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Catholicism in light of Fiducia Supplicans

Updated: Mar 14


Part 1


  On Monday 18 December 2023 the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office in the Vatican that deals with doctrinal questions, released a document concerning whether couples in irregular statuses can receive blessings from the Church. These statuses include divorced and remarried couples as well as couples in same-sex relationships. The document is called Fiducia Supplicans, which translates as “begging in trust.”

 

Firstly, I intend in no way to whitewash this controversial document, or to set up ad hoc arguments to make everything seem fine. If by the end of the three articles the reader judges that I did in fact do those things, it would not be for lack of trying not to. Secondly, what follows is my humble thinking through of certain questions pertaining to the document, the nature of Christianity, of Christian faith, and finally of ecclesiology. If I have made any errors in my speculations (which are after all just speculations), I willingly accept charitable corrections and/or instruction from others.

 

The historical context of Fiducia Supplicans is one which involves the intersection of various factors. The following are the main ones which come to mind: (1) the crisis of the German synodal way and its threat of schism, (2) the hemorrhaging of Church membership throughout the western world, and (3) a pervasive secularism which lives in the Church and has profoundly infected her to the core.

 

What does the document say? In a few words, the document says that the Church’s teaching on marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable, it expounds a theology of blessings, and concludes with the possibility of blessing couples in these irregular situations while clarifying that the union itself is not blessed but the persons seeking the blessing.


What is the contention? It seems to me that it comes down to the fact that the document speaks of couples being blessed and not merely individual persons. The document affirms that a union against God’s will cannot be blessed but individual sinners can be, even if not repentant (which is nothing new). And yet the document speaks of blessing couples. It therefore follows that what the document means by “couple” is “two persons” and not “their union.” This is, at least, where the conversation has culminated among Catholics trying to read the document faithfully and according to its internal structure and hermeneutic. The distinctions concerning types of blessings, the reaffirmation of the Church's perennial teaching, and the distinction between "persons" and "unions" notwithstanding, many feel like they are being taken for fools since the document says that couples can be blessed and this is precisely the issue that was causing heartache with the German synodal way.


I intend in no way to stir animosity in the hearts of the faithful against the teaching authority of the Church, and especially not against the Apostolic See, which deserves our respect and filial love. That being said, it is a reality that many faithful Catholics feel like they are being taken for fools. Maybe they are wrong in thinking so, maybe they are right, but they are feeling this way. Instead of going on an angry rant through a YouTube video or a social media post, I would like to present to my Mother the Church, and to my Fathers in office, the concerns which come from humble children of the Church who seek the love and solicitude of their Mother. I pray that I do not overstep any boundary and that these three articles are able to be constructive and helpful.

 

It seems to me that this document was written precisely to prevent Germany from going into schism (it mentions multiple times that episcopal conferences do not have the power to bless unions with liturgical blessings). The intention to prevent a large scale schism ought to be shared by all faithful Catholics, but the fear is that the way in which this document will be taken could in fact create a schism here instead of in Germany. One can see the precarious tug going on between one side and the other. This gives us context, but does it justify the appearance of compromise? Of course what matters most is not where a schism takes place… but the truth of the Gospel—without which there would be no communion to begin with. This truth the Magisterium guards against worldly pressure—a pressure which seeks to distort the full breadth and depth of Our Lord’s salvific love for us.

 

This controversy gives rise to questions concerning the future of a Church that is disintegrating, concerning the practice of Christian faith in a secular landscape, and to the very nature of the Church herself. Many of those who follow my work online know that I have repeated several times then-Father Joseph Ratzinger’s prediction of what he called the “process of the de-secularization of the Church.”[1] He writes that “either sooner or later, with or contrary to the will of the Church, according to the inner structural change, she will become externally a little flock.”[2] In several places throughout his writings (as priest, bishop, and cardinal) he reiterates this prediction concerning the future of the Church: that she will be a little Church.

