Declaration on blessings in particular in the Church in Africa
When the declaration was published, there was varied reaction and in some cases disproportionate, with several bishops and cardinals opposing with definite virulence some proposals contained in the Declaration, in particular when it comes to blessing same-sex couples, although the Declaration see, above all, is about the different blessings and their pastoral meaning (n. 28).
In fact, the document, when deepening the theme of blessings, distinguishes between ritual and liturgical blessings and spontaneous blessings, which are more similar to gestures of popular devotion, and it is precisely in this way that there is the possibility of welcoming those who do not live according to the norms of Christian moral doctrine, but humbly ask to be blessed.
It is precisely the appeal to popular devotion that leads us to look at the reception of the document among the simple people who do not understand all the linguistic contours and the differences in theological understanding that are summoned in the text, which allows us to verify the unexpected consequences.
This background helps to understand how pastoral concern justifies, in a way, the most diverse reactions to the Declaration and, at the same time, allows a reflection on the “unexpected” that touches some ecclesiological notes. First of all, let us identify the novelty of the Declaration and the discomfort it causes.
- The novelty present in the declaration: appreciation of the “Sensus Fidei”
Distinguish between two different forms of blessing: “liturgical or ritualized blessings” and “spontaneous or pastoral blessings”. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith says, in the presentation of the document, that “the value of this document is […] that of offering a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, which allows to expand and enrich its classical understanding, closely linked to a liturgical perspective”. This “theological reflection, based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, implies a true development regarding what has been said about blessings in the Magisterium and in the official texts of the Church”.
It is about valuing popular devotion, the faith of God’s people, who open themselves to their God beyond their awareness of sin and their littleness. It is the appeal to the “sensus fidei”, to the believer’s personal capacity to make a fair discernment in matters of faith, regarding irregular issues in our way of believing. Now, in the case of the Church in Africa, it was precisely the “sensus fidei” that dictated the various pronouncements surrounding this document. The pastoral sensitivity of the pastors justified the SECAM letter that says: “There are no blessings for homosexual couples in the Churches in Africa”, which seems to admit that for other cases of irregular couples the blessing would be possible. This note expands the understanding of the universality of the Church in its plurality of contexts and pastoral responses.
- The Universal Church, diverse and plural: unity in plurality
Saying that in Africa there are no blessings for same-sex couples, while on other continents blessings are authorized for these people, seems to touch and clarify, even more, that unity is not uniformity. More deeply, it takes “popular pastoral care” seriously and values the sense of faith of the People of God, who in the most diverse contexts perceive the practical consequences of their faith and must be respected on the path of understanding the demands of the Gospel that they are making. It is up to pastors, guided by prudence, to judge the relevance of practices that are not spontaneously understandable to the people and that can cause scandal and hurt the faith of simple people.
One of the challenges that the African reality imposes on theology is the epistemological question. Theology aims to interpret faith in Jesus Christ for communities in Africa and this is not possible without taking a contextual look that requires abandoning the “epistemological asylum” of foreign cultures and philosophies (GIBELLINE, 2012, p. 463). Here it is worth remembering the deep relationship between religion and culture and that the exchanges between both are constant, fluent and underground and visible in popular faith. Culture can be understood as an organizing system of the natural world that generates religion, but religion is, equally, an organizing system of the world and this is how one provides meaning to the other and we can say that religion creates culture. In this regard, Paul Tillich explains:
Religion, considered a supreme concern, is the substance that gives meaning to culture, and culture, in turn, is the totality of forms that express the basic concerns of religion. In short: religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion. This avoids dualism between religion and culture. Every religious act, not only of organized religion, but also of the most intimate movements of the soul, is culturally formed (TILLICH, 2009, p. 83).
Thus, the differentiated reception of Fiducia Supplicans is unexpected and broadens the perception of the beauty of a Church that is open to different ways of living and expressing faith. All theological and ecclesiological reflection moves in a rationality that arises from the experience of faith lived and conveyed in traditions continually updated by a community of faith and belonging (DV, 8). Therefore, African ecclesiology and theology must feed their knowledge on the faith experience of their people, allowing the plurality of personal and community experience to speak the truth that leads others to experience the mystery of God. It is also about communicating in the language of your interlocutor, the language of a humanity situated and marked by historical, spatial and temporal limitations and possibilities and in a plural way (Heb. 1,1) the wealth donated by faith in the God of Jesus Christ.
Fiducia Supplicans in Africa brought to light the need to think about the Church from the ecclesiastical context and the “sensus fidei”, the way in which children understand and live their faith. Understand how faith generates a culture and one feeds the other. Everything that harms the coherent experience of faith causes a cultural disturbance. Parallel to this aspect, Fiducia Supplicans helped to broaden the understanding of the universality of the Church, as a diversity of expression in the unity of faith.
Thank you for your attention!
- Declaration Fiducia Supplicans, of December 18, 2023, from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith,
- GIBELLINI, Rosino. Theology of the 20th Century. 3rd edition, S. Paulo, Edições Loyola, 2012.
- THILLICH, Paul. Theology of Culture. S. Paulo, Fonte Editorial, 2009.