Professor Nina Sophie Heereman. Heereman has just published an important analysis of the issues involved in the December 18 Vatican document on ecclesial blessings Fiducia supplicans (“Supplicating trust”). Born and raised in Germany, Heereman is a scripture scholar who studied or did research and lecturing in India, Switzerland, France, Rome and Jerusalem. She is currently Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, Menlo Park, California, USA. Her essay is well worth reading…

    The late Silvio Mattacchione and his family. Silvio passad away at the age of 72 on January 29 from brain cancer. He was my friend, and I mourn his passing, and pray for his family, and for the repose of his soul (here is a link to this photo and a reflection about Silvio written by his daughter link)

    When we were growing up, he always wanted us to fancy his birds as much as he did. I remember he gave me a bird. We named it PC (President’s Choice — we thought it was funny), and he became both my pet and his racing pigeon. Dad taught me how to toss, hold, feed, and generally train him. When he saw me, he became that bird that would swoop down and land on my shoulder, and I thought that it was the most incredible thing…” —a memory of the late Silvio Mattacchione, written by his daughter, Victoria. Silvio passed away on January 29, 2024, eight days ago, at the age of 72, after a long struggle with brain cancer

    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… 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. ” —opening lines of the essay reprinted below, which at first was a private letter from Dr. Nina Heereman to the concerns of a friend over the Vatican document on blessing same-sex couples issued on December 18, signed by Cardinal Victor Fernandez and approved by Pope Francis

    Letter #4, 2024, Tuesday, February 6: Blessings, and a farewell

    First, I must ask for prayers for the repose of the soul of my friend, a Canadian of Italian origin, Silvio Mattachione, who died a week ago in his home in a town just north of Toronto at the age of 72 after a long struggle with brain cancer.

    Silvio was one of the world’s great experts on passenger pigeons.

    He bred the pigeons, raced them in competitions around the world, and wrote about them with brilliance and poetic tenderness in various journals.

    He was also a scholar, widely read.

    But most importantly, he was a man of sincere and profound Christian faith in an increasingly “post-Christian” age.

    Silvio was a careful, wise and successful businessman, and he cared for his family, and friends.

    But most of all, he was a lover of the mystical body of Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, a lover and defender of — as we repeat daily in the Creed — “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

    For more than two decades since we met and became friends, he encouraged me, and helped me. He was a dear friend, counselor, and teacher to me for more than 20 years.

    Together with the director of The Passion of the Christ, the American actor Mel Gibson, Silvio and I spent several days together in Rome and other parts of Italy in 2004. Silvio and I were invited to join with Mel and the entire cast of The Passion of the Christ in a restaurant in Trastevere for the farewell dinner for the film cast, so we were sitting alongside Peter, and John, and Judas, and the actress who so movingly played Our Blessed Mother, Mary.

    I think often of those days, and many others, spent talking with Silvio about matters of deep concern to both of us.

    Once he said to me that he and I were like the hobbits, Sam and Frodo, in The Lord of the Rings, trying to do something beyond their own power: to carry the “one ring” into Mordor and cast it into the lake of fire, where it might perish, and with it, all the harm that it caused. (Perhaps the “one ring” needing to be discarded, or destroyed, might be compared in some way to a nihilistic and Promethean secular humanist ideology which is disdainful of “the simple ones” who seek the face of the omnipotent Holy One, and disdainful of the Holy One Himself, which means that this ideology leads men toward a prison-like misery characterized by the absence of access to life-giving holiness.)

    And so we walked together through these many years, and now he has gone ahead…

    I miss my friend and colleague Silvio deeply, and mourn his passing.

    Farewell, Sam.

    I pray that your surviving wife and children be comforted.

    I pray that eternal light shine upon you.

    And I ask you readers for your prayers as well for my friend Silvio. —Robert Moynihan

    P.S. I note that I will have a live conversation tomorrow with Fr. Charles Murr, the friend of the late Canadian Cardinal Edouard Gagnon (d. 2007). Our talk will be live-streamed on YouTube on our “Urbi et Orbi Communications” channel which is at this link (the link to our channel, where you can easily subscribe for free, which then means you will get an automatic notification each time we have a podcast, and where there is an introductory video about us and our work). The direct link to tomorrow’s live-stream itself is this one here. You can also see our conversation on our new Locals channel, recently launched and is now starting to grow, here. This is our “community channel” on the internet, and we will be putting up more and more content here in the months ahead. We started this channel because we wanted to have this channel ready in case there might be any problem with “de-platforming” elsewhere (we did have some problems in the past) so that, in any case, we would continue always to have a place where our audience might find and follow us. So, if you would like to support this letter, and also these developing podcasts and internet efforts, you may make a donation here. (The most stabilizing and encouraging help comes from continuing monthly support, even if it is modest in size, like $5 per month. Such continuing monthly support helps us greatly to plan for the future. Much appreciated!)



