Fiducia Supplicans and the Christian Conscience

Instead of going back to the magisterium of previous popes and showing a continuous development, Cardinal Fernandez invents the novelty of a personal pastoral magisterium of the current pope.

Detail from portrait of St. John Henry Newman, by Sir John Everett Millais (Image: Wikipedia); right: Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández in 2014. (Image: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Shortly after the publication of Fiducia Supplicans, a friend asked me how she could reconcile the content of this statement with her conscience. As she is certainly not alone with this question, I have decided to publish my detailed answer to her here.

Dr. Nina Sophie Heereman

Dear T.,

You write that you are unsettled by the fact that Pope Francis has approved the blessing of same-sex couples. You now ask whether the couple or the individual will be blessed, whether these blessings can be reconciled with the Bible, and how we should explain all this to the equally unsettled faithful. Furthermore, you ask yourself how you should submit to the Pope in a decision that noticeably contradicts your sense of faith. You say that you love the Catholic Church and its sacraments and would like to remain Catholic. Before I go into the individual aspects, let me say that I understand and share your unsettledness. Perhaps the good news first: although this declaration is a statement that claims to be doctrinally binding, it does not yet have the authority to bind you in your conscience. You are not only free, but even obliged before God to follow your conscience in this matter. This is what I am trying to explain in the following.

1) First of all, it must be said that the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans (FS) of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) clearly reiterates and confirms the constant teaching of the Church that only in the context of marriage “sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm” (FS #4). Accordingly, as already stated in the Responsum from 2021, the Church is not authorized to liturgically bless couples living in so-called “irregular relationships”, i.e. sexual relationships outside of a sacramental marriage. Cardinal Fernandez, the president of the DDF, has repeatedly emphasized this point in numerous interviews since the publication of the declaration, especially in his statement on the interpretation of Fiducia Supplicans published on January 4.

The document is very clear: the Church has not changed her teaching on sexual activity. Any sexual activity outside of marriage is still considered a sin. This means that it is objectively contrary to God’s will and therefore cannot lead a person to a life of fullness and communion with God. Fiducia Supplicans has done absolutely nothing to change this teaching, which is why it so explicitly insists that the Dicastery’s 2021 response, which prohibits any liturgical blessing, remains valid. “From a strictly liturgical point of view,” the declaration states, “a blessing requires that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church.” (FS #9).

2) So then where is the problem? Why all the fuss? And why do the media worldwide as well as countless bishops and theologians conclude from the declaration that the Holy Father has now opened the door for the blessing of couples in irregular situations after all?

The real problem is that the Declaration claims to present a development of “what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and the official texts of the Church” in order to permit “a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings” (Presentation). It does this by introducing a differentiation between “liturgical or ritual” and non-liturgical, so-called “spontaneous or pastorally motivated” blessings and authorizes that the latter can also be given to couples in irregular situations, provided that any cause for confusion with the sacrament of marriage is avoided. The declaration here creates the possibility of a blessing that is intended to respond to the request for God’s blessing of those who

do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. These forms of blessing express a supplication that God may grant those aids that come from the impulses of his Spirit—what classical theology calls “actual grace” — so that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel, that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties, and that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love. (FS #31).

If one takes the declaration at its word, then one can only conclude, as Cardinal Fernandez himself does in his statement of January 4, that the priests are invited to say a prayer of blessing, which expressly asks God that the two people may obtain the grace to live according to God’s will, i.e. sexually abstinent. In the cardinal’s subsequent statement, it even seems as though the priest is not to bless the two as a couple, but each of them individually. If the latter was indeed the intention of the declaration, then there would not really be much to object to. Unfortunately, however, the declaration explicitly speaks of the blessing of couples (# 38) and not of the blessing of individuals in irregular situations, which is of course always permitted.i

The Church has always invoked a blessing on all her children without exception, regardless of their degree of sanctity or sinfulness, so that they may receive the grace of conversion and be freed from captivity in sin. We all need this form of blessing, and we need it daily, because we are all sinners. But when a couple in an irregular situation asks for a blessing, it is because they want the Church’s blessing on their union. In other words, because they want to hear that God “well-calls” or approves their union, since that is precisely what blessing (bene-dicere) means. Such a couple would certainly not be pleased if they heard the priest praying for chastity and abstinence only to subsequently bless them individually.

As you can see, the feeling of confusion is justified, especially as the declaration is widely interpreted as though the Holy Father had suddenly permitted the blessing of same-sex couples, which would mean nothing other than the Holy Father approving such relationships. This in turn would indeed be a scandal, because the Holy Father cannot approve what, according to the clear testimony of Scripture, is not approved by God, i.e. not blessed by God. Now the Holy Father certainly did not want to give the impression that he wants to approve of extramarital sex, of whatever kind. On this point, the declaration is unambiguous. The fact is, however, that with this declaration he allows couples in irregular situations to be blessed under certain conditions. With this gesture, he wants to express the pastoral care of the Church and God’s support for the couples concerned.ii Not the relationship is to be blessed, but the couple, but unfortunately this is where the problem lies. In order to make this pastoral gesture possible, it was necessary to invent a new definition of blessing, so to speak, which interprets the blessing not as an expression of approval, but as an intercession for God’s help (# 38). Secondly, and this is also problematic, the Declaration speaks of “couples” in relation to same-sex relationships, a definition that the Magisterium of the Church has always rejected.

