The Pope and the Black Hole

In a by now familiar sequence of events, the Vatican released a document on Monday which caused instant confusion. “Pope says Roman Catholic priests can bless same-sex couples,” the headlines announced. Optimistic Catholic apologists said the media had misunderstood the document, which permitted no such thing. Pessimistic Catholic apologists said the headlines were, alas, correct, and that the pope had erred. Part-time ultramontanists said that the document could only be read in a conservative manner and that it was an outrageous insult to the pope to think otherwise. Full-time ultramontanists said that the document could only be read as a “development of doctrine” and that it was an outrageous insult to the pope to think otherwise. The liberals rejoiced, with a slight undertone of impatience. The world took a brief interest, concluded that the Church was at least making some slow progress, then yawned a little and moved on to the next headline.

I have spent what feels like years parsing these much-debated Vatican documents, checking the exact translation of Italian words, badgering learned canonists and theologians for comments, comparing one sentence with another. And to be honest, I am thinking of retiring from the game. Because in the era of Pope Francis, such “controversial” statements are generally less statements than black holes.

A black hole, according to NASA, is “a great amount of matter packed into a very small area—think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City.” That slightly exaggerates the density of Fiducia Supplicans’ five-thousand-word text, but the point is the result—which, as NASA explains, “is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.”

So it is with Fiducia Supplicans. Usually one can cast light upon a document by asking what the Church has said before. In this case, the document itself cites the last Vatican statement on the subject, issued in 2021. That text decreed, with the signed approval of Pope Francis, that “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage . . . as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements . . . cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing.”

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