“If Herod and Herodias asked for a blessing, would you just go ahead and do so?” This was a comment posted on social media under a news article explaining the recent document Fiducia Supplicans (FS) published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on 18 December 2023, On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings. The author of the post was alluding to Chapter 14 of Matthew where we read that “Herod [the Tetrarch] had seized John [the Baptist] and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John said to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’” (Mt 14:3-4).
In this article I want to argue that contrary to popular understanding, FS is not another step towards a more laxist church, or one that is yielding to a political lobby or cultural trend. Rather, it is an effort to train the conscience of the People of God, to purify the Church, and to make of it more authentic disciples of Christ. I then propose how a synodal Church could help overcome the issues about the unity of the Church.
As a person who loves the Church, it pains me that FS has become yet another wedge that polarizes the People of God, especially at this particular point in history where peace and understanding seems to be so brittle, and where ideologies, amplified by the echo-chambers of social media, polarize and divide mercilessly.
I believe that the so-called “Presupposition” in St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises might be the key to a better reception of the document, and also to its full application. The “Presupposition,” states,
let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.
In other words, one must make a conscious effort to read the document out of a sincere search for the truth, without prejudice toward the Pope, or toward persons in complicated or in same sex relationships. One must avoid at all costs merely toeing the line of one particular ideological movement or another. It is also to be assumed that any couple that humbly asks for a blessing does so, not to seek approval or justification, but does so in good faith. This process of “presupposition” is essential and foundational, and if taken seriously is an arduous spiritual exercise in its own right.
Freed as much as possible from such “fog,” one’s conscience would be more able to embrace the truth about oneself and about the genuine mission of the Church, which truth, as Dignitatis Humanae holds, “cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”
The Power of a Pastoral Blessing
FS is intent on upholding the norm that marriage is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” (FS 4). It affirms that “what contradicts [this norm is] inadmissible, being firmly grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage” (FS 4). The meaning of marriage, therefore, is not what is at stake here, and the document goes at great lengths to protect marriage as such and to avoid any wrong impression or confusion in this regard.
The next part of the sentence specifies that “it is only within the context [of marriage] that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning.” It further highlights that “the Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm” (FS 4). This, too, is clear enough with no room for ambiguity.
As I see it, however, this is where the bone of contention in the document is found, and it revolves around the question of whether it could ever be possible to give a pastoral blessing to persons who are understood to be engaging in what is traditionally considered to be an intrinsically evil act (namely sexual intercourse outside of marriage). Thus, this is essentially a question about pastorally ministering in “situations that are morally unacceptable from an objective point of view” (FS 26).
In the same vein as Amoris Laetitia, FS insists that “pastoral charity requires us not to treat simply as ‘sinners’ those whose guilt or responsibility may be attenuated by various factors affecting subjective imputability” (FS 26). This does not imply “closing an eye to sin” but it means patiently respecting the pace of the persons in the relationship, while nudging gently for further growth. (Side note: When I first started hearing confessions in the US it took me a while to get used to the phrase with which penitents start their confession: “Bless me father for I have sinned” (!) which to my knowledge is common only in the English-speaking world.)
Therefore, if we truly believe that a pastoral blessing, as FS affirms, “expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live” (FS 33), and that it imparts “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), then the blessing would not merely be the granting of a “concession” to persons in complex relationships. Rather, these pastoral blessings would be encouraged as aids—together with spiritual accompaniment and a life of prayer—for the spiritual growth of the couple to pursue the good and to steer away from all that is evil and not according to God’s plan in their relationship.
Having concluded that the pastoral blessing in no way condones sin and neither does it undermine the norm of marriage being between a man and a woman, we shall now turn our attention to the issue of unity in the Church.
Fears about jeopardizing the unity of the Church
We might be concerned that the document jeopardizes the unity of the Church around the world. Over the past weeks we have observed resistance to the document within the Catholic Church in the West, as well as resistance to the document in the Church in Africa and in Eastern Europe. If we resist the document in the grounds that it is jeopardizing unity, we would be admitting that our main difficulty is not with the possibility of persons in complicated relationships being blessed, but rather that that in order to preserve the unity of the Church it would have been better if the issue were not raised at all.
This position raises a number of uncomfortable questions about truth (do we really believe in proclaiming the truth clearly or are we more ready to embrace political strategies instead?), about honesty (might there be a tendency to keep groups “hostage” simply to avoid rocking the boat?), about hope (do we believe that pastorally accompanying couples in complex relationships and blessing them could help acknowledge the spiritual journey they are on in a way that goes beyond mere denunciation?), about parrhesia (do we have the courage to say things as they are or are we afraid of being written off as “conservative/traditionalist” or “liberal/progressive” by our colleagues?), among others. Pondering these questions can help us purify the Church and the methods we use to be witnesses to the Good News, Jesus Christ himself. By purifying, I do not mean purging the Church from those who do not think the way I think, but that we all purify our own intentions.
With regard to the Churches where the teaching has met resistance, we already have a precedent in Acts 15, where we read that parts of the Church which were mostly of Jewish origin (Judea and Antioch) held to the Mosaic tradition of circumcision, while those Churches that were evangelized by Paul and Barnabas, that were gentile in origin did not require this practice. These Churches with different cultural bacgrounds were walking side by side with each other. The Council of Jerusalem did not forbid circumcision, it just said that this is not required and gave a theological explanation for this (that we are already redeemed by the Blood of Christ), as long as they abided by the moral norms of avoiding “idolatry, adultery and homicide.”
Notwithstanding globalization, some values are deeply entrenched in particular cultures. What is anathema in the West due to specific historical or political developments (such as the civil rights movement) might be indisputable norms in other countries and vice versa. All cultures stand to learn from each other, even when it comes to respecting the dignity of the human person and no culture can claim to have it all together yet. This does not mean that we cannot journey on together as a People of God, learning from each other as we go along.
So, to give an answer to the initial question about Herod and Herodias, I will reply with the moralists’ favorite phrase: It depends! If they were to approach me begging faithfully (fiducia supplicans) for a blessing, I will surely first engage with a dialogue with them as Eve Tushnet helpfully suggests, and seek to accompany them in understanding better what is it that they are really hoping for. Being on a journey – this is what really matters.
 Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, paragraph 22. Available online at https://sacred-texts.com/chr/seil/seil06.htm
 Pope Francis prefers to use the words “complex” or “complicated” relationships rather than “irregular”. See for instance, Francis, Amoris Laetitia, para 312. Available online at https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.
 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, para 1. Available at https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html.
 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, para 80-83. Available online at https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
 I have in mind here mostly paragraph 302.
 For an excellent reflection on this see Anthony Egan, SJ, “Blessing Same Sex Couples – And Stirring Up the Debate,” Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Forum, January 1, 2024. Available online at https://catholicethics.com/forum/blessing-same-sex-couples-and-stirring-up-the-debate/.
 John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 3.
 Eve Tushnet, “Pastoral Practice after Fiducia Supplicans,” Church Life Journal, January 19, 2024. Available online at https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/fiducia-supplicans-in-practice/.