The crucial problematic point of the declaration lies in its claim to expand and enrich the classical understanding of blessing, i.e. to present a further development of the Church’s teaching on blessing. In fact, the Church’s teaching is constantly evolving. This is already contained in Jesus’ words: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (Jn 16:12-13). Although the fullness of revelation is given to us in Jesus, it is like a seed that must first develop in order to reveal the fullness of its nature and beauty. Such a development arises organically from its origin, but can usually only be ascertained after centuries, sometimes even a millennium. A development of doctrine is an organic process, not a decision that can be made at the desk of a single theologian or bishop. This is why no one, not even the Pope, can “develop” the doctrine of the Church by decree or declaration.

Only time, and ultimately only the unanimous acceptance of this teaching by the universal Church, can show whether the teaching on pastoral blessings presented here by Cardinal Fernandez is in fact an organic development of the blessing as it is understood in Scripture and Tradition, or whether it is rather a corruption of the Church’s constant teaching. It is an important and urgent question, as it concerns both the proper relationship between pastoral care and doctrine, the nature of the blessing itself, and ultimately the nature of the priesthood. As the Church we must ask ourselves whether we can affirm such a development without changing our sexual ethics. Until now, the Church has always adhered to an age-old principle: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, which means that you can infer what the Church believes from what she prays. A prayer is therefore also always a profession of faith. This law becomes particularly clear in the act of blessing, which the Church always accompanies with a prayer that expresses what exactly she asks of God for the blessed. The prayer cannot and must not contradict the faith of the Church. The Declaration now directs the ordained minister to ask, for example, for “peace, health, a spirit of patience, dialogue and mutual help” (#38) for the two, “but also for God’s light and strength to be able to fully fulfill his will”. There would be nothing wrong with this, since the priest explicitly asks that those thus blessed be able to clearly recognize God’s will and even gain the strength to fulfill it, i.e. to live sexually abstinent according to God’s will. But now there is also the fact that the act of blessing is in itself also a speech act. By blessing the two as a couple and not as individuals, the act of blessing expresses that God approves of the couple-relationship, as they are to be blessed as a couple.

Cardinal Fernandez now insists that only the couple would be blessed, not their sexual relationship. The priest should only “beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit”. With regard to remarried divorcees who have decided to live in total abstinence, there is nothing wrong with this at all (see John Paul II, (Familiaris Consortio #84). However, when applied to the relationship between two people of the same sex, the problem arises, firstly, that it is not clear how the terms “relationship” and “couple” can be separated. After all, it is the relationship that makes the two of them a “couple”, as which, and belonging to each other, they want to be recognized in public. Secondly, this results in a blatant contradiction to the magisterium of John Paul II and Pope Benedict. In his post-synodal letter, Ecclesia in Europa, John Paul II explicitly warned against attempts to “accept a definition of the couple in which difference of sex is not considered essential”. The Church has therefore consciously used the word “couple” exclusively for the relationship between man and woman. Similarly, in an address from 2008 Pope Benedict expressed concern that the number of so-called “de facto partnerships” has multiplied. A Church document such as Fiducia Supplicans, which in its wording now recognizes same-sex relationships as couples, is therefore no longer in line with the tradition of the previously valid teaching.

Furthermore, if, as Cardinal Fernandez claims, a liturgical blessing were essentially different from a non-liturgical blessing, then one would actually have to conclude that a priest only acts in persona Christi in the liturgy. However, according to the Church’s understanding, the priestly blessing is always the blessing of Jesus Christ himself, regardless of whether it is given in the liturgy or at an intersection or on a pilgrimage. And since Christ cannot approve of behavior that, according to the clear testimony of Scripture, contradicts the will of God (cf. Lev 18:22; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10) and for the reparation of which he himself gave his life on the cross, he would certainly not bless a sexually irregular relationship outside of the liturgy either. After all, he wants to lead people to life in abundance and not to error or even to hell.

3) This finally leads me to the actual core of your question. You write: “I know that we must submit to the decisions of our Pope.” You love the Church and her sacraments and yet you have the impression that you are now in a conflict between fidelity to the Pope on one hand and fidelity to the Word of God and your own conscience on the other.

Must we really submit unconditionally to all of the Pope’s decisions? Your question is important because a false understanding of obedience prevents many people from joining the Catholic Church, or now even tempts them to leave. The answer is yes and no, it depends. Catholics are not obliged to drown their own thinking in the holy water font and to receive and follow every word from Rome as the word of God, as it were. Or, as a Spanish bishop aptly put it: “When a man enters the church, he takes off his hat, but not his head.” The cases in which we must “unconditionally submit” to the Pope’s decisions, as you write, are very precisely defined and very narrowly delimited. When the pope speaks “ex cathedra”, we actually believe that he enjoys the charism of infallibility, and in such a case, we must accept the decision with the obedience of faith (Lumen Gentium 25, CCC 891).

Also, and above all, we are obliged to render religious religious submission of mind and will to the ordinary magisterium of the Church when it presents “a teaching that leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals” (CCC 892). A good example of such an exercise of the papal ordinary magisterium was the encyclical Humanae Vitae, on artificial contraception. In this case, the Holy Father explained how, in the light of the Word of God and the constant teaching of the Church, the use of artificial contraceptives, which had just come onto the market, should be judged, and stated that their use was not in accordance with Christ’s teaching on human sexuality. It is the actual task of the Pope and the bishops to preserve the revelation given by Christ to his Church in a pure and error-free manner. It is the mission of the magisterium, as the Catechism puts it, “to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates” (CCC 890). This means that the magisterium can never present a teaching that contradicts the revelation entrusted by Christ to his Church. For, as the Second Vatican Council teaches: “This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Dei Verbum #10; see also CCC 85).

