Untangling Some Crucial Questions

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By Fr. Gerald E. Murray

As all the world now knows, Cardinal Raymond Burke and four fellow cardinals (Brandmüller, Sarah, Sandoval, and Zen) sent five dubia (questions) to Pope Francis this past July. He responded almost immediately, leading several old Vatican hands to believe that the dubia had been anticipated. The dubia and the pope’s responses were not made public, however, until October 2nd, right before the opening of the current Synod on Synodality.  The responses include some very troubling assertions, especially about the blessing of same-sex unions. Pope Francis has, regrettably, authorized bishops and priests – after some undefined process of “discernment” – to confer a priestly blessing upon same-sex couples. In almost forty years of priestly life, I never dreamed that a pope would do this. I am horrified and saddened.

Pope Francis began his answer to the second of the dubia stating that “[t]he Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation. Only this union can be called ‘marriage.’” He calls marriage a “reality” that “has a unique essential constitution that requires an exclusive name, not applicable to other realities. . . .For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”

So far, very good . . . but then, he veers into a justification of blessing same-sex unions. Such unions are usually civil marriages in countries where that’s legal, or where the two would-be grooms or would-be brides are likely to consider their de facto unions to be equal to a marriage. Pope Francis argues that “in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. . . .The defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”

I don’t know anyone who only denies, rejects, or excludes, and the emphasis here sets up a straw man. Pastoral charity which ignores or, worse, contradicts God’s revealed truth is not charity, but pseudo-charity. Kindness or tenderness have their place, but when they degenerate into confirming the faithful in the commission of mortally sinful acts become a cruel caricature of the love a pastor of the Church owes to sinners when they come to him. Priests must be trustworthy judges – who reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel and deny any request for a ritual meant to convey the false impression that God and the Church are pleased with any commitment two people make to engage in sodomy.

But Pope Francis persists: “Therefore, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.”

Is it possible for a priest to bless the union of two people who are either civilly married, or who consider themselves for all purposes to be married, without giving the false impression that, in the view of the Church, they are in some way married? The couple knows that they cannot have a regular church wedding, so they choose the next available option which is to pretend that the priest’s blessing makes it into a “sort of” or “unofficial” marriage. The priest who imparts such a sacrilegious blessing goes along with this make-believe parody of a wedding.

Yet Pope Francis tries to have it both ways: “For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better. . . .although there are situations that are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view, the same pastoral charity requires us not to simply treat as ‘sinners’ other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors affecting subjective accountability.”

Let’s be frank here. The request for a blessing is not in order to live better in the sense of living according to God’s unchangeable moral law. It’s a request for reassurance that the Church agrees with them in considering that God’s law forbidding sodomy no longer applies – not really – in the more enlightened age in which we live.

Whatever is objectively morally unacceptable is also subjectively morally unacceptable. No one can exempt himself from God’s law by claiming it does not apply to him for some self-interested reason. When someone wants to commit a sin, and denies that it is a sin, this does not make it suddenly no longer a sin.

Why is the word “sinners” in scare quotes in the passage above? That usage usually suggests that something is “so-called” or “alleged.” It shifts the word from being an objective description to being a subjective description of an incomplete, if not mistaken, perception of reality. Are people who publicly promise to commit grave sin with each other not sinners, plain and simple?

And why are factors mitigating subjective culpability introduced here? God alone knows the degree of culpability for any sin one commits. Christians who want to follow God’s law examine their conscience to discover where they are conscious of having turned away from God. Pastors are called to make that law known to sinners, and to warn them to refrain from any behavior that violates God’s law, no matter what they may claim to justify their behavior. The claim that one is often unable to fulfill God’s commandments may be true – due to weakness and bad habits. But it is false if it means that obedience to God’s commandments, with the help of God’s grace, is impossible.

Given all that Pope Francis has said to this point, it’s strange that he adds that “[d]ecisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm.” He has just set forth an exposition of what he considers to be good reasons justifying an unheard-of innovation that no pope has ever even hinted at as being the right thing for the Church to do. If a priest or bishop concludes that pastoral charity demands that he must not deny the request for a blessing ceremony made by a particular same-sex couple, since this is their “plea to God for help,” what reason would he have for not making that the norm for all same-sex couples?

Intentionally or not, Pope Francis is encouraging people to enter into, and remain in, immoral sexual relationships. He is encouraging bishops and priests to suggest that God will favor such relationships with his grace, and therefore such relationships deserve not to be condemned but to be blessed. He claims that pastoral charity consists in confirming people in what is in fact sinful, and not in rebuking them to turn away from sin. All this, he claims, falls under the rubric of pastoral charity. All these judgments are mistaken.

The five cardinals were right to seek answers from Pope Francis. Sadly, in this matter they got a wrong answer that will undoubtedly produce much harm for the salvation of souls, and for the doctrinal unity of the Church.

We must pray and offer penances for our pope and for our Holy Mother the Church in her affliction.

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