Above: Vatican City – April 16, 2015. Pope Francis meets with the bishops of Kenya who are on their ad limina visit in Rome, Italy. © L’Osservatore Romano.
In the ongoing controversy regarding same-sex blessing, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar has released a response to Pope Francis and Tucho “Spirituality and Sensuality” Fernández.
The document describes itself as “a consolidated summary of the positions adopted by various National and Inter-territorial Episcopal Conferences across the African continent[.]” Several outlets have called this document a rejection of Fiducia Supplicans. Yet the document actually starts by saying that its own “message… has received the agreement of” Pope Francis and Tucho Fernández. Based on this, it would seem difficult to cast this as a rejection per se. Is the document rather what Fernández himself described in his “clarification of the clarification” last week? Is this a gradual implementation?
The document begins by affirming that the text of Fiducia re-affirms the dogma of marriage and excludes any sort of allowance for so-called “gay marriage.” Thus the dogma of marriage remains “unchanged.”:
Therefore, rites and prayers that could blur the definition of marriage – as an exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and woman, open to procreation – are considered unacceptable. The distinction made by Fiducia supplicans between liturgical blessings or formal ritual blessings and spontaneous blessings is not intended to mandate that there be blessings for couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples (cf. 31) even if the document says that they “should be carried out outside liturgical frameworks”(cf. 31 & 38).
This statement seems contrary to the “clarification of the clarification” in which the head of the Office Formerly Known as Holy proclaimed that:
Prudence and attention to the ecclesial context and to the local culture could allow for different methods of application, but not a total or definitive denial of this path that is proposed to priests (emphasis added).
So the African statement says that Fiducia “does not mandate” that blessings take place, but the Clarification of the Clarification says that no one can reject “this path.” The latter document does allow that the implementation take varied forms, but the “path” cannot be rejected. That is clearly mandated. The African document seems to refuse this mandate.
But in the next section, the Africans go further and say this:
The African Bishops’ Conferences emphasize that people with a homosexual tendency must be treated with respect and dignity, while reminding them that union of persons of the same-sex are contrary to the will of God and therefore cannot receive the blessings of the Church.
Here the object of blessings (“unions”) is rejected firmly, whereas Fiducia (and the Clarification) said that “couples” can be blessed but not the “unions.” But we note here that the English word “cannot” seems to absolutise the principle, to the degree that Fiducia is contrary to the will of God.
Yet so far it does not seem that the Africans have explicitly rejected Fiducia, but formed a measured response which is contrary to the spirit of Fiducia and but not its letter.
But the main rejection comes in section 3:
The Episcopal Conferences generally prefer – each Bishop remaining free in his diocese – not to offer blessings to same-sex couples.
Why do they “prefer” this? Because of “potential confusion and scandal” since the blessings (so implies the document) would place what is “intrinsically evil” in a position of being “approved.” As evidence of this position, the Africans cite various texts of Holy Scripture, implying, of course, what Dei Verbum says about Scripture and Tradition:
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).
This brings us back to Pope Francis’s answer to the new dubia, in which he cited Biblical passages on slaves and women and “other texts of Scripture and testimonies of tradition that cannot be repeated literally today.” So the question would become, does the current Vatican think the passages against sodomy are in the same category as those on slavery? James Martin certainly abuses the Scripture in this way.
After the written Word of God, the African bishops cite the very culture of Africa which is “deeply rooted in the values of natural law” and therefore sees sodomitical unions as “intrinsically corrupt.” Thank you, Africa.
“Recognize & Resist”
The final statement, as if in crescendo, seems to formulate a “recognize and resist” stance:
In summary, the Episcopal Conferences across Africa, which have strongly reaffirmed their communion with Pope Francis, believe that the extra-liturgical blessings proposed in the Declaration Fiducia supplicans cannot be carried out in Africa without exposing themselves to scandals.
Fiducia, they say, is “too subtle for simple people to understand” and its implementation would “cause confusion” and be a “direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.” The Africans “insist on the call for the conversion of all,” implying that blessing “same-sex couples” would contradict such a call.
However, the document continues with this:
Some countries prefer to have more time for the deepening of the Declaration which, in fact, offers the possibility of these blessings but does not impose them. In any case, we will continue to reflect on the value of the general theme of this document, apart from just blessings for couples in an irregular situation, that is to say on the richness of spontaneous blessings in everyday pastoral care.
The final statement seems to sum up why the papal approval may have been given to the African resistance: the Africans are claiming that they can abrogate this whole document and refuse any such blessing because Fiducia “offers the possibility” but “does not impose” these blessings. Thus the Africans are claiming that Fiducia does not even impose the possibility of the blessings. In other words, the Vatican is not forcing Bishops to allow the possibility of same-sex blessings and, according to this, bishops can freely reject and ban their own priests from giving any sort of blessing like that. So if the Vatican approved this African document, then the Vatican is saying Bishops can freely accept or reject Fiducia, and that’s that. The document ends with an assurance that Pope Francis is “fiercely opposed to any form of cultural colonization in Africa” and “blesses the African people with all his heart and encourages them to remain faithful, as always, to the defense of Christian values.”
Does this document “recognize and resist” Pope Francis? It would seem that the document does, but in a way that is within an acceptable limit which can be blessed by Pope Francis. It does not seem to allow any sort of “path” to same-sex blessings, which the Clarification says is mandatory. But at the same time, it does not call Fiducia evil in any way, as other bishops and cardinals have done.
Meanwhile, what does the African Cardinal Sarah have to say (in a statement released a few days prior)?
Cardinal Robert Sarah firmly rejects Fiducia Supplicans, saying: “To maintain peace and unity in truth, we must refuse to argue with the divider, we must respond to confusion with the word of God.”
— Edward Pentin (@EdwardPentin) January 8, 2024