 

I believe that these observations on the secularism at the heart of the Church and on the hemorrhaging at the external peripheries of the Church actually shed light on the tensions present in certain places between young people and the hierarchy. Why is this pontificate so wrought with division and tension? Is it because of social media? Because of self-appointed theological experts on YouTube? Because of the Pope himself? Because of Traditiones Custodes? Although many of these factors come together with varying degrees of influence, it would be a waste of time to further stir the pot. I rather want to add a factor to the mix to distract everyone for a second. This factor is precisely Ratzinger’s point about secularism, or, rather, worldliness. The Church as a whole has lost its capacity to breathe; institutionally, charismatically, evangelistically, and supernaturally. We are witnessing the process of de-secularization, and it’s happening “contrary to the will of the Church.”[3]

 

This last point, of the process being “contrary to the will of the Church,” is crucial, it seems to me, to understanding Fiducia Supplicans, especially in light of the Pope's desire for the bishops of Germany not to repeat Luther's mistake. But are these concerns remedied by Fiducia Supplicans? My intention is not to answer this question since I am not the Magisterium. But what I can do is do my best to contribute to this precarious situation of a hemorrhaging Church infected by secularism by pointing to the insights of wise Catholic theologians that have preceeded us—especially Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. I will do my best to do just that in part 2, which I hope will continue to shed light on Fiducia Supplicans, and what it means for the Catholic Church going forward.


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[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The New Pagans and the Church (https://www.hprweb.com/2017/01/the-new-pagans-and-the-church/).

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, The New Pagans and the Church.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, The New Pagans and the Church.




Part 2


In part one of this three-part series on the Vatican’s latest document Fiducia Supplicans I summarized the context and content of the document. In this second part I would like to take a step back and look at the context of Martin Luther, the German pioneer of the Protestant movement in the history of Christianity.

In his book Principles of Catholic Theology Joseph Ratzinger begins by giving a theological genealogy, starting with Augustine, which leads up to the reformation, thereby shedding light on the context of Luther’s project:

With Luther another kind of division that had its roots in Augustine appeared in the Church. The split between Donatists and Catholics that rent the Church of [Augustine’s] African homeland caused the great doctor of the Church to distinguish with a sharpness until then unknown between the theological greatness of the Church as a salvific reality and her empirical existence: many who seem to be in the Church are outside her; many who seem to be outside her are in her. The true Church is the number of the predestined who, on the one hand, transcend the visible Church while, on the other hand, the reprobate are present at her very center.[1]

Ratzinger begins his genealogy with the distinction Augustine makes between “the city of God” and “the city of man.” The insinuation here, which Ratzinger will make explicit further on, is that this distinction indirectly paved the way for Luther’s justification in separating the apostolic structure of the visible Church (the “office”) from the Church’s pneumatic dimension (the spiritual communion of the believer). Of course, Ratzinger is quick to add that “For Augustine, it must be admitted, this concept had no adverse repercussions with regard to the value of the sacramental and apostolic structure of the Church and her tradition.”[2]

And yet, this Augustinian distinction turned into a deeply troubling crisis when it became a radical separation in the Western schism. It’s worth citing Ratzinger in full:

But the great Western schism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had imbued [Augustine’s concept] with a degree of realism that would have been inconceivable up to that time. For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form—the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution.[3]

Ratzinger sees the Western schism both as Augustine’s lofty contemplation turned into a nightmare and as the historical background for Luther’s “spiritual flight” from the visibility of the Church as an institution: “It is against this background of a profoundly shaken ecclesial consciousness that we are to understand that Luther, in the conflict between his search for salvation and the tradition of the Church, ultimately came to experience the Church, not as the guarantor, but as the adversary of salvation.”[4]

