Fiducia Supplicans, Sacred Duty & Chris Christie
The citation of the recent declaration by American politicians exposes the need for a clear and deliberate magisterium in a postliberal order.
Joseph F. Murray publishes regularly on Of Cardinal Virtues, his blog and portfolio. He lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Much ink has been spilled in the past few weeks since the promulgation of Fiducia Supplicans by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a declaration signed by the Holy Father that “offers a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings” as it pertains to “blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.”
Despite its ostensible orthodoxy, the document has opened the door to ambiguity in the Church’s praxis and “influential Catholic leaders have already exceeded its prohibitions without consequence, and said they will continue to do so. Those leaders have used the text to justify things explicitly prohibited by it, with some claiming the mantle of Pope Francis to do so.”
The reception of the declaration by laity, bishops, and — notably — political figures has been mixed. The day after the declaration, Fr. James Martin, S.J., publicly performed a blessing for a gay couple in New York, directly flouting the document’s guidance while also using it as an excuse to further his own political agenda. Furthermore, African bishops issued clarifications and pastoral statements stating that such blessings would not be practiced on their continent.
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Of particular interest to American Catholics is one citation of the recent declaration by former New Jersey Governor and current GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie. In a town hall event in New Hampshire, Christie responded to a question about his stance on same-sex marriage, saying that his opinion has recently changed:
For me, it was a process I had to go through to change the way I’d been raised, both from a family perspective and what my mother and father taught me and felt, and also from a religious perspective, and what — I’m a Catholic — and what my Church taught me to believe. But, over time, look, this past week or two Pope Francis is now allowing blessings of same-sex couples: Even the Church is changing. And so, I think this is part of just being honest with people. You can hold certain beliefs firmly, but then, as you watch more and more evidence come in, and you meet more and more people, and you listen to them and get to know them, your opinion can change. And mine has changed over time on this.
Of course, this is not an unexpected shift for Christie, whose campaign is flailing as we come into the election year and who is seeking desperately to establish himself as the moderate, non-MAGA option for the GOP. Christie’s flip-flopping while he polls at under four percent does not set off any alarm bells for the average conservative American. But for American Catholics, his citation of Fiducia Supplicans — albeit an incorrect citation — should be a grave sign indeed.
The Church, and the Christian faith broadly, has an obligation to morally inform the decisions of politicians. St. Thomas Aquinas counseled the King of Cyprus in his treatise “On Kingship” that “just as the founding of a city or kingdom may suitably be learned from the way in which the world was created, so too the way to govern may be learned from the divine government of the world,” and, of course, divine government of the world “has been entrusted not to earthly kings but to priests, and most of all to the chief priest, the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff.”1
St. Thomas understood that, ultimately, “for those to whom pertains the care of intermediate ends should be subject to him to whom pertains the care of the ultimate end, and be directed by his rule.”2 Obviously, St. Thomas was writing to a monarch in an age of monarchies, and not to Chris Christie. And though it may not be reasonable to expect a president or presidential candidate today to defer to the guidance of the Roman Pontiff, the office of the Pontiff has not changed so much as to eradicate the reciprocative responsibility.
It has been understood by popes of the past that the Church should form the moral consciences not only of the faithful citizenry of Christendom, but to inform the moral decisions of its leaders. Pope Leo XIII described the popes as the “defenders of civil order” and said “to princes and rulers of the State We have offered the protection of religion … our present object is to make rulers understand that this protection, which is stronger than any, is again offered to them; and We earnestly exhort them in Our Lord to defend religion.”3
Furthermore, Pope St. Pius X was clear about the obligations of the Church in “rejecting the vain novelties” of the time, and declared that “We may no longer keep silence, lest We should seem to fail in Our most sacred duty, and lest the kindness that … we have hitherto shown them, should be set down to lack of diligence in the discharge of Our office.”4 Both Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. Pius X are quoted here after the loss of the Papal States, and not as temporal authorities, but still with an understanding of the importance of the Church influencing politics.
Though the State, after the rise of liberalism, has changed its view of relations with the Church, the Church remains unchanging. The obligations of the Church to provide moral guidance to the State have not changed just because the State has changed. And, of course, an integral component of the obligation of the Holy See to the State is the obligation of clarity.
The theme of Church and State arises frequently in discussions of postliberalism and its role in the American order. But the discussion always focuses on the State as the primary actor: How should the State consider the Church? What allowances should the State make for the Church? On what issues is the input of the Church relevant to the State? What obligations does the State have to the Church? But, in today’s ecclesial climate, we ought to ask the converse question: What obligations does the Church have to the State? And does Fiducia Supplicans fulfill those sacred duties?
If we are to seriously explore the notion of a postliberal order and accept the premise that the moral foundation of liberalism has miserably failed to provide a cohesive framework by which states should act, we obviously must have an idea of where the moral guidance of the State should come from. This means not just a discussion of changes in the State, but introspection into what the Church and the faith should provide — and has an obligation to provide — to our rulers. This obligation must be taken seriously so that the project of political revivification under a cohesive and true Christian morality can take place in our legislature and executive offices for the common good and salvation of the American people.
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Aquinas, De Regno, Book II, Chapter 3.
Pope Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud. 1881.
Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. 1907.