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Humpty Dumpty, blessings and the masters of meaning

Illustration of Humpty Dumpty from "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There" by John Tenniel, 1871. (OSV News photo/Public Domain)

Remember Humpty-Dumpty? He turns up in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy “Through the Looking Glass” and makes this famous assertion: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

I thought of that while reading attempts to give a benign interpretation to the new Vatican document on blessings for people in “irregular” relationships, including same-sex couples and Catholics in second marriages whose first marriages haven’t been annulled. The Humpty-Dumpty spin was that to bless same-sex unions does not mean approving them.

This naturally was the line adopted by the people in Rome regarding their new document. But not just them. I found it also in reactions by bishops that included such locutions as these: the blessings “do not imply any approbation of the relationships,” they “do not imply that the church is officially validating the status of the couple,” and the blessings must take place “without creating an impression of approval or legitimation of status.”

I hate to say it, but even if you accept the distinction between liturgical blessings and pastoral blessings proposed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the fact is that a blessing is a blessing, and it is of the nature of blessings that, along with doing other things, they convey a message of approval and support simply by being blessings.

The bishops who say or imply otherwise have my sympathy. Pope Francis is on record as believing the American hierarchy collectively is opposed to him and his program — a misperception fed by people close to the Pope since early in the pontificate. Given that disturbing state of affairs, the bishops don’t wish to make things worse by criticizing a document approved by Francis on a touchy issue.

So what to do? Why, of course — say that blessing same-sex unions doesn’t imply approving them.

Except that it does.

If that doesn’t work, another option is to say, as some have done, that the blessing is directed to the individuals involved rather than their union. But consider what’s going on when a priest blesses some other collective entity — a high school football team, say. When Father blesses the team, he isn’t blessing only the starting quarterback, the defensive left tackle, and the place kicker — he is blessing the team precisely as team, a collective entity, asking God to look with favor on all the team members collectively and grant them victory in their big game.
Football aside, this is the only sensible reading of the text of “Fiducia Supplicans” (the Latin title of the Vatican document). To be sure, it insists that the blessings for which it gives a green light are not to be understood as conferring legitimacy on “irregular” relationships. But it does speak of itself as a “declaration regarding the blessings of same sex couples” — couples, that is, not just the individuals who make up the couples. And, as pointed out, such a blessing at least tacitly conveys approval and support simply because doing that is intrinsic to what it means to bless someone or something.

As the flurry of distressed reactions to this declaration reminds us, the Catholic vision of
marriage, family life, and human sexuality exists in a secular environment that regards the faith with profound hostility. Reacting to the Vatican document, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd dismissed the church as operating by “archaic rules.” Here is the world we need to confront without apology, in order to convert it. Humpty-Dumpty won’t do the job.
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Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist and writer, is the author of more than 20 books, including three novels. His latest book is “Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.” (OSV)

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