Ratzinger explains that this led, for Protestantism, to an understanding of the Church which is both limited to the local community and extended to an indeterminate community of believers across space and time “known only to God.”[5] He adds that Protestantism’s “ecclesial anchor and […] the binding authority that sustains its agreements or disagreements remain unclear.”[6] It becomes evident that, for Ratzinger, the Church is characterized by a dialectic between its Apostolic anchor and its pneumatic holiness. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar—a friend of Ratzinger’s—would call these two elements “the Petrine Structure of the Church” and “the Marian dynamism of the Church.”[7]

But what does this have to do with Fiducia Supplicans, one might ask? I am getting to that. At this juncture I want to capitalize on the point I made in the first blog post: namely that there is tension in the Church between its structure and its faithful, that there is tension between hierarchs themselves and between groups of the faithful themselves, that there is also pagans within the Church and Christians without the Church. This, it seems to me, is part of what the Second Vatican Council was iterating (a point rather disliked by traditionalists). And so, these passages from Ratzinger do in fact pertain to the tensions in Germany, to the tensions in the United States, to the tensions in the Church in general and to the tensions between the Church and the world. We must look at what the Church is more closely in order to have a better footing going forward; and Fiducia Supplicans is directly relevant to all of these observations because it pertains to the structural anchor of the Church, to the relationship between secular culture and its anthropology on the one hand, and to Christian culture and its anthropology on the other.

In my next blog post I want to look at the episcopacy (including the bishop of Rome) and the future of the Church within the current secular landscape.



__________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 196.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 196.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 196.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 196.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 196.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 197.

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 19xx).



Part 3


In part two of my three-part series on Fiducia Supplicans I spoke of the Marian dimension of the Church and of the Petrine structure of the Church (her apostolic anchor) in light of the Western schism and the Protestant reformation. My purpose in doing so was to illustrate how the very nature of the Church, her inner tensions, and her relationship to the world, are directly relevant to the current turmoil over this document from the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (among other things). In this final post I would like to look, on the one hand, at the role of the episcopacy and of the Pope, specifically within our current secular landscape, and, on the other hand, at Christian faith itself. I will end with thoughts on the reception/implementation of Fiducia Supplicans.

As the apostolic anchor, the episcopal college sub et cum Petro is designed to make sacramental communion possible for the Church while also, through the ministry of the word and the succession of the officium, maintaining the identity of the one subject-Church by guarding Tradition against the tugs and pulls of the world; a world which, as we have seen, is both inside and outside her bosom. This safeguard is a complex interplay between God’s freedom and man’s freedom, an interplay which unfolds in history. Thus, this apostolic anchor, the office, is faced with a responsibility which takes on a cruciform shape, where bishops are stretched from one side to the other and become the opprobrium of the masses. Whether the office-holder bears this cross with Christ-like love or recoils from it, he finds himself in the crosshairs of criticism. Ratzinger lays it out quite well:

The shepherds of the Church not only find themselves exposed today to the accusation that they still hold fast to the methods of the Inquisition and try to strangle the Spirit by the repressive power of their office; they are, at the same time, attacked by the voice of the faithful, who accuse them more and more loudly of being mute and cowardly watchdogs that stand idly by under the pressure of liberal publicity while the faith is being sold piecemeal for the dish of pottage of being recognized as “modern.”[1]

This precarious position, which calls for courage—a courage that is impossible without God’s grace—yields the fruits and/or disappointments we are all familiar with in episcopal leadership (may Our Lord strengthen them). It goes without saying that, as Ratzinger puts it, “a Christianity that believes it has no other function than to be completely in tune with the spirit of the times has nothing to say and no meaning to offer.”[2] And so, the episcopal college with and under the pope are faced with the twofold task of maintaining ecclesial communion and not compromising the faith.