The crucial question, however, is this: when is a statement a decision of the ordinary magisterium? It is precisely because the Church is aware of the weaknesses of its pastors that there are very exact theological criteria for determining this. Something is not simply the teaching of the Church because a cardinal has so determined by declaration, even if it bears the signature of the Pope. A claim of further development of doctrine must be measured by whether it actually represents a further development and not possibly a degeneration or even a rupture. The negative reaction of countless bishops and even bishops’ conferences around the world raises legitimate doubts as to whether Fiducia Supplicans is a decision of the Magisterium that is binding on conscience. Papal statements or decisions are not always beyond criticism. Joseph Ratzinger even considers it possible that they may contradict Scripture or the faith and has the following to say on the subject:

Criticism of papal statements will be possible and necessary to the extent that they lack backing in Scripture and the Creed, respectively in the faith of the universal Church. Where there is neither the unanimity of the universal Church nor a clear testimony of the sources, a binding decision is not possible; if it were made formally, its conditions would be lacking, and thus the question of its legitimacy would have to be raised.iii

In my opinion, Fiducia Supplicans fits exactly the case described by Joseph Ratzinger: Firstly, there is obviously no moral unanimity among the world episcopate. There is even a Wikipedia page listing all the bishops and bishops’ conferences that have criticized or even rejected the declaration. These are by no means just the bishops of Africa, who are now being condescendingly portrayed as culturally conditioned, while we fail to ask ourselves to what extent we are the ones succumbing to the pressure of the culture around us. Numerous bishops and bishops’ conferences in Eastern Europe—and even the bishops’ conference of the completely secularized Western European Netherlands—have raised their voices against Fiducia Supplicans and decided that the declaration must not be implemented in their dioceses, as well as in Asia, Central and South America, Spain and even an entire regional bishops’ conference in France.

Furthermore, an entire particular church in union with Rome has declared that the declaration has no canonical validity in its territory worldwide. In the USA, people are more cautious in their criticism, but the vast majority of statements insist that there has been no development in doctrine. In addition, there are numerous priestly associations in the USA, England, Australia and France who have declared that they will not impart blessings on same-sex couples. The global reaction fluctuates between outright rejection and modified acceptance. Cheers are only heard from Germany and Belgium and a few other secularized Western European churches. Unanimity of the universal Church looks certainly different.

Secondly, the alleged further development of the Church’s understanding of priestly blessing can refer neither to Scripture nor to the Creed. Although the declaration contains a long digression on blessing in the Bible, this digression has nothing to do with the distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical blessing. There is also no clear testimony from the sources that could prove this to be an organic development of the Church’s teaching. Instead of going back to the magisterium of previous popes and showing a continuous development through their examples, Cardinal Fernandez invents the novelty of a personal pastoral magisterium of the current pope. Such a personal magisterium as a theological source, however, is unknown to the tradition of the Church. Cardinal Fernandez is basically treating Pope Francis as if the latter had already been canonized and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. Furthermore, one cannot help but get the impression that the current declaration is in direct contradiction to the teaching of this same Pope, as he approved it just two years ago. Besides, the Church has always maintained that orthodoxy and orthopraxy cannot be separated.

This blatant contradiction is now to be resolved by introducing a distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical, spontaneous blessings. However, this does not eliminate the contradiction in doctrine, because blessings are a way of teaching; they always have a didactic function as well. When a child sees a priest blessing two people, it understands that the priest approves of this union. It is also precisely this approval that those to be blessed request from the Church. The Church cannot therefore, without becoming entangled in contradictions, on the one hand condemn extramarital sexual relations in its teaching, but at the same time through its actions give the impression that it approves of them. The Church must beware, as she has always done, of publicly contradicting her own teaching in her practice, which is not her own, but the Revelation she has received from Jesus Christ, and which it is the primary task of the Petrine ministry to guard and keep pure. In this respect, it is salutary to call to mind what Joseph Ratzinger wrote with regard to the Second Vatican Council: “In the union of truth and love, of doctrine and pastoral care, lies the peculiarity of the pastoral idea of the Council, which thus wanted to reach back beyond the division into pragmatism and doctrinalism to the biblical unity of both, which is ultimately founded in Christ, who is Logos and Shepherd in one: as Logos he is Shepherd, as Shepherd Logos.”iv The apostle Paul expresses the same thing when he writes: “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ … was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.” (2 Cor 1:18-19).

In this respect, it must be said that although the declaration was formally adopted, the conditions for a binding decision are lacking and the question of its legitimacy is justified. What great freedom of conscience Catholics have with regard to such a declaration we can see from the example of St. John Henry Newman. Although he himself was convinced of the Pope’s infallibility, he strictly rejected its dogmatization. However, it was precisely this dogmatization that came about at the First Vatican Council. Newman’s reaction to this is perhaps surprising at first, but nevertheless instructive. Since more than 80 out of 500 bishops had put up fierce resistance and “absented themselves” because, in Newman’s words, they “would have nothing to do with its act”, he now wonders whether the definition really came to him with the authority of an ecumenical council. He doubts this, since a council, in order to be valid, requires at least the moral unanimity of the bishops. As this was lacking, Newman said, everything now depended on what the dissenting bishops would do. “If they separate and go home without acting as a body, if they act only individually, or as individuals, and each in his own way, then I should not recognize in their opposition to the majority that force, firmness, and unity of view, which creates a real case of want of moral unanimity in the Council.”

