In my bulletin column last week, I provided the first steps for understanding what exactly Pope Francis is saying and not saying regarding blessing of “irregular unions” of couples. If you didn’t read it, I encourage you to do so to better understand Pope Francis in general, but more specifically his latest document. This week I provide further clarification through Cardinal Fernandez, who Pope Francis appointed both to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) and to write the document on blessings.
The flurry of news articles and social media activity that continue today, three weeks after the document was published, testifies to the sensitivity of the topic and the document’s lack of clarity. Fortunately, Cardinal Fernandez has provided greater clarity through written answers to questions he received about specifics of the document. His response makes clear that Pope Francis seeks to distinguish a “liturgical-ritual” blessings from a “simple” blessing.
For those in “irregular unions” who are seeking God’s help with some aspect of life, such as for health issues, Pope Francis says priests should pray to God for that help in the couple’s life. However, the Cardinal clarifies that giving such blessing to the individuals in no way should be seen as the Church giving approval to their “irregular” union. He says such a blessing “does not validate or justify anything.” He makes clear that such “relationships” are sinful and are in need of conversion.
Cardinal Fernandez emphasized the original document mentions the need for the couple’s relationship to “mature” and “be purified of everything” that is contrary “to the will of God”. He also contends, although many would disagree, that the document makes clear: “Couples are blessed. The union is not blessed.” He further states: “the only [kind of] marriage which exists” is “male-female, exclusive, indissoluble, naturally open to the generation of new life.” Notice that he doesn’t say “recognize” but “exists”. Notice also that the last part of what he says is speaking against contraception.
We also learn from the Cardinal’s comments that the document originated in large part to correct the German Bishops who have gone too far with their blessings of those in “irregular” unions. The German Bishops need our prayers because they seem to be missing the point that the “irregular” union is not able to be blessed because it is sinful. Although this is integral to the document’s theology, it doesn’t plainly state this truth.
An important final point is that Cardinal Fernandez acknowledges that Bishops throughout the world, most especially National Bishop Conferences, will need to determine how to best apply the document’s teaching on blessings to their own locations. He acknowledges that such blessings (of the persons and not the sin of the irregular union) might need to occur discreetly or in private because of scandal or persecution.
It’s worth stating (again!) that the Church has taught from the beginning – love the sinner and hate the sin. We need to reconnect with this truth that, yes, we can do both of these. What should be most shameful isn’t that we have sinned, but when we won’t acknowledge it and take corrective action.