Because Fiducia Supplicans is about secular anthropology, and Germany’s fascination with it, it is directly concerned with this relationship between the Church and the World, with the paganism within and without the Church (and also with reaching out to those within the grips of self-confusion). Additionally—rightly or wrongly—the document has very recently been the occasion for tension between certain areas of the episcopacy and the papacy! The document has become another convening locus for the airing of grievances, for passionate defenses, and for outcries of protest. But many of us read about this on our fancy iPhones feeling helpless and confused. Before offering my own thoughts on the reception/implementation of the document, I think it is important to point out that such tensions and turmoil can be the opportunity for expanding our vision of the faith, and, thereby, reawakening our experience of its depth and content.

In the age of social media, it seems to me, too many Catholics have developed what I like to call a pseudo-Kantian ecclesiology: an ecclesiology which constructs its own understanding of the Church based on the reception of news-fed information. Information which is systematized by us from the ground up into a simplistic ideological construct which we associate with the Church. A construct which inevitably suffocates under the pressure of reality, leading to easy solutions such as Sedevacantism or schisms of various kinds (sometimes due to tragic reasons which I don’t want to trivialize). We cannot begin with the gutter system if we haven’t properly attended to the nature and structure of the house’s foundations; foundations which are laid down by God (the rock, the keys, the binding and loosing, Peter and the College).

All this being said, a decision must first be made toward the more essential and foundational aspects of Christianity: How do I make sense of the person Jesus of Nazareth. Are his claims true, yay or nay? Here we can situate Jesus within the consort of other important men at the origins of other traditions. Men such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Moses, Mohamed, etc. Next: ok, I believe that Jesus is unique because he makes a unique association between Truth and himself, an association which is the historical foundation of much of the world’s current structures—political, legal, philosophical, and cultural. Finally: the very structure of Christian faith is the acceptance of an initially extrinsic word we have not thought up but received (faith comes through hearing first and foremost, it is not arrived at by a philosophical consensus). Saint Thomas speaks of thinking with faith, not of thinking to faith. “Thinking to faith” might lead one to the door, but walking through the door is not a result of our thought, but of our hearing of God’s address (which in a mysterious way precedes even our philosophizing). This is what we mean by “grace.”

The deeper and larger problem of our day is that Christian faith has gone from an actuality in which we find ourselves to a possibility the individual choses—which means that the very foundation of Christian faith (in its essence) is removed from the “house” by secular liberalism. This is the product of the historical disassociation of “religion” from the public sphere—a move which creates the very category of religion as defined by modernity. One might trace this back to St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo: Entertaining hypotheticals is fine, but making everything to be considered first hypothetical and then actual once the hypothesis is judged worthy can in fact lead to an actualization of pure potentiality. This ends up inverting actuality and potency making truth revolve around the individual in principle instead of the individual around the truth. This ends up neutralizing God, truth, and therefore Christianity as such, even when we claim to believe in them. Atheism is the child of this metaphysical shift in history. And the void is filled by a neo-paganism on full display before our eyes. David Schindler speaks about this in his book The Politics of the Real in a way which is very insightful.

To draw this out further: if I told an Anglican: “your propositions are false mine are correct, here’s why,” and he followed my arguments and came to agree with them and became Catholic… I would argue that (in a certain sense) this person merely went from one form of Protestantism to another (i.e., a Catholic form of Protestantism). Catholicism is not reduceable to a set of propositions the individual agrees with, or to another “denomination.” It is a historical form, it is western culture. Yet it has been untethered from its historical sitz im leben and relegated to being merely a set of propositions that the individual chooses to adhere to. So to convert an Anglican I wouldn’t be so concerned with propositions at first (in fact, I’ve found myself trying to convert Catholics to Catholicism), I would first be concerned with what they think religion is! A historical form is not something the individual choses to believe in ab initio. His individuality emerges from the bedrock of an incarnate faith, and his maturation consists in finding his place within the sitz im leben he is now aware of. Of course, one can rebel against one’s world—there is no precluding of this possibility afforded to free will. Another way to formulate this is that Tradition is not a set of propositions found in the writings of people in the past (although it surely includes these); Tradition is not propositions which we consider just in themselves in a dualistic Platonic way. The propositions point to a lived form that is actual, that we awake in and assimilate, live, and make our own as we find our place within it. Once one sees that we’ve possibilized religion (deactualized it), then we can see how the choice is between reality and a strange metaphysical limbo which can be described as unreality.