Thus, “if the Council terminates without any reversal or modification of the definition, or any effective movement against it on the part of the dissentients, then again there will be good reason for saying that the want of a moral unanimity has not been made out.” In this case, then, Newman would accept the definition with the authority of a council. Furthermore, he writes that “if the definition is consistently received by the whole body of the faithful, as valid, or as the expression of a truth, then too it will claim our assent by the force of the great dictum, ‘Securus judicat orbis terrarum.’ (The whole world judges reliably).”v In fact, both came to pass: the “dissentient bishops” did not raise their voices together, the world unanimously accepted the dogma in faith, and Newman accepted the dogma as valid and binding for his conscience. However, as long as the unanimity of the bishops was not assured, Newman himself retained the freedom of conscience to regard a council decision as invalid until one of these two conditions was fulfilled.

I think we are currently in a similar situation. Not just a few bishops, but entire bishops’ conferences, even an entire continent, have united against the alleged further development of the doctrine in Fiducia Supplicans. Furthermore, the sense of faith of practicing Catholics worldwide is disturbed by this declaration. Yet it is precisely “the little ones”, on whose faith Pope Francis places such great value as a source of revelation, who take offense (scandalon) at this decision (cf. Mt 18:6).

Therefore, only time will tell whether and to what extent this decision is binding. In my opinion, the reaction of the bishops, as well as of the other denominations, shows that this declaration will not be tenable in the long term. Too many are also the ordinary faithful who instinctively feel that you cannot bless a couple in an irregular situation without giving the mistaken impression that you are also blessing their relationship as a couple. True pastoral love avoids anything that could even begin to jeopardize the salvation of our souls.

I am therefore firmly convinced that priests must refuse the request for the blessing of a couple in an extramarital sexual relationship out of obedience to God and out of love for the people concerned. That they may do so is also evident from the Pope’s approval of the declaration of the Pan-African Bishops’ Conference not to implement Fiducia Supplicans on their continent (without prejudice to the rights of individual bishops to do so anyway). St. John Henry Newman, the great defender of freedom of conscience against dubious papal decisions, quotes two outstanding theologians of the Church in this context. Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, who in his day was an ardent defender of the papal office, nevertheless wrote the following in his work Summa de Ecclesia against those opposing the power of the pope:

Although it clearly follows from the circumstance that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not … it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘One ought to obey God rather than man:’ therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over (despiciendus). (Summ. de Eccl., pp. 47, 48.)

As a second witness, Newman cites the Doctor of the Church and Saint Robert Bellarmine, who writes regarding resistance to the pope:

In order to resist and defend oneself no authority is required … Therefore, as it is lawful to resist the Pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state (turbanti rem publicam), and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will. (De Rom. Pont., ii. 29).vi

Of course, this should not be interpreted to mean that the ordinary faithful must always first consult his conscience about every decision from Rome and scrupulously consider whether it is compatible with the Word of God. That would mean going to the opposite (Protestant) extreme. Yes, we must act according to our conscience, but not everyone is their own pope! A well-formed conscience acts in unity with the universal Church. This does not only mean in unity with the generation of the faithful now living, but also in unity with all the generations that have preceded us. Normally, the Church has institutions such as synods of bishops and councils that allow the Holy Father to determine whether or not there is unanimity with regard to a presumed development in doctrine. The fact that the Holy Father did not consult these in the run-up to the publication of Fiducia Supplicans is now being noted even by those theologians who otherwise tend to acclaim his decisions.

For as long as I can remember, the decisions from Rome have been rock solid and the Holy See has indeed been a rock in the surf of the zeitgeist. The current situation is unprecedented in its form, at least in recent times. Some may want to argue that the current situation is the same as it was in 1968 after the publication of Humanae Vitae, but this is not true. The decisive difference lies in the fact that Humanae Vitae only confirmed the teaching on the use of contraceptives, which had been constant until then, and spoke out precisely against a further development claimed by some theologians. Fiducia Supplicans, on the other hand, claims a development of doctrine without even beginning to demonstrate the necessary coherence with the constant teaching of the Church.

I think there is a good reason why the Gospel shows us that even popes can err and become a stumbling block (Greek: scandalon) for the faithful. After all, Jesus says to the same Peter whom he has just made the rock of the Church and who now wants to detract Jesus from his way of the cross: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance (Greek: scandalon) to me; you are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mt 16:23). The future Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, commented on this passage as follows:

He, whom God allowed to be bedrock, is of himself a stone on the path that wants to cause the foot to stumble (scandalon). The tension between the gift coming from the Lord and Peter’s own capacity is rousingly portrayed in this scene, which in some sense anticipates the entire drama of papal history. In this history, we repeatedly encounter two situations. On the one hand, the papacy remains the foundation of the Church in virtue of a power that does not derive from itself. At the same time, individual popes have again and again become a scandal because of what they themselves are as men, because they want to precede, not follow, Christ, because they believe that they must determine by their own logic the path that only Christ himself can decide: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mt 16:23).vii

Obviously, Ratzinger is not thinking here of personal moral lapses on the part of Peter’s successor, such as we could observe in abundance among the popes of the Renaissance period. No, he is thinking of papal decisions that recommend to the Church a path other than the path of God. According to his commentary, this has happened again and again in the history of the Church, and this should comfort us because it proves that the Lord has nevertheless always led the Church back on the right path and, despite his weakness, has withdrawn neither his loyalty nor his office from the Pope. The saying about the rock against which the powers of hell will not prevail remains true! We therefore know that we must follow Jesus’ example also in this regard and remain faithful to the Pope. But true love and loyalty to the Pope does not exclude rebuking him when necessary, as the Lord himself did and as Paul did with Peter (see Galatians 2).

