Damian Thompson

The Vatican cancels its earthquake. This is not Pope Francis’s finest hour

The Vatican cancels its earthquake. This is not Pope Francis's finest hour
Text settings

'Thanks be to God', as we Catholic children used to say with heartfelt enthusiasm as Mass was over for another week. The most divisive meeting of Catholic bishops since Vatican II has ended – and no real damage has been done. Except, I'm sorry to say, to the reputation of Pope Francis. No real progress has been made, either.

This afternoon the official report of the Synod was released and so far as I can tell it cancelled the 'earthquake' implied by the half-way report of the debates on Monday. This called for the 'gifts and values' of homosexuals to be recognised and of 'valuing' their sexual orientation.

This language has disappeared from today's report – a 'working document' for a fuller Synod next year – whose paragraphs were voted on in sections. In its place are bland assurances that gay people are to be cared for with 'respect and sensitivity' and even that did not receive the 2/3 majority it needed to be officially adopted. (Update: Since the paragraph offered gay people nothing more than is already available, you have to wonder how 62 synod fathers couldn't even countenance it.) But the Pope ordered that it be published anyway.

Also not officially adopted: a paragraph implying change is possible in the rules governing the admission to Communion of people in second marriages 'in very specific circumstances' – perhaps by simplifying the annulment process.

So now we await 'consultations' and 'spiritual discernment' before the next Synod in 2015 reaches. Which, as I'm forced to point out yet again, is very Anglican in flavour.

With this difference.

The teachings of the Church on the sinfulness of sexual acts outside marriage cannot be changed. Believing Catholics would say that this is God's will and anyone who thought otherwise did not understand the status of the Magisterium. Secular observers may conclude that there was a moment on Monday when it seemed that serious tweaking of the rules was a possibility. But the cardinals and bishops pushing for change overplayed their hand.

They did so because the Pope allowed them to. Whether by accident or design we can't say. For the first time, he has brought his carefree and impulsive style to bear on the institutional proceedings of the Church, and it appears that the Church fought back.

The dust hasn't settled, but it's already clear how the liberal faction in the Church, dominated by Germans, managed to screw things up. Some points:

1. Cardinal Walter Kasper, retired head of ecumenism and a radical theologian by the standards of the college of cardinals, was invited by Pope Francis to introduce the Synod by rehearsing his controversial theory that Catholics in second marriages should be allowed to receive Communion if their first marriages met certain criteria of invalidity. (I think I've got that right: it's pastorally complex, to put it mildly.) Liberals interpreted this as the starting point for the Synod's discussions. But it was never going to be, because Kasper is a sort of Tony Benn figure on the left of the Church: ancient and beloved but essentially trapped in the sectarian discourse of the 1960s and 70s.

2. The 'earthquake' talk provoked by the half-way relatio was misleading because the document itself was biased. It did not give enough weight to the passionate opposition of leading cardinals to a relaxation of pastoral rules relating to divorce and homosexuality. Matters were made worse by a press conference also heavily weighted in favour of contentious liberal positions.

3. After Monday's fiasco, as they saw it, some of the most powerful figures in the Church – including Cardinal Müller, head of the CDF and Cardinal Pell, head of finances – mounted an extremely effective fightback. These men are not bigots or theological dinosaurs. But they could see the Church falling apart if the German liberals tried to force their agenda on bishops in the developing world who were expecting the Synod to address the collapse of the family that is devastating their countries. Cardinals from Africa and Asia joined this fightback. Very few of them could be described as Benedict XVI-style traditionalists: they are more conservatives in the mould of St John Paul II.

4. Enter Cardinal Kasper, again, who in an interview with the respected Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin said that it was not possible to debate homosexuality with Africans because the subject is such a taboo for them – and 'they should not tell us too much what we have to do'. These were not racist remarks but they were patronising and breathtakingly ill-judged. Left-leaning Catholic journalists tried to spin Kasper out of trouble, but they hadn't reckoned on him denying that he'd said these things. Pentin, accused of lying by a Prince of the Church, promptly produced the tape recording of the interview. Oh, it was off the record, protested Kasper – it wasn't – but by this stage his credibility was in tatters.

5. By Friday, this catalogue of mishaps had achieved a minor miracle, albeit not one Pope Francis wished for: the John Paul 'conservatives' and the Benedict 'traditionalists' had put aside long-standing differences over liturgy. They ensured that today's document – with or without the paragraphs obliquely dealing with divorce and homosexuality – was entirely different in tone and content from Monday's.

6. Therefore there will be no earthquake this time next year – just, at most, a mild readjustment of pastoral attitudes that Pope Francis could have effected without a pointless airing and deepening of theological divisions within a supposedly universal Church. The annulment process may or may not be streamlined: we're talking about a tremor on the Richter scale. (Update: for liberals, the paragraph talking of 'eventual access to the sacraments should be preceded by a penitential path' is a tiny chink of light – but remember that this was a paragraph that didn't reach the 2/3 majority.)

As for gay people, any change will involve the time-honoured hypocrisy of turning a blind eye. (Update: one never really knows what Pope Francis is thinking, but my guess is that the Communion ban is an issue that troubles him and the status of gay people rather less. Remember his assertion before he was Pope that gay marriage was 'diabolical' in origin?)

'Pope suffers synod setback on gays' was the BBC headline this evening – a misleading and meaningless verdict. But I'm afraid he asked for it.