George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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“Contextual” Theology and Fiducia Supplicans

In the apostolic letter Ad Theologiam Promovendam (To Promote Theology), issued by Pope Francis on November 1, 2023, the Church was urged to do theology contextually: As the motu proprio put it, theology must be “fundamentally contextual . . . capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily, in different geographical, social, and cultural environments.” How well does Fiducia Supplicans (Supplicating Trust), the Declaration on “blessings” issued by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) on December 18, 2023, meet that standard?

Not very well at all. Consider the “contexts” Fiducia Supplicans ignores.

The Media Context. According to the instantaneous media take on it, the pope, in Fiducia Supplicans, authorized priests to “bless” same-sex couples, full stop—although the Declaration itself stated that such “blessings” were not to be considered liturgical, had to be spontaneously requested, involved the “blessing” of individuals, and should be conducted in such a way that the Church’s teaching on marriage as the “inclusive, stable, and indissoluble union of a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation” (as Pope Francis put it last July) was not compromised. Cardinal Fernández subsequently complained that the fine distinctions in which Fiducia Supplicans abounded had been ignored in the initial media reporting. If the cardinal did not expect exactly that result, however, he did not reckon with the global media context in which Fiducia Supplicans would be received. And if the cardinal were truly unhappy with the way his document was being spun, why did he not re-contextualize Fiducia Supplicans (so to speak) by calling out clergy who promptly conducted same-sex “blessings” in a manner that was obviously pre-planned (not least to garner media attention), that was quasi-liturgical, and that unmistakably blurred the doctrinal and moral lines the cardinal claimed his document had drawn? 

The Evangelical and Cultural Contexts. Hours after Fiducia Supplicans was issued, I received a phone call from an African archbishop, deeply concerned about the impact the Declaration would have on his local Church’s efforts to be the Church of missionary disciples for which Pope Francis had called. As the archbishop explained, the local Christian Pentecostals were aghast at Fiducia Supplicans; so were the local Muslims; and the Catholic Church’s evangelical mission had thus become far more difficult. Did Cardinal Fernández and his DDF colleagues take that bishop’s “context” into account in crafting Fiducia Supplicans? In preparing the Declaration, did the cardinal and DDF consider the “different . . . geographical, social, and cultural environments” of the local Churches of the Catholic “peripheries,” celebrated by this pontificate and cited as sources of theological reflection in Ad Theologiam Promovendam? It seems not. The only ecclesiastical “context” I can discern in Fiducia Supplicans is that of the Church of Catholic Lite, clinging to the thoroughly falsified claim that appeasing the deconstructive Spirit of the Age is more evangelically effective than working to convert the Spirit of the Age by the forthright proclamation of the gospel, hard bits (see Mark 1:15) and all.  

The Synodal Context. The question of “blessing” same-sex couples was vetted this past October at Synod-2023, where the concerns raised by my African friend were discussed. If there was any consensus reached at Synod-2023, it was that the Church ought not authorize any such “blessings”—which is why the subject was not mentioned in the Synod’s final Synthesis Report. How, then, does Fiducia Supplicans reflect the synodal context in which this pontificate is so invested? What does “synodality” mean if a synodal consensus can be overridden by the unilateral act of a Curial dicastery, issued without any serious consultation with the world episcopate? What does it mean for the future discussion of “synodality” that so many individual bishops—and indeed entire episcopal conferences—have severely criticized, and in some instances repudiated, Fiducia Supplicans

The Linguistic ContextFiducia Supplicans is being presented as a genuine development in the pastoral practice of “blessing” those experiencing same-sex attraction, yet that “blessing” “does not validate or justify anything” (as Cardinal Fernández later told The Pillar). As the bishops of Cameroon noted, however, “blessing” signals approval of that-which-is-being-blessed in any linguistic context: a commonsense observation that underscores what can only be described as the sophistry of Fiducia Supplicans

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, the dicastery charged with the defense of Catholic truth and the promotion of dynamically orthodox theology was a source of clarification. That is no longer the case. And that will be an issue during the next papal interregnum and at the next conclave.

George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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