In my opinion, it follows from the above that Fiducia Supplicans does not (yet) fulfill the criteria for a binding decision as listed by the future Pope Benedict and is therefore not binding on our conscience (at least not yet). Moreover, it is the constant teaching of the Church that one may never and under no circumstances, even if an ecclesiastical superior commands it, violate one’s own conscience.viii As lay people, who are only indirectly affected by this declaration, I think it is now our duty to listen to our conscience and, where appropriate, to speak out since we are all together responsible for the life of the Church. Particularly at a time when freedom of conscience is increasingly under threat in public discourse, it is important that we defend and respect it, especially as a Church and within the Church.

Above all, however, we must now pray all the more intensely for the unity of the Church, for the Pope and the bishops, and also for the priests, that they may have the courage to obey God rather than men and not obscure the witness of the Gospel.

United in this prayer request,


Nina Heereman

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally, in Geman, on January 26, 2024, on the author’s Substack. It was translated for CWR by Frank Nitsche-Robinson.)


i The wording of the declaration alone is decisive. Even if Cardinal Fernandez’s subsequent declaration were to be interpreted as restrictively as I do here, it does not have the same magisterial authority as Fiducia Supplicans itself due to the lack of papal approval.

ii I think it goes without saying that every shepherd after the heart of God basically shares the Holy Father’s intention. The Church must find effective ways and means of assisting people in irregular situations in particular, and unfortunately has a lot of catching up to do in this area. The only question is: “how”?

iii Joseph Ratzinger, “Primat und Episkopat”, in JRGS 8/1, Freiburg 2010, p. 657 (emphasis added).

iv Joseph Ratzinger, “Kommentar zu den “Bekanntmachungen” in: JRGS 7/2, Freiburg 2012, p. 702.

v John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, “8. The Vatican Council”.

vi John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, “4. Divided Allegiance”.

vii Joseph Ratzinger, “Primat Petri und Einheit der Kirche”, in JRGS 8/1, Freiburg, 2010, p. 619.

viii The often misunderstood saying of St. John Henry Newman from the letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874) already quoted belongs in this context: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink…to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”.

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About Nina Sophie Heereman 1 Article
Dr. Nina Sophie Heereman is Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, Menlo Park, CA. She received a doctorate in Sacred Scripture (SSD) from the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, where she wrote her dissertation on the Song of Songs. She is the author of Behold King Solomon on the Day of His Wedding (Leuven: Peeters, 2021), and Athirst for the Spirit (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2023). She can be followed in German on her YouTube Channel and Substack.


  1. Christ told us we can judge things by their fruit. The fruit of FS has been worldwide scandal and confusion. That is very bad fruit.

    • I would say the fruit of a church that has lost track of the beattitudes, has been politicized and lost its christocentric identity, is that people who feel comfortably orthodox are scandalized by a clear simple document that reiterates what we should already know, that people struggling with sin still deserve and need, desire, God’s blessing, and priests who were wondering if they can give that simple blessing are set free to do so. The pope is not making things easier for faithful catholics, he is giving the same wage to those who have not labored as much and it’s just not fair. What shall our reaction be?

      • It’s repetitious at this point I know, but priests have always been able to give blessings to individuals struggling with sin. The concern here is about “couples”, not about individuals.

      • Your comment, Goatfarmer, would be accurate as long as those seeking a blessing acknowledged that they were “struggling with sin.” Problem is they don’t.

        • Deacon Edward,
          Perhaps by the Grace of God, and the kind blessing of a holy priest, the individuals in these couples might have their eyes opened and be able to acknowledge the truth of their situation.

          • Would we advised a couple to physically harm each other so that a talented physician might heal them? Why do we put the Divine Physician to the test spiritually by blessing sin and them hoping He will heal us anyway?

            Christ has promulgated for individuals the Sacrament of Confession. FS has promulgated a “blessing” for couples that is not Christian.

        • Among those who don’t acknowledge their sins against Catholic Christian moral instruction are many who were ‘educated’ in Catholic schools, colleges, & universities (often at sacrificial cost to their Catholic parents).

          How heart-wrenching it is for Catholic parents to see their children throwing away God’s wise instructions on how to live a good life & inherit an eternity of joy, for a tawdry impost of populist heterodox theology & illusory free-love, that is gifting their souls to Satan & an eternity separated from God.

          Is it any wonder that so many faithful Catholics are deeply disgusted by the anti-Apostolic teachings of pope Francis and his mates, who are making a bad situation worse rather than correcting it with God’s Word, and with the power of The Holy Spirit, who is abundantly available to faithful Catholic leaders.

          Even so, we trust in King Jesus Christ to cleanse what has been fouled.

