Repent, and believe in the Gospel

On Ash Wednesday, many Catholics heard the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” as blessed ashes were imposed on their foreheads. These first words spoken by Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry (Mark 1:15), were addressed to each sinner who came forward (that is, to everyone!). At once these words are an exhortation to turn away from sin and turn back to our merciful Father, an encouragement to follow Jesus and his teachings more faithfully, and an invitation to true sorrow for our sins. Lent is the sacred time when, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we strive to make right our relationships with the Lord and with one another.

Since the 18 December 2023 publication of the Declaration Fiducia supplicans (FS), on the pastoral meaning of blessings, by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, I have received numerous questions and expressions of serious reservation, concern and confusion. While the text of Fiducia supplicans stated that no further guidance or response would be given (FS 41), on 4 January 2024, the same Dicastery published a press release (PR) listing several previously unmentioned conditions for blessings of couples in irregular situations and same sex couples, seeking to clarify the reception of Fiducia supplicans, and recommending “a full and calm reading of the Declaration so as to better understand its meaning and purpose” (PR Intro).

Now, after taking time for a full and calm reading; and after listening to, consultation with and being encouraged by several lay faithful, consecrated religious and clergy, including members of our diocesan consultative bodies, I offer the following observations in exercise of my apostolic mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying the flock entrusted to my care (PR 2).

To be clear, there is no change to the Catholic Church’s perennial teaching on marriage. The divinely revealed truth is that marriage is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children” (FS 4). Jesus himself taught this definition of marriage willed by the Creator “in the beginning” (cf. Matthew 19:3-9; Genesis 1-2). His Church has faithfully shared his teaching even when differing forms of unions have been promoted by popular cultures in various eras of history.

The Declaration highlights the common practice of Catholics seeking God’s help and guidance in their lives by approaching an ordained minister outside a liturgical context, for a brief prayer of blessing. The Declaration proposes that couples in irregular unions or same-sex unions can receive such informal blessings which are pastoral, not liturgical, in which there is “no intention to legitimize anything” (FS 40) of the immoral lifestyle of those blessed.

But herein lies the confusion. How can the blessing of a couple not be seen as the blessing of their union? Many, having read the documents, have commented to me that they would realistically see only two scenarios of requests for such blessings: a) those couples in irregular unions or same sex unions who are genuinely struggling and earnestly desiring the help of the Church’s minister to repent, to follow the Gospel, and to make right their relationship with the Lord and with each other; and b) those couples who desire the Church’s minister to condone their situation and affirm that the Lord blesses their union. In the first situation, a request for a blessing is a petition for grace to repent. In the second, a request for a blessing expresses a misguided attempt for approval of an immoral lifestyle which is incongruent with Jesus’ teaching.

As shepherd of this local flock, having listened to many of my people, I worry that while Fiducia supplicans and the subsequent press release go to great lengths to insist that the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same sex couples does not officially validate their status or change in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage; nevertheless, the reality of performing such proposed blessings lends itself to causing grave scandal.

As we all know, for so many, perception is reality. If a cleric is blessing a couple, it is hard to imagine how that is not seen as a blessing of their union. Such a blessing, it seems to me, could well be misunderstood by the couples themselves and by the faithful, thus being perceived as a blessing of the union, not just the couple. Such blessings would somehow compromise or weaken the Church’s perennial teaching either by intention or neglect, because they lack the clarity necessary to assuage misinterpretation, misunderstanding and erroneous conclusions.

Deeply grateful for the hardworking and dedicated clergy serving in the Diocese of Toledo, I encourage them to continue to pray spontaneous non-liturgical prayers with any persons who seek physical, mental, or spiritual health, wisdom in times of crisis and decision-making, grace to fight against temptation, and courage to leave sinful lifestyles and follow Jesus in freedom. This of course includes individuals who may find themselves in irregular or same sex unions, addressing them with love, offering them hope and calling them to conversion of mind and heart. As Fiducia supplicans #5 and the press release articulate, same-sex unions and irregular unions cannot and should not be blessed (PR 2). Thus, it would be morally inappropriate, misleading, and scandalous for clergy in our diocese to pray with a couple in any manner that would feign to approve, condone, endorse, or validate an irregular or same-sex union (PR 5). Ultimately, this could cause scandal for the couples themselves, for the faithful, and for society at large.

Catholic parents of children in irregular or same-sex unions know the complexity of accompanying their children with patient, prudent, and prayerful acts of charity and hospitality which do not obscure, but in fact, allow for the truth of Jesus’ teaching about marriage and family to be more clearly revealed and embraced. I trust that the clergy of our diocese will continue to dedicate themselves to exercising their spiritual fatherhood with patience, prudence, and prayer, teaching the unchanging truths of our faith with clarity and accompanying all the people of God, particularly those who struggle.

It is essential for me to express gratitude and encouragement for all in our diocese who faithfully make serious sacrifices in striving to live Jesus’ teaching on marriage and family life. Your dedication provides a much-needed witness amid chaos and confusion about the sacred realities of marriage and family. There are those in irregular unions who, out of respect for Jesus’ teaching, still come to Mass but refrain from receiving the Holy Eucharist. There are those who experience same-sex attraction but strive to live chastely. We support, accompany, and reassure them as they strive to remain faithful to the Lord’s Will.

While discordant voices will continue to engage in debate about the proper path forward for the Church, I invite everyone to join me in remaining faithful, not losing heart, and in focusing more intensely on Jesus and his call to conversion, whatever our vocation. Pray that together we might recognize that we are all sinners, urged anew this Lent to hear and heed the exhortation of Jesus himself: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Bishop Daniel E. Thomas
February 29, 2024

Posted March 15, 2024 at 2:22 pm