(OSV News) — Two Eastern Catholic bishops have issued statements with in-depth theological and canonical reasons for their rejection of a controversial Vatican document on pastoral blessings for same-sex couples and other unmarried couples.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Bishop Kurt E. Burnette of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey, provided detailed responses on behalf of their respective sees to Fiducia Supplicans (“Supplicating Trust”), which was released Dec. 18 by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The declaration, subtitled “On the pastoral meaning of blessings,” concluded that priests could offer “spontaneous” and “non-liturgical” pastoral blessings upon request to those in same-sex unions or couples in “irregular situations.” At the same time, the text — which was signed by dicastery prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández and secretary Msgr. Armando Matteo and approved by Pope Francis — affirmed the Church’s teaching on marriage.
The declaration followed up on the pope’s response to dubia, or questions, posed by several cardinals in a letter released in early October.
“Fiducia Supplicans” garnered a range of reactions among Catholic clergy and faithful — from praise to confusion to anger — and prompted a Jan. 4 Vatican press release from Cardinal Fernández urging “a full and calm reading” of the text.
No application to Eastern Catholic churches
In a communiqué released Dec. 22, Major Archbishop Shevchuk — who leads one of the 23 Eastern Catholic churches that, together with the Latin Church, comprise the universal Catholic Church — said the declaration “applies solely to the Latin Church, not the Eastern Catholic churches.”
He cited as the basis for his decision Canon 1492 of the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches (abbreviated as CCEO, according to its Latin title), which was promulgated under St. John Paul II in 1990. That code, along with the 1983 Code of Canon Law, form the Catholic Church’s primary governing documents.
Canon 1492 of the CCEO specifies that laws enacted by the pope that do not expressly indicate otherwise affect Eastern Catholics only “insofar as they treat matters of faith or morals or declarations of divine law,” or if “they grant a favor which contains nothing contrary to the Eastern rites.”
“The declaration … interprets the pastoral meaning of blessings in the Latin Church, not the Eastern Catholic churches,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk. “It does not address questions of Catholic faith or morality, refer to any precepts of the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches … or refer to Eastern Christians.”
Stressing that the CCEO safeguards the unique “liturgical, theological, canonical and spiritual heritage” of the Eastern Catholic churches, he noted that “the meaning of ‘blessing’ in the UGCC (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) and the Latin Church is different.”
‘Christ Our Pascha’ catechism
While “Fiducia Supplicans” allows for a “non-liturgical” variant, in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church “the blessing of a priest or bishop is a liturgical gesture that cannot be separated from the rest of the content of the liturgical rites and reduced to the circumstances and needs of private piety,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk, referencing “Christ Our Pascha,” the catechism of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
“Christ Our Pascha” was published in 2011 by Major Archbishop Shevchuk in response to St. John Paul II’s call for the development of additional “local catechisms” for the Eastern Catholic churches, following the pope’s 1992 publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk also noted in his statement that “according to the traditions of the Byzantine rite, the concept of ‘blessing’ means approval, permission, or even an order for a specific type of action, prayer, and ascetic practices, including certain types of fasting and prayer.”
Avoiding ambiguous gestures
Since “the blessing of a priest always has an evangelizing and catechetical dimension,” he said, “pastoral discernment urges us to avoid ambiguous gestures, statements, and concepts that would distort or misrepresent God’s word and the teachings of the church.”
Bishop Burnette, who also is apostolic administrator of the Phoenix and Toronto eparchies, released a four-page message titled “Some Thoughts and Guidance on the Publication of Fiducia Supplicans,” echoing Major Archbishop Shevchuk’s point that the declaration, as a liturgical guideline, was not applicable to the Byzantine rite according to canon law.
Simulating a sacrament
The bishop also underscored the distinction between the Eastern and Western Catholic understandings of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
“In the West, couples marry each other by the exchange of consent,” said Bishop Burnette. “By ancient tradition and by current laws of the Church, in the East, a couple is married sacramentally by the blessing of a presbyter/priest.”
He noted that Eastern Catholic churches of the Constantinopolitan tradition also employ a crowning ceremony to signify the priest’s blessing upon the Sacrament of Matrimony (or at times upon a renewal of vows), and warned that “a crowning ceremony performed for a couple that cannot be married in the Catholic Church is a crime … under canon law,” known as “simulating a sacrament.”
“All parties are guilty of the crime, but the priest will be hurt the most,” said Bishop Burnette. “Please do not be misled. Even without a crowning, one might commit the crime of simulating a sacrament by giving the appearance of blessing an unlawful union.”
Bishop Burnette said that “presbyter/priests in recent years in our (Eastern Catholic) Churches in the United States have been excommunicated and involuntarily laicized for attempting to marry two males.”
He urged laypeople to “take care not to compromise a priest by encouraging him to do something he is forbidden to do by the Church or by Divine Law or by his conscience.”
“God gave us His Law because He loves us and desires to protect us,” said Bishop Burnette, adding that he recently saw parents telling their small children to hold their parents’ hands while crossing a busy street.
“When God gives us His Law, He is saying, ‘Hold my hand. I don’t want you to get hurt,'” said the bishop.