      • What makes you think the church has lost track of the beatitudes? Do you have any real evidence of this? Of course not. Or that it is politicized? Well certainly Pope Francis seems to focus on politics and not religion. But the church as a whole rejects that approach. Your easy slide into believing that a “blessing” that promotes sinful behavior is a big nothingburger is instructive. You choose to close your eyes to what is really happening here, and instead you want to pretend that FS is about blessing sinners. Fine, let them admit their sin in the confessional, they will promptly receive a blessing and absolution, as long as they have the firm commitment never to repeat that sin. Do they meet that requirement?

  2. We read of a supposed “…differentiation between ‘liturgical or ritual’ and non-liturgical, so-called ‘spontaneous or pastorally motivated’ blessings…”

    Yea verily, Cardinal Fernandez proposes the novelty that “differentiation” and MUTATION (!) are the same thing, and that there is no contradiction between parallel universes, and therefore (as under Islam) that the philosophical and non-demonstrable principle of non-contradiction can be side-stepped and simply does not apply.

    As for HUMANAE VITAE, is it possible that the end game of Fiducia Supplicans is not to contradict its consistent morality, but simply to smother and obsolesce it? As with non-liturgical best wishes for homosexual “couples” and for the full range of other “irregular” couples: sequential bigamy, co-habitation, etc.?

    Likewise, it is said that Picasso’s later “style” was rooted in his DYSLEXIA ….And, now, an equally (equality!) post-modern and dyslexic Church?

    A split-personality/schizophrenic Church—as was proposed in the 4th Century by a proto-Fernandez named NESTORIUS. Christ himself split by the heresy that Mary was the mother of (an “informal and non-liturgical”) Jesus, but not the mother of Christ: Theotokos.

    Or, also in the same 4th Century, ARIUS with his split between God and the spontaneous, creaturely and less formal Second Person of the formerly Triune One. Yesterday, the opening wedge for polytheism; today the opening wedge for a morally polyhedral/checkerboard Church…

    How “backwardist” can we get?!!

    • I would argue that the differentiation between “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” blessings is artificial and cannot be recognized. A blessing is a blessing, and its effects are exactly the same when it occurs in a liturgical context and in a non liturgical context. There is no difference. Fernandez simply invented this fake distinction to pretend there is a difference between the two, so he could avoid the idea that these blessings can be considered a substitute for a marriage ceremony.

      • See John 8:44 – “. . when he lies he is drawing on his own store, because he is a liar and the father of lies.”

  3. Sfiducia Supplicans promulgates the novel pastoral heresy of “blessing” couples in an extramarital sexual relationship. To obey heteropraxy is to disobey the Commandments of God. God is love. Sin is not love.

    Cling to the Catholic Faith, especially during times of crucifying confusion. The pastoral heresy of this pontificate is no reason to reject the papacy instituted by Christ.

  4. The fact of the matter is that it is impossible for two men or two women to be “coupled.” No more than a man and his favored Labrador Retriever can be “coupled.”

    So let’s stop referring to homosexual “couples” as if this were possible; it isn’t. If the Vatican document uses the word “couples”, it’s clearly an error and needs to stop because it’s creating confusion; it’s attempting to create a reality where none exists.

    • You’re correct, Deacon Edward. Each verbal affirmation/euphemism we adopt slides society deeper into an ideology. We’re being programmed through language into compliance.

    • “…no more than a man and his favored Labrador Retriever can be “coupled….”

      Well, there is a difference between being a “couple” as in simply a pair–say, a couple of clowns–and being mechanically “coupled.” And one of the criticisms of Supreme Court imposition of oxymoronic “gay marriage” is that the logic doesn’t exclude coupling under polygamy (more than a pair!) or even bestiality (!).

      So, the Alliance of Labradors, Goats, Baboons, Tasmanian devils and other Quadrupeds (A-LGBTQ) has filed an appeal to a yet higher (!) court, but the hired (!) U.S. Court has intervened and the case has been pawsed.

  5. Many thanks for this superbly balanced analysis of FS – thanks to author Dr Nina Sophie Heereman, the translator, and all involved. This is the definitive critique we’ve all been needing to help ordinary Catholics through the discombobulating jungle of equivocation and false logic in FS.

    The 45 sections of FS seem quite confusticated, even to a theologically literate academic. Right from Section 1 alarm bells begin ringing!
    The quotation from PF regarding the blessing that is Jesus Christ having saved all humanity is an outrageous eisegesis of Paul’s Letter (5:8) to the Romans, contrived to support the heresy of universalism.

    As PF, CF and associates should know: “A text without a context is a pretext!” Their flagrant attempt to twist The Word of God is a scandal not just to Catholics but to all Christians.
    The actual context is the non-negotiable necessity of faith & obedience for salvation in Jesus Christ.

    The New Testament presents a continuous & unambiguous account of Christ Jesus as a highly selective blesser not as some sort of deus ex machina universal blessing device suited to the heretical purpose of the author and authorizer of FS.

    Romans 6 is full of correction for the misuse:
    “Does it follow we should remain in sin . . . Of course not. We are dead to sin, so how can we continue to live in it?”
    “You must not let sin reign in your mortal bodies or command your obedience to bodily passions . . . you should make every part of your body into a weapon fighting on behalf of God; then sin will no longer dominate your life.”
    “You cannot be slaves to sin that leads to death & at the same time slaves to obedience that leads to righteousness.”
    “As once you put your bodies at the service of vice & immorality, so now you must put them at the service of righteousness for your sanctification.”
    “For the wage paid by sin is death.”

