A personal reflection on Fiducia Supplicans

A personal reflection on Fiducia Supplicans February 4, 2024

The publication of Fiducia Supplicans by the Vatican almost two months ago prompted quite a tumult in the Catholic world (at least on social media), with all manner of reactions, both positive and negative.  I don’t want to dive into the controversy over this document, at least not directly.  Suffice it to say that from my perspective, much of the hostility towards this document in the United States is driven by the faction of Catholics who are overtly hostile to Pope Francis.  (The case of the African bishops is more complicated:  see this article in America Magazine.)  Instead I want to focus on one particular incident in my family history to which, had it existed at the time, Fiducia Supplicans might have been applicable.

Since this story involves some living relatives, I am going to change the names and obscure other details to protect their privacy.  But the story is as it happened, or at least is as best as I can remember something that happened several decades ago.  My relative Gary was born and raised Catholic, but was no longer practicing.  He had been married once before and divorced after a couple years.  But he had met another woman, Beth, and after dating for a couple years they decided to get married.  Now, oddly enough, even though he was not a practicing Catholic, Gary had through his work met and befriended a local Catholic priest, Fr. Reger.   So, when Gary and Beth decided to get married, they approached Fr. Reger.   Though what precisely they said to him at the time is unclear, I suspect that they asked Fr. Reger to marry them.  (I phrase it ambiguously on purpose–see below.)

If that was the request, I am sure that Fr. Reger would have immediately refused.  My guess is that he would have tried to explain that Beth was not Catholic, Gary was no longer practicing and was divorced, so there were, from his perspective, insuperable obstacles.   Having met and interacted with Fr. Reger a number of times, I am sure he was as kind and gentle in his refusal as he could be, but Gary and Beth were a little upset.  In the end they were married by a Baptist minister, the father of a friend.   Fr. Reger was a guest at the wedding.

So why does this story involve Fiducia Supplicans?   A couple of years after their wedding, when describing to me what happened, Gary said that they had asked Fr. Reger to bless their marriage and he had refused.  Beth said more pointedly, “He would not bless us, but was willing to bless the food at the reception.”   At this point, it no longer mattered whether Gary and Beth asked Fr. Reger to marry them (as in officiate at their wedding) or simply to bless them at their wedding.  These two things, no matter how distinct in Catholic theology, were intertwined in their memory and their interpretation of what had happened.   And his refusal cast a shadow over their friendship, possibly ending it.  (Gary and Beth moved across country shortly after getting married, so this last point is uncertain.)  Their  frustration and disappointment was still palpable several years later when they told me the story.

Decades later, after reading Fiducia Supplicans this story came back to me.  In light of the distinctions the declaration draws, I began to wonder if, had it existed back then, if it would have made any difference, either in what happened, or in how Gary and Beth would have reacted.  Closely reading the text it is clear that it would have given Fr. Reger some room to maneuver, but not a lot.  He certainly could not preside at their wedding, which is what they might have wanted.  And the blessing he could have offered would have been constrained by this language from the declaration:

In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.  (Fiducia Supplicans 39)

So what would have been Fr. Reger’s options?  When Gary raised the question, he could have again explained why he could not preside at their wedding (as he did before).  If Gary and Beth had asked for a blessing, he could have offered them a private blessing before or after the fact.  Or he could have perhaps finessed the above paragraph and offered a blessing after their wedding ceremony:  if I remember correctly, Gary and Beth’s wedding and reception were held at a friend’s home, so after the guests segued from the ceremony to the reception, Fr. Reger might have, instead of blessing the food, offered a blessing on Gary and Beth, and on all those present (though with rather more emphasis on Gary and Beth).

This is not a perfect solution:  it is an imperfect response to an imperfect situation.   I am sure that those who prefer a narrow reading of Fiducia Supplicans will have objections, and these need to be considered seriously.   Would this blessing cause “confusion”?  Maybe:  most of the people present were not Catholic, and they would have only a vague notion of what Catholics believe.   Was their request “spontaneous” or was it more deliberate, shaped by social and cultural norms?  It is impossible to know, and I am not completely convinced that it is relevant. There may be other, valid concerns.

But, a the heart of the matter is the fact that, however imperfect their situation or their understanding of what was and was not possible, Gary and Beth were moved to ask a Catholic priest to bless them.   I believe that they were, in some way, reaching out for the grace which only God can give, and they saw the Church, in the figure of Fr. Reger, as a channel of that grace.   This is, I think, what Pope Francis is driving at:  the Church must be a font of grace for all people, in every situation, whether or not it approves of the situation they are in. 

The Church is thus the sacrament of God’s infinite love. Therefore, even when a person’s relationship with God is clouded by sin, he can always ask for a blessing, stretching out his hand to God, as Peter did in the storm when he cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” (Mt. 14:30). Indeed, desiring and receiving a blessing can be the possible good in some situations. Pope Francis reminds us that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”  (Fiducia Supplicans 43)

Would this blessing have made a major difference in Gary and Beth’s lives?  Would they have changed their ways and brought their life into conformity with Catholic moral teaching?  Would they have made some moves in this direction?   Would it have at least preserved their friendship with Fr. Reger, keeping open a door, however narrow, through which further graces could flow?  That is also completely unknowable and I don’t think it should have any bearing.  God himself spreads his grace widely, profligately, knowing full well what will happen:

[Jesus] began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:2-8)

And if God is willing to take the chance, then I think his Church can as well.

Image:  Edmund Blair Leighton, The Wedding Register, Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.

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A personal reflection on Fiducia Supplicans

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