If someone were to say that this is the arrogance of saying “I have the truth and I know better!” Then the common reply follows: the position that all truth is merely hypothetically true is an absolutist claim which wields a kind of totalitarian control over reality. And this will end up destroying man because now he can simply make his own truth: and we have seen in the last century that this is a recipe for horrors. This is the “dictatorship of relativism” Ratzinger spoke of. But also, it must be added that the truth is love, and therefore we can impose it on no one; rather, it imposes itself on everyone of its own accord, in a non-coercive way.


Ultimately, it comes down to a choice: reality or unreality, truth or nihilism, faith or unbelief? This brings us back to the nature of the Church, specifically with a focus on its Marian dimension. In Pope Benedict’s last letter (to Father Pivonka) he wrote the following:

If ecclesiology had hitherto been treated essentially in institutional terms, the wider spiritual dimensions of the concept of the Church was now joyfully perceived. Romano Guardini described this development with the words: “A process of immense importance has begun. The Church is awakening in souls.” Thus, “Body of Christ” became the supporting concept of the Church, which consequently, in 1943, found its expression in the encyclical “Mystici Corporis.”[3]

In the same letter Benedict goes on to say that,

The dissertation of H. Scholz on ‘Glaube und Unglaube in der Weltgeschichte’ (Belief and Unbelief in World History) […] had shown that the two Civitates [of Augustine] did not mean any corporate bodies, but rather the representation of the two basic forces of belief and unbelief in history.[4]

And this leads me to the third and final excerpt from this important last letter of Benedict, where the apostolic anchor comes into view:

The drama of 410 (the capture and sack of Rome by the Visigoths) profoundly shook the world of that time, and also Augustine’s thinking. Of course, the Civitas Dei is not simply identical with the institution of the Church. […] But the complete spiritualization of the concept of the Church, for its part, misses the realism of faith and its institutions in the world. Thus, in Vatican II the question of the Church in the world finally became the real central problem.[5]

And so how does all of the above inform the reception of Fiducia Supplicans and the manner of its implementation? Although qualified and clarified by its author, the term “couple” is said—again rightly or wrongly, I really don’t care to argue about this at this point—to be equivocal in itself. The issue comes down to the de facto outrage and how it can be remedied (some seem to suggest we should just excommunicate anyone claiming there is ambiguity). Simply saying that people must obey is not known to be an effective modus operandi (more could be said here in regard to the distinction between power and authority). In fact, much of this pontificate, it seems to me, is plagued not by a Pope I happen to not like but by a gestapo of lay Catholics (who are not even theologians) who have appointed themselves as the watchdogs of the media. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes someone needs to say something. But when you get attacked for being a suspected dissenter simply because you are taking the time to obey the Church in a way which is informed and authentic, it's easy to become disillusioned.

In light of this, two options present themselves: changing the word “couple” to the word “individual,” or prescribing a specific form for the blessing (which asks God for the help to separate) without changing the word “couple.” Before I say which one I think is best, I want to draw an analogy between the inspiration of scripture and the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Magisterium. Dr. Matthew Ramage, in a footnote in one of his books, speaks of Ratzinger’s theology of inerrancy. This particular footnote can shed light (analogously) on the intended meaning of any particular magisterial document. He writes:

Benedict departs from the traditional custom of describing scripture having two (divine and human) authors and instead speaks of there being three “interlocking subjects“ of scripture. […] The scope of immunity from error is coterminous with the scope of intentional affirmation. The major disagreement turns on the identity of the bearer of that intention. In keeping with his emphasis upon the people of God as scripture’s collective intending subject, Ratzinger affirms that knowledge of what constitutes the core of scripture is ultimately discernible only by the living community of faith in communion with the magisterium.[6]