    Apparently, the authors of FS found it inconvenient to contemplate the stark contrast between the fate of those enslaved to disobedience to God and the destiny of those dedicated to obedience to God. In their eagerness to bless unrepentant sinful couples (and homosexual clerics?), they deeply sin.

    That, of course, is a gross betrayal of the commission to preach The Gospel.

  6. Optics! Optics! Optics!

    The Church of Rome now blesses irregular/homosexual relationships!

    That is what many will conclude and anyone with any intellectual integrity knows that that is precisely how FS will be understood, (misunderstood?) microscopic parsing of its text notwithstanding. God’s Fool admonishes to cling to the Catholic Faith. Absolutely true. The present dumpster fire of a papacy in no way defines the Catholic Church for me nor threatens my faith. For that I thank God. Pray for the Pope!

  7. Thank God, we can know through both Faith and Reason, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost this Canon, 750, only applies to the True Magisterium:

    Canon 750
1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.
2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.[new]

    -Changes to Oriental and Latin Codes of Canon Law | EWTN

  8. I am a life long practicing Catholic, a senior citizen with no training in theology. Still I can appreciate the clear and well-documented article she has written.
    The words of Jesus on marriage, divorce, adultery are plain but this papacy chose to ignore them with Amoris. German priests have been blessing same sex couples for years with no Vatican correction. We are assured over and over again that Fiducia does not change church teaching. Let’s not be naive. It puts the teaching on the road to being changed or just ignored. The Vatican may never formally repudiate the teaching, just permit pro LGBT priests to give elaborate blessings which over time will resemble marriage. The formal teaching will be swamped by practice.
    The pope, Cardinal Fernandez & Co. have an agenda. They start with a conclusion and then invent an argument with weird logic, to get to it.
    Many thanks to Dr. Heereman. No doubt there are bishops and cardinals who agree with her, but we have to go abroad, to Africa, etc. to find them

  9. Are blessings in the sign of the cross an instrument of conversion? 1670 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it”.
    Ms Heerman adds “Cardinal Fernandez invents the novelty of a personal pastoral magisterium of the current pope. Such a personal magisterium as a theological source, however, is unknown to the tradition of the Church”. A finely researched and interpreted response to the blessing issue. It’s essential to the intent of the blessing that the person or persons be “well disposed”. Well disposed is absolutely not the expectation that their request confirms their irregularity. Rather, it refers to the requirement that they be disposed, at least to some openly acknowledged degree, to accept, convert, and live by the commandments of the Church. Heerman pin points the error in FS of inventing an alien dimension of the magisterium to enrich the meaning of the sacramental blessing, which can only be perceived in context of a duplicitous accommodation, and not conversion, since conversion of manners is already implied by the existing understanding of the blessing.

      • Personally I have no intention of blessing a homosexual or homosexuals unless there’s that willingness to consider change as indicated above, the blessing addressing that willingness. “Any two people who make up a same sex or other ‘irregular couple’ are in spiritual critical condition” (Addison). And they must have the critical spiritual care required.
        Yes, we are ordained to imitate Our Savior, to save the sinner in dire jeopardy from condemnation. FS is a form of enabling that gives the impression that it’s fine to carry on as you are with the assumption that you might eventually ‘feel’ differently. When Christ ate and drank with sinners the recorded accounts have him addressing conversion, Zacchaeus Lk 19, I have come to call sinners not the righteous, Simon the Pharisee Lk 7 35 Much has been forgiven her because she has loved much.

      • As a rejoinder I would assure the party that I will pray for them. And remind them that it’s not how well we might feel regarding our relationship with God because in his stark words, If you love me you will keep my commandments.

        • And the Rock-solid 1st & 2nd Commandments of Christ, our LORD forever.

          1st: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength” shown by humble, loving obedience to God’s commandments.

          2nd: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

          Everything of our Faith hangs on those two.

  10. Very professional and detailed analysis of FS. Thank you very much Dr Heereman. But for a simple person like me, FS does not deny Catholic doctrine (which it could not do explicitly). What it tries to do, however, is to make it irrelevant in practice.

  11. If we bring in here St. Paul’s dictum that the less noble parts of the body require the more honour, we can only and must conclude that FS stands outside the category of any possible true regulation. Worse, FS makes everything to be treated as if on equal footing that is the antithesis for either mercy or justice.

    Sorry I haven’t written so much these days Carl, I am in the process of nailing some business deadlines and my reading and mind isn’t focusing as much as can.

    Mentally exhausting. Hopefully just for now.

    • Bishop Strickland points out that the different translations of FS indicate sources and provocations of disruptions not proper to the Church. See below 5 minute video LIFESITE link. Or, according to Heereman, as I understand some of what she is elucidating,

      ‘ ….. Ratzinger is not thinking here of personal moral lapses on the part of Peter’s successor, such as we could observe in abundance among the popes of the Renaissance period. No, he is thinking of papal decisions that recommend to the Church a path other than the path of God. ‘

      While I agree FS is not binding in conscience; I say we are not then left “free” but are obliged in conscience to remain true to what truth obliges in faith and reason.

      It’s not just one thing notifying us about error, it’s a multiplicity. So now this puts us on guard to have to inform our consciences about what is proposed in the document in particular and what it portends for us and the Church more generally.

      Better again, GRACE shows us what should and shouldn’t be and we want our faith to be illumined and steeled in it and our reason to be disciplined and crafted on it.

