Pastoral precedent: Vatican traces blessing distinction to Benedict XVI

A Vatican editorial points to a distinction between "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" blessings made by Pope Benedict XVI as the precedent for the Vatican's guidelines on the blessing of couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.

Pastoral precedent: Vatican traces blessing distinction to Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges pilgrims during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 4, 2009. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' language surrounding pastoral blessings -- which the Vatican said can be spontaneously given to people in same-sex relationships -- is not entirely new for a pope, a Vatican editorial said, and can even be traced back to his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

In an editorial for Vatican News published Feb. 27, Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, cited a distinction drawn between "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" blessings in a document released in 2000 on prayers for people who are sick signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, and approved by St. John Paul II.

The distinction constitutes the basis for the Vatican's guidelines on the blessing of couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples which was laid out in the December 2023 declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Fiducia Supplicans" ("Supplicating Trust"). "When considered outside of a liturgical framework, these expressions of faith are found in a realm of greater spontaneity and freedom," the declaration stated about blessings, which allows " the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex."

The document referenced by Tornielli, an "Instruction on Prayers for Healing" published by the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was its prefect, established "an important precedent regarding the distinction between what is liturgical and what is not," Tornielli wrote.

The headquarters of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The main door at the headquarters of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen at the Vatican in this Feb. 15, 2022, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He pointed to the various prayers for healing referenced in the instruction and which are specified in the liturgical books of the Catholic Church. The Book of Blessings, approved by the Vatican, provides prayer formulas for various situations including for the blessing of the sick -- a blessing that is separate from the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The order of blessing includes recommendations for Gospel readings while tending to the sick and provides a text for a "prayer of blessing" to be said for a sick person by an ordained minister.

The 2000 instruction stated, "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."

That specification, Tornielli wrote in the editorial, "established that there are prayers for healing that are liturgical or ritual and others that are not but are still legitimately admitted."

Liturgical prayers, the older instruction continued, are celebrated with the rites prescribed in the "Rituale Romanum" -- a liturgical book containing the services a priest or deacon may perform, including blessings -- and "with the proper sacred vestments indicated therein."

The congregation's instruction specified that "non-liturgical prayers for healing are distinct from liturgical celebrations," but specified that such prayers "also fall under the vigilance of the local ordinary."

"Confusion between such free, non-liturgical prayer meetings and liturgical celebrations properly so-called is to be carefully avoided," it continued.

Tornielli wrote that such a distinction shows that the use of the term "liturgical" as used in "Fiducia Supplicans" to define ritual blessings, which are different than pastoral blessings, "is certainly a new development but inserted within the framework of the Magisterium of the last decades."

"Fiducia Supplicans" echoed the 2000 instruction by stating that non-ritualized blessings "should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament," and that to do so would be an "impoverishment" of blessings that deprives ministers "of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people's lives."

It added that "the pastoral sensibility of ordained ministers should also be formed to perform blessings spontaneously that are not found in the Book of Blessings."

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Pope Francis greets retired Pope Benedict XVI during an encounter for the elderly in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 28, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A press release published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith almost three weeks after the release of "Fiducia Supplicans" clarified that the real novelty of the declaration "is the invitation to distinguish between two different forms of blessings: 'liturgical or ritualized' and 'spontaneous or pastoral,'" a distinction which Tornielli argued has its roots in blessings administered in other contexts, such as those indicated by Cardinal Ratzinger in presenting various forms of blessings for the sick.

Tornielli's claim counters an essay circulated online shortly after the release of "Fiducia Supplicans" written by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who wrote that the idea of pastoral blessings is a "new category of blessing" without precedent or basis in Catholic magisterium. The cardinal argued that the concept of pastoral blessings developed in "Fiducia Supplicans" was "created ad hoc to bless situations that are contrary to the law or spirit of the Gospel."

Cardinal Müller said that there was no need to develop a teaching on pastoral blessings since blessings of a spontaneous nature were already possible within the framework of the "Rituale Romanum."

Yet the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote that "Fiducia Supplicans" could address the confusion that followed its 2021 negative pronouncement on the possibility of blessing of same-sex couples and "offer a vision that draws together the doctrinal aspects with the pastoral ones in a coherent manner."

The dicastery said the declaration offers "a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings," one that Tornielli and official Vatican media outlets said was already in motion in the era of St. John Paul II.


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