Supplicans while only offering the blessings in private, the DDF said this is acceptable if it is signed off on by the pope himself, “while attempting to in some way accommodate the reflection contained in it.”

While bishops have the power to discern implementation in the light of their local situation, the DDF insisted that “prudence and attention to the ecclesial context” and culture allows for different methods of application, but this does not imply “a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests.”

The DDF noted that some bishops’ conferences face significant hurdles in implementing Fiducia Supplicans due to “strong cultural and even legal issues” at play, such as laws criminalizing homosexuality.

“If there are laws that condemn the mere act of declaring oneself as a homosexual with prison and in some cases with torture and even death, it goes without saying that a blessing would be imprudent,” the statement said.

However, in these cases, the DDF said it is “vital” that these bishops’ conferences “do not support a doctrine different from that of the declaration signed by the pope, given that it is perennial doctrine.”

Bishops in these countries, the DDF said, should not produce a “rushed response,” but they must study and discern how best to comply with the decree in pastoral prudence.

The DDF insisted that the real novelty of Fiducia Supplicans is not the permission to give blessings to couples in irregular situations, but rather, it is the invitation for pastors to discern between “liturgical and ritualized” blessings and those which are “spontaneous or pastoral.”

To this end, the press release stresses the emphasis Fiducia Supplicans places on “popular pastoral care” present in many of Pope Francis’s texts, constituting what the DDF said was an invitation from the pope “to value the simple faith of the People of God who, even in the midst of their sins, emerge from their everyday lives and open their hearts to ask for God’s help.”

The goal, the DDF said, is for pastors to obtain both “a deeper pastoral practice which enriches our pastoral praxis” and “a broader understanding of blessings and of the proposal that these pastoral blessings, which do not require the same conditions as blessings in a liturgical or ritual context, flourish.”

“Consequently, leaving polemics aside, the text requires an effort to reflect serenely, with the heart of shepherds, free from all ideology,” the press release said.

While acknowledging that some bishops consider it “imprudent” to impart these blessings, the DDF insisted that “we all need to grow equally in the conviction that non-ritualized blessings are not a consecration of the person nor of the couple who receives them.”

Nor are these blessings “a justification of all their actions, and they are not an endorsement of the life that they lead,” the press release said, insisting that the pope’s invitation is for pastors to “think of a way of blessing that does not require the placing of so many conditions to carry out this simple gesture of pastoral closeness.”

Fernández in the press release ticked off several suggestions for how to impart these blessings in a non-liturgical or ritualized way, saying they should last “a few seconds” and be given “without an approved ritual and without a book of blessings.”

Should a couple approach and ask for a blessing, “one simply asks the Lord for peace, health, and other good things for these people who request it,” while also asking that the couple “live the Gospel of Christ in full fidelity and so that the Holy Spirit can free these two people from everything that does not correspond to his divine will and from everything that requires purification.”

This form of blessing “does not intend to justify anything that is not morally acceptable,” the DDF said, saying the union in these cases is not a marriage, and the blessing likewise is not an approval of their situation.

Responding to those who have asked specific questions about what these blessings might look like, the DDF offered the example of some divorced individuals in new unions making a pilgrimage and who ask their pastor for a blessing and for God’s help with various challenges they face.

In this case, a priest, the DDF said, can offer a prayer such as, “Lord, look at these children of yours, grant them health, work, peace and mutual help. Free them from everything that contradicts your Gospel and allow them to live according to your will.”

“We are talking about something that lasts about 10 to 15 seconds,” the DDF said, asking, “does it make sense to deny these kinds of blessings to these two people who ask for them? Is it not more appropriate to support their faith?”

The DDF reiterated that these blessings, whether for same-sex couples or those in other irregular unions, must never be offered in connection with a civil union, they can never be performed with “any clothing, gestures, or words” that are connected to a wedding, and nor can they take place in “a sacred building” or near an altar, “as this also would create confusion.”

“For this reason, every bishop in his diocese is authorized by the declaration Fiducia Supplicans to make this type of simple blessing available, bearing in mind the need for prudence and care, but in no way is he authorized to propose or make blessings available that may resemble a liturgical rite.”

The DDF’s press release closes stating that in some places, catechesis will be required to help it be understood that these blessings “are not an endorsement of the life led by those who request them. Even less are they an absolution.”

Rather, they are an expression of pastoral closeness, the DDF said, saying, “we will have to become accustomed to accepting the fact that, if a priest gives this time of simple blessing, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything, nor is he denying Catholic doctrine.”

“If this is clarified as a result of good catechesis, we can free ourselves from the fear that these blessings of ours may express something inadequate,” the press release said. “We can be freer and perhaps closer and more fruitful ministers, with a ministry that is full of gestures of fatherhood and hospitality, without fear of being misunderstood.”

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