  12. Thank you, Dr. Heereman.
    I especially appreciated the quotes from Pope Benedict (who truly merited the title “His Holiness”), and Saints John Henry Newman and Robert Bellarmine. All those quotes, it seems to me, echo the mandate of the Holy Spirit to ignore those who do not abide in the teaching of Christ ( 2 John:9).

    • Dear Mel, without further explanation seems you mean: “Sex, sex, sex, . . . Yay!”

      The New Testament makes plain what Catholic Christians mean by ‘love’ and it’s not teenage fantasizing! Never pornographic ‘alphabet soup’.

      Matthew 22:37 – “Jesus said: ‘You must love The LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'”

      John 14:15 – “If you love Me you will keep My commandments.”

      Romantic love has a place in our natural lives (one man & one woman marriages depend on it to keep the human species going) but it is as nothing compared with the love of God and our call to lovingly obey God eternally, spiritually. Basic Catholic faith.

      Needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Find a good priest to discuss this with [WARNING – not PF, CF, JM, or their heretical mates].

      Ever in the grace & mercy of King Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

  13. “Must we really submit unconditionally to all of the Pope’s decisions? ”
    So, when can one criticize the Pope?

    According to canon 1404 of the Code of Canon Law (CIC), the dogmatic constitution “Pastor Aeternus,” and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Explanatory Note on the Conclusive Formula of the Profession of Faith we can argue that:
    First, it is necessary to distinguish between doctrinal teachings and pastoral ones. In doctrinal teachings of faith or morality, the Pope teaches as the Master of the faith and Successor of Peter. That is, he sits on the chair of Peter.
    Now, these teachings are subject to three degrees of authority. The first and most important is given when a Pope solemnly defines a new dogma. The second degree is given when the Pope teaches a doctrine connected with the faith. The third degree is given when the Pope teaches a doctrine that is not evidently connected with the faith, but that may be connected with the faith.
    In the first degree, theological faith is required; in the second, faith in the Church is required; in the third, there is a religious act of obedience of the intellect and will.
    The Pope cannot sin against the faith nor lead astray from the faith, because Christ said to Peter: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.”
    There are matters in which it is permissible to criticize the Pope and others in which it is not permissible. It is permissible in the realm of moral conduct, pastoral matters, and governance, provided that the criticism is done with prudence and a constructive spirit. It is not permissible in the three degrees of doctrinal authority mentioned above. Furthermore, the Pontifical Magisterium is distinct from the moral conduct and private opinions of a Pope. In the field of the Pontifical Magisterium, the three degrees of authority apply, so one can never say that a Pope falls into heresy.

    Instead, in the realm of the moral conduct of the individual person of the Pope and in his private opinions, it is possible to criticize a Pope, as he also shares the common situation of being a sinner.
    The Pope speaks ex cathedra to all three degrees of doctrinal authority, as in each of them he teaches as the Successor of Peter, from the chair of Peter (ex cathedra), so he is not only infallible at the first degree but also at the other two, even according to the “Ad tuendam fidem.”
    Saying that he is infallible simply means that he teaches a truth that cannot be denied, meaning it is not falsifiable. And saying ex cathedra simply means referring to the fact that the Pope teaches as the Successor of Peter. Pope Francis, every time he speaks as the Master of the faith in his ordinary magisterium, which can be at the second or third degree of authority, always teaches the truth, which is to say he is infallible. In the directives of the DDF, there is nothing that contradicts the doctrine of faith.

    In the “Fiducia Supplicans,” there is a doctrinal aspect that cannot be contradicted and a pastoral aspect that can be discussed.

    The doctrinal aspect is the dignity of the sinner, who can convert, and it refers to the Sixth Commandment, which are matters of faith. Instead, the pastoral aspect refers to the suitability of applying the blessing, depending on the times and places.

    • The pope is intentionally creating confusion around the issue of human sexuality and has basically endorsed blessing same sex couples. That’s deep sin as far as I am concerned. Criticism of the pope is more than justified when he teaches error. Stop defending the indefensible.

    • We read: “The doctrinal aspect is the dignity of the sinner, who can convert, and it refers to the Sixth Commandment, which are matters of faith. Instead, the pastoral aspect refers to the suitability of applying the blessing, depending on the times and places.”

      This comment refers to “the sinner” as a singular, and yet the ignored issue at hand is the blessing of a “couple” as such, in any of its “irregular” forms. So, not only “times and places,” but the inventive nature of the “blessing.”

      And, as for what is being blessed, today’s deception in Fiducia Supplicans was well enough anticipated and prohibited by, what, a previous pope! The moral law, itself, now is explicitly part of the Magisterium, not to be rendered ambiguous and manipulated by supposedly sideline “opinions” of subsequent popes:

      “This is the first time, in fact, that the MAGISTERIUM of the Church [caps added] has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this [‘moral’] teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1993, n. 115). And, “The Church is no way [!] the author or the arbiter [read opinionator] of this [‘moral’] norm” (n. 95).

      As for the “pastoral aspect [of Fiducia Supplicans, FS] that can be discussed,” where exactly does FS admit any discussion of the following which, again, is now an integral part of the Magisterium???

      “A separation, or even an opposition [!], is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision [no longer a ‘moral judgment’!] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions [!] contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium [!], and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [thou shalt not!]” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 56).

      FS layers the onion of theological invention in order to replace in practice the Magisterium, but the smell is undeniable.

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