And so a reception and implementation of Fiducia Supplicans which bases itself off of an acceptance of the world and it’s gender ideology is complicit in the very neutralization spoken of above and amounts to a practical apostacy. But a refusal to work within the hermeneutic of the Church’s intentionality—which is the playing field of God and man’s freedom—and that decries the document as inescapably and unredeemably heretical does violence to the apostolic anchor without which faith cannot survive, which likewise leads to the neutralization spoken of above (to be fair, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this latter interpretation would definitively untether the Church from herself, thereby destroying her, but it would wound her apostolic witness). This is why I find Bishop Munilla’s response to be the only way forward:[7] The document is, of course, not heretical, as Dr. Larry Chapp has also pointed out* (after all we are speaking of its prescription and not of its doctrinal iterations), and the word “couple” should continue to be used. All that would be needed to help appease the turmoil—whoever is responsible for it—would be the prescription of the specific words used in the administration of this “blessing of mercy,” as Archbishop Villegas describes it.[8] And finally, that these blessings of mercy be administered in private with Mark 8:23 in mind, as Bishop Varden wrote about so well.[9]

This is a path the Church can take in the future in order to appease the outrage with the medicine of mercy. Of course, there are surely many other paths she can take, and we will have to see. Meanwhile we continue to wait, confidently resting in the Lord’s bosom, encountering him in word and sacrament, and in personal prayer.

To conclude with the words of Ratzinger:

One can also see, in fact, that the decline of the Church and of Christianity that we have lived through in the last thirty or forty years is partially to blame for the spiritual breakdowns, the disorientation, the demoralization that we are witnessing. In that respect, I would say that if the ship didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It corresponds to such deep human needs, it is so deeply anchored in what man is and needs and is meant to be, that there is also a guarantee in man that the ship won’t simply sink, because man will never, as I believe, lose his essential powers.[10]

If I am wrong about something I accept any charitable correction. If you are a member of the gestapo, please leave me alone. Merry Christmas!



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[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 324.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 57.

[3] Benedictus XVI, Papa emeritus, Letter to Father Dave Pivonka (Vatican City: October 7, 2022), 2-3.

[4] Benedictus XVI, Papa emeritus, Letter to Father Dave Pivonka (Vatican City: October 7, 2022), 2-3.

[5] Benedictus XVI, Papa emeritus, Letter to Father Dave Pivonka (Vatican City: October 7, 2022), 3-4.

[6] Matthew Ramage, From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the theory of Evolution (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of Americas Press, 2022), 115.

[8] Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, Blessings of Mercy: Episcopal Guidance for the Implementation of Fiducia Supplicans (https://cbcpnews.net/cbcpnews/full-text-archbishop-villegas-issues-guidance-on-vatican-declaration-fiducia-supplicans/).

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 17.



Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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"But a refusal to work within the hermeneutic of the Church’s intentionality—which is the playing field of God and man’s freedom—and that decries the document as inescapably and unredeemably heretical does violence to the apostolic anchor without which faith cannot survive, which likewise leads to the neutralization spoken of above . . . "


Dom, I think my (and others') problem is that it does not appear that the document is written "within the hermeneutic of the Church's intentionality" as you describe it. Instead, the document appears subversive of the Tradition since it describes clerical blessings as non-liturgical; a priest is ordained precisely for this liturgical role of ministerial priesthood: "The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has…

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I think (I could be wrong) that you missed the distinction between authorial intent and the Church's intention. The point was precisely that there is another intention than that of the immediate author that can place the disciplinary prescription within a larger context by prescribing the particular prayer for the blessing.

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Thank you, Dom, for all of your time and effort in spreading the truth about our Catholic Church and her teachings! Have a holy Advent!

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