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‘Fiducia Supplicans’: non-liturgical blessings and Pope Benedict’s distinction

 ‘Fiducia Supplicans’: non-liturgical blessings and Pope Benedict’s distinction  ING-009
01 March 2024

The Declaration Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings, published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in December, as everyone knows and as has been emphasized by many, does not change the traditional doctrine on marriage, which provides for nuptial blessings only for the man and woman joining in matrimony.

What the document delves into, by admitting the possibility of simple spontaneous blessings even for irregular couples or those composed of individuals of the same sex, without implying blessing their union or approving their way of life, is instead the nature of blessings. Fiducia Supplicans distinguishes between liturgical or ritual blessings and spontaneous or pastoral ones.

There are two ways that the former, the liturgical blessings, can be understood. There is a broad sense, which considers every prayer made by an ordained minister to be “liturgical”, even if it is given without a ritual form and without adhering to an official text. And there is a narrower sense, according to which a prayer or invocation over people is “liturgical” only when performed “ritually”, and more precisely when it is based on a text approved by an ecclesiastical authority.

Some of the critics who have questioned the recent Declaration consider only the broad sense permissible and therefore do not accept the distinction between “ritual” and “liturgical” prayers or blessings, and “pastoral” and “spontaneous” prayers or blessings. Among them, some object that even liturgy has pastoral relevance. But it is important to note that Fiducia Supplicans attributes a specific meaning to the word “pastoral”. Namely, that of a particular form of care specifically directed towards accompanying those to whom the blessing is offered, in the image of the “Good Shepherd” who does not rest until he finds each of those who are lost.

Others argue that all prayers are “liturgical”, and therefore all are subject to the requirements of the Church’s liturgy. Pope Francis himself responded to this objection in a speech to the participants of the plenary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on 26 January, insisting on the existence of pastoral or spontaneous blessings that are “outside of any liturgical context and form” and “do not require moral perfection to be received”. The words of the Pontiff thus confirm the narrower sense of liturgical blessings.

There is an important precedent regarding the distinction between what is liturgical and what is not. It is to be found in an Instruction of the year 2000, published by the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by Pope Saint John Paul ii (https://www.vatican.va). The Instruction was on prayers for healing. Point two of the first part of the document recalls that; “In the De benedictionibus of the Rituale Romanum, there is an Ordo benedictionis infirmorum, in which there are various prayers for healing”.

In the final part of the instruction, dedicated to disciplinary norms, there is an article (2) which states: “Prayers for healing are considered to be liturgical if they are part of the liturgical books approved by the Church’s competent authority; otherwise, they are non-liturgical”. Therefore, it is established that there are prayers for healing that are liturgical or ritual and others that are not but are still legitimately admitted.

The next article recalls that those “liturgical” prayers are celebrated according to the prescribed rite and with the sacred vestments indicated in the Ordo benedictionis infirmorum of the Rituale Romanum. These quotes from the text signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by Pope Saint John Paul ii , show that the meaning of the term “liturgical” used in Fiducia Supplicans to define ritual blessings, which are different from pastoral ones, is certainly a new development but inserted within the framework of the Magisterium of the last decades.

Among the blessings, there are other distinctions: some represent consecrations, or the seal of the sacrament celebrated by the spouses (in the case of the nuptial blessing); others represent petitionary prayers elevated to God; and others still (such as exorcisms) have the purpose of warding off evil.

Fiducia Supplicans repeatedly clarifies that imparting a pastoral or spontaneous blessing — without any nuptial element — to an “irregular” couple that approaches a priest or a deacon does not imply and cannot represent in any way an approval of the union between the two. As the document states, it cannot be considered as offering “a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage” or “an extra-marital sexual practice”. Instead, the meaning is that of an invocation imploring God to allow the seeds of goodness to grow in the direction He desires.

By Andrea Tornielli