Damian Thompson

This Catholic ‘earthquake’ on homosexuality is splitting the Church

This Catholic 'earthquake' on homosexuality is splitting the Church
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This tweet about the Vatican Synod on the Family has appeared in my timeline and it speaks volumes about the chaos the debates are generating:

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Cardinal Wilfred Napier, Archbishop of Durban, is a participant at the Synod and sometimes spoken of as the first black Pope. His quote refers not just to the media talk of an 'earthquake' in Catholic attitudes towards homosexuality but also to yesterday's document that produced it.

To quote Prof James Hitchcock, writing in the National Catholic Register, 'there are internal tensions at the Synod that have become public, despite efforts to keep them confidential. Some bishops seem to be working to achieve diverse goals, often in opposition to one another.'

Hitchcock is one of the world's leading conservative Catholic intellectuals. I don't share all his views on the Church's attitude towards gay people, which has in the past seemed unremittingly harsh.

But you don't have to be a conservative to grasp that yesterday's mid-way report on the Synod debates was badly judged. Indeed, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith – parish priest, Catholic Herald consulting editor and doctor of theology – describes it as 'a car crash'.

Fr Lucie-Smith, who is not a hardline conservative or traditionalist, has this to say:

The English version of the Synod document is quite frankly a disgrace. Whoever is responsible for it should be ashamed. Nor is this the first time that the Vatican has produced such substandard work. There are some quite bright lads up at the North American College in Rome who can hold a pen and, I am sure, could do a lot better, stylistically, than this. Why didn’t someone go up that hill and ask them to lend a hand? After all, English is the world’s most important language, or are there some people win the Vatican who have not woken up to that?

But this is not just a matter of style. Style matters a great deal in itself, but also, as the masters of the Counter-Reformation knew so well, as a vehicle for theological truth. There is truth in this document, but reading the document resembles searching for bits of coal in a huge slagheap.

The truth the document tries to convey – and which it does not convey very well – is one of the central truths of the Gospel. Jesus came to call sinners, to repentance, and to new life. How can we make sure that all people, whatever their situation, hear and profit by the universal message of salvation proclaimed by Our Lord?

If the document itself is a car crash, what can we say about the press conference that followed its publication? Here embarrassment is the only charitable feeling ... Three Cardinals and one Archbishop between them had the task of presenting Catholic teaching to the world, and they mucked it up. They were asked straightforward questions, and they waffled. Princes of the Church are supposed to communicate the truth that the Church teaches, and they failed to do so. I am dumbstruck by their failure.

Here's a quotation from the 'relatio', as the document is called:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?

So far, so good. Gay people (I dislike 'homosexuals' as a noun) not only have gifts and qualities to offer the Church but are also pastors of half the parishes in major cities such as London and New York. But then we encounter this:

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.

Meaning what, precisely? Your guess is as good as mine. Worse, many of the synod fathers are desperately trying to guess, not having been consulted about this document. Since I wrote about this subject yesterday I've spoken to a synod father who is appalled by its mixed messages.

The influential Vatican blogger Sandro Magister is reporting 'a pitched battle that burst into the open in the morning in the Synod Hall after the reading of the Relatio post disceptationem written by Cardinal-Rapporteur Peter Erdo, with the collaboration – at times with prevarication, as Erdo himself made known in the morning press conference – of Special Secretary Archbishop Bruno Forte'.

'Prevarication'? The traditionalist Catholic blog Rorate Caeli suggests that Magister, writing in Italian, meant that Archbishop Forte 'abused his position'. What we do know is that when Cardinal Erdo was asked about the sections of the document dealing with homosexuality, he referred the question to Archbishop Forte, 'he who wrote it'.

We don't know where all this will end up. Let me leave you with four observations, none of them encouraging.

1. Catholics of all persuasions are baffled by the role of Pope Francis in this. He chose the authors of the document, which seems to have been written partly by Forte, known for his liberal views on homosexuality. At the same time, however, the Pope has sent a blessing to Anglicans who have broken away from the Anglican Communion in protest at its support for gay rights (read John Bingham of the Telegraph on the subject here).

2. The sloppy writing of the relatio and the messy press conference have led parts of the media to conclude that the Vatican is going to alter its teaching that homosexual acts or heterosexual sex outside marriage are mortal sins. It is not. Even the most liberal cardinals agree that the Magisterium can't be changed to accommodate such a reversal of doctrine. But the public, including Catholics in parishes, doesn't necessarily understand that.

3. This first session of the Synod on the Family – the decisive discussions take place next year – resembles nothing so much as one of the Church of England's disastrous General Synod debates, which provoke as well as reflect public factionalism. Yet Francis hates factionalism.

4. Placing homosexuality centre stage pits the gay-unfriendly developing world against the gay-friendly West. And if you think that is a necessary step, I have just two words for you: Anglican Communion.