Ratzinger as Godfather of ‘Fiducia Supplicans’

Is Fiducia's seed to be found in a CDF document from 24 years ago?

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” is a Shakespeare line about a Hamlet character whose overacting makes one believe she is hellbent on concealing the truth of things.

That line comes to mind on reading a featured editorial at Vatican News (Feb. 27): “Fiducia supplicans: Non-Liturgical blessings and Pope Benedict’s Distinction” (here). Andrea Tornielli would have us believe that there’s nothing novel about the “non-liturgical blessings” Fiducia supplicans approves. In fact, their seed is already in a 2000 “Instruction on Prayers for Healing” (here) signed by no less than Josef Cardinal Ratzinger! And, in case you think the Panzerkardinal might have indulged a bit too much Kräuterliqör that day, Tornielli adds that the Instruction was approved by no less than St. John Paul II! (The sound you hear is turning in tombs inside St. Peter’s Basilica.)

The discovery of the seed of Fiducia supplicans in a document from Ratzinger’s tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith consists of one line in the “Instruction” that “ Prayers for healing are considered to be liturgical if they are part of the liturgical books approved by the Church’s competent authority; otherwise, they are non-liturgical” (nr II.2).

Ratzinger’s Instruction appears to have emerged in response to what he calls services of prayers for healing. Sometimes they were informal gatherings to ask for God’s healing. But sometimes they came to be inserted into official liturgical/sacramental acts. The Instruction incorporates the basic principle, hardly to be considered revolutionary: informal paraliturgical services are distinct from official liturgical acts, such as Anointing of the Sick. The liturgical acts have set rites; the informal prayer services do not. That’s it.

That is as revolutionary as the difference between the liturgical prayers that are fixed for Mass and the spontaneous prayers one may say upon waking in the morning. If that is everything that Fiducia supplicans is about, there was no need for the document. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith did not need to issue an instruction telling people they could spontaneously pray.

Let’s be honest: That is not just what Fiducia supplicans is about and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. There is a reason why semantic equivocation is sometimes called “jesuitical” and why the term is deemed pejorative.

Tornielli tries to dispose of two objections. One is that every prayer is liturgical. Well, true prayer always has some nexus to the Church’s liturgical worship which, in turn, is linked to the heavenly liturgy whose purpose is the worship of God through our sanctification in Christ. That is why a prayer that seeks blessing upon something sinful — even if spontaneous and brief — is not “prayer,” much less a “blessing.” Tornielli tries to dispose of that position by saying Pope Francis gave a speech January 26 saying “pastoral or spontaneous blessings” are “’outside of any [ritual] context and form’” and “’do not require moral perfection to be received.’”

This argument ignores that spontaneous prayers uttered by the faithful and “blessings” conferred by an ordained priest are not equivalent acts. People have recourse to priests not (just) because they are especially spiritual gurus whose personal charism inspires one to seek a “blessing.” They turn to priests first and foremost because they are ordained ministers of Christ — alteri Christi —representing His Church. As such, every act of a priest implicates the Body of Christ and represents the Church. He therefore has a responsibility to dispel vagueness in ambiguous, and especially ambiguous and possibly scandal-giving, situations.

It is precisely that ambiguity which Fiducia supplicans’ “simple” and “spontaneous” blessing seeks in practice to maintain in “irregular situations.” It seeks to do that precisely through some ecclesiastical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — neither the recipient should be too specific about what he/they seek(s) or expect(s) in that blessing, nor the priest in what he intends. By not asking too many questions, one is not likely to get problematic answers.

Tornielli likewise feigns ignorance on this account, insisting that while one cannot bless “irregular unions,” a blessing “implor[es] God to allow the seeds of goodness to grow in the direction He desires,” as if the Church might be unsure about His expressed Will concerning such “irregular” arrangements.

That is not what Ratzinger’s “Instruction” was about. His document simply differentiated between liturgical and spontaneous prayers for healing. In both instances, there is agreement on an objective goal for that prayer: healing. In the ordinary run of things, the reason for that healing (e.g., heart disease, cancer, mental illness) is objective and even documentable. Even if the person is a hypochondriac, there remains an objective basis for healing: the person’s psychological state needs healing. Their request, while in fact justified, is also affected by their diminished responsibility stemming from diminished awareness.

That is not the situation in Fiducia’s “blessings” of “irregular unions” which blur the distinction between healing and seeming approval of situations, persistence in which suggests at least some measure of personal moral responsibility. Pretending otherwise is either extreme naivete or dissimulation feigning ignorance.

As for Francis’s (and Fernandez’s) red herring about “moral perfection as prerequisite for a blessing” — that is just not true: nobody is demanding “moral perfection” prior to being blessed. Persons not in a state of grace may (and should) be blessed to progress to that state. The Church has, for example, not only encouraged but expected those in “irregular unions” (e.g., the divorced and “remarried”) to come to Mass, even if their spiritual state excludes their participation in the Eucharist. At the same time, the Church does not showcase them, singularly or jointly, for public blessings (including, e.g., James Martin’s “private” blessings with photographers conveniently available for quality posts on Twitter/X and in The New York Times).

The second objection Tornielli wants to reject is that “even liturgy has pastoral relevance,” responding that Fiducia has a special meaning of “pastoral.” That response is unconvincing, because Francis has contended that even theology should be reconceived in a new “pastoral paradigm.” But you can’t have it both ways: “pastoral” has a special meaning but that meaning should be coextensive with the theological enterprise, practically squeezing out any other understanding. The fact that Francis said so does not suspend the principle of noncontradiction; only in Lewis Carroll’s The Looking Glass does one’s use of a word mean “just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.” Only “backwardist” Alice seems to doubt “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

In any event, this jesuitical equivocation of the meaning of “pastoral” collides with the Ratzinger “Instruction” from which Tornielli (and, presumably, others) want to discover the roots of Fiducia. The line Tornielli quotes to ground the “liturgical/non-liturgical” distinction so vital to this claim is in Part Two of the “Instruction.” It is among “Disciplinary Norms,” which is an annex to Part One, on “Doctrinal Aspects.” For Ratzinger, doctrine governs pastoral action. Francis’s use of “pastoral” in practice subordinates the doctrinal to it, precisely inverting Ratzinger’s earlier document. Again, you can’t have it both ways.

Let me say: I respect Tornielli as a writer. There is something to be said in going back to a document on healing to tackle the issues Fiducia claims to want to address. But, on this topic I think Tornielli is wrong.

Which brings us back to Hamlet. The character who “protests too much, methinks” is engaging in a 17th-century form of gaslighting. If Fiducia is no big development (except when it needs to be a big development), one wonders why such a need in Rome to defend it. Its advocates “protest too much, methinks.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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