    Here below is one of the best treatments of the controversy over the Vatican’s December 18 document Fiducia supplicans on the blessing of couples in irregular and same-sex relationships, just published in Catholic World Report, link, written by Dr. Nina Heereman.

    [Note: Catholic World Report is a magazine that Fr. Joseph Fessio asked me, together with Jean-Marie Guenois, Jesus Colina and Blandine Becheras, to found in 1991 in Rome, as a successor publication to 30 Giorni (30 Days in English). I was the first editor of Catholic World Report. We planned the magazine during the summer and fall of 1991, 33 years ago. Here is a video of an interesting talk Fr. Fessio gave on the liturgy at Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco on November 2, 2022. And here is a video of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Raymond Arroyo on the liturgy from sometime before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.]

    Dr. Heereman was born and raised in a devout Catholic family in Germany.

    Originally trained to become a lawyer, she experienced a deep encounter with the Lord which led her to discern a vocation as a lay woman celibate for the sake of the kingdom.

    She received two years of spiritual formation and attended the ICPE School of Evangelization in India, Banglore, which eventually led her to theological studies so as to consecrate her life to the study and teaching of the Word of God.

    She received an STB from the Pontifical Gregorian University, an SSL from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and the SSD from the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem and studied at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland. During and after her doctoral studies she lectured at the Collège des Bernhardins, Paris, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome as a visiting professor.

    Explaining her discernment to join St. Patrick’s faculty in California, Dr. Heereman writes: “In particular, I desire to open up the treasures of the Scriptures to future priests so that their ministry might be rooted in the Word of God as the living source of their life and preaching. I am deeply committed to the Church’s desire to make ‘the study of the sacred page the very soul of theology’ (DV 24).”

    Here is her essay. —RM

    Fiducia Supplicans and the Christian Conscience (link)

    By Prof. Nina Heereman

    January 26, 2024

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

    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.

    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 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


    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”.

    More about Nina Sophie Heereman

    Nina S. Heereman, S.S.D.

    EMAIL: [email protected]


    Ass. jur. — Second State Examination in Law, Free State of Bavaria (Germany).

    S.T.B. – Pontifical Gregorian University

    S.S.L. – Pontifical Biblical Institute

    S.S.D. – École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem and Université de Fribourg

    Dissertation: “Behold King Solomon. A Symbolic-Diachronic Reading of Song 3:6-11 and 4:12-5:1”


    “Thy Kingdom Come!” principal address at the “Annual Spring Thomistic Circles Conference. Our Father: Prayer and Theology,” in Washington DC, March 25, 2022.

    “Finding Consolation in the Book of Revelation,” conference for Chapter of the Thomistic Institute at UC Berkley, CA, March 11, 2022.

    “The Visitation,” a video meditation for the Virtual Catholic Conference on the Holy Rosary.

    “The Sistine Chapple and the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” a day of recollection for the Chancery of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, CA, December 8, 2021.

    “From Mesopotamian Sacred Marriages to the Wedding of the Lamb,” an online conference given for a series of lectures on “The Mesopotamian Background of the Bible,” organized by Bible Eyes, The Patriarchate of Bagdad, Iraq.


    “’Behold King Solomon on the Day of His Wedding!’: A Symbolic Diachronic Reading of Song 3:6-11 and 4:12–5:1″ (BETL 320, Leuven, Peeters) 2021.

L’amour d’alliance. Lecture symbolique du Cantique des Cantiques,” in Communio XLVII, janvier-février 2022, 29-43.

    “’Bei euch sei es nicht so!’, in “Was Er euch sagt, das tut!Kritische Beleuchtung des Synodalen Weges. C. Binninger et. al (Hrsg.), Regensburg, Verlag Friedrich Pustet 2021.

    “Recuperating the Song of Songs as Religious Poetry. Building a Bridge from Composition to Canon,” in P. van Hecke (ed.), The Song of Songs in Its Context: Word for Love, Love for Words (BETL 310, Leuven, Peeters, 2020), 219-270.

    Moral ohne Jesus, Jesus ohne Moral? Jesus ist die Aufklärung über den Menschen,” in Die Tagespost (Forum: Die Zukunft der Moral – die Moral der Zukunft), 24. Dezember 2020.

    “‘Who is the Church?’ Part I. The Roots of the Church in the Old Testament,” in: Pietre Vive 6/2018; Part II. The Roots of the Church in the New Testament,” in: Pietre Vive 7/2019.

    “‘Where is Wisdom to be Found?’ Rethinking the Song of Song’s Solomonic Setting,” in ZAW 130 (2018) 418-435.

    “‘Behold King Solomon!’: Inner-Biblical Interpretation in Song 3:6-11,” in A. Schellenberg – L. Schwienhorst-Schönberger (eds.), Interpreting the Song of Songs: Literal or Allegorical? (BTS, 26), Leuven, Peeters, 2016, 181-219.

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