The future direction of Catholic teaching on homosexuality may not be as liberal as many predict
Once again, Pope Francis is making headlines. On Friday, the Vatican published "The Joy of Love," Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s third papal encyclical since he became Bishop of Rome in 2013. Addressing the subject of homosexuality, Francis writes - “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration.”
Although this is not as radical a change in Church discourse as many catholic liberals and progressives would like, it is nonetheless historic. It cements a rhetorical change which began when, returning from the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis famously told reporters “if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” Francis’s predecessors, meanwhile, had described homosexuality bluntly as “intrinsically disordered.”
Unsurprisingly, Francis’s 2013 comments sent the secular media into a frenzy. The world rushed to judgement on the Pope’s reluctance to judge. While some Catholic traditionalists were outraged, most of the Western press, and indeed Western left-liberal catholics, excitedly and somewhat prematurely interpreted this brief comment as definitive proof of a complete upending of centuries of rigid Catholic theology. Generally, however, the 21st century Western media has a profoundly shallow understanding of not only the Vatican and the papacy, but of Catholicism itself.
The Catholic Church is not a corporation. The Pope is not a CEO. Unlike a powerful Prime Minister, the Holy Father cannot unilaterally reverse central tenets of the faith, even if he wished to. The Vatican is not a dictatorship of the high priest. Catholicism, like all religions, does develop and change, but it has only ever done so in a strictly gradual and limited manner after a relatively consensual, complex theological re-interpretation of what its leaders sincerely believe to be God’s word.
For the optimistic and the uninitiated, Francis’s remarks heralded the beginning of a new era for Catholicism - a religion which would now, slowly but surely, progress towards a much more tolerant view of homosexuality, not to mention contraception, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and much else besides. However, Francis (although clearly much more relaxed about homosexuality than his predecessors) still appears to consider it an inclination towards sinfulness and certainly remains opposed to same-sex marriage or legally recognised same-sex unions.
But even if the Pope has yet to fully embrace homosexuality, many Catholics have. As Frank Bruni of The New York Times notes, “Catholics are leading the way” on gay rights. Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay are all countries with a Catholic majority or where the largest religious denomination is Catholic and all have legalised same-sex marriage. Italy, Catholicism’s European heartland, also appears set to move towards permitting same-sex unions, although not same-sex marriages.
In Europe and North America, Catholic popular opinion has shifted dramatically. A large-scale 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that around 60% of self-identified Catholic Americans supported same-sex marriage, with just 30% opposed, compared to 54% and 38% of all Americans. In the UK, even 50% of “religious” Catholics are in favour of same-sex marriage, with 40% opposed, making them more supportive of gay rights than respondents from any of the UK’s other major religious communities.
An overwhelming 75% of Catholics in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage remains illegal thanks to the unionist parties’ resistance at Stormont, believe that gay people should be able to get married. In Ireland, a nation which James Joyce once wrote bitterly of as a “priest-ridden Godforsaken race,” same-sex marriage was legalised via a national referendum in May last year. Although half of the population still attends mass weekly, nearly two-thirds of voters opted for “Yes,” delivering a liberal landslide in what was not so long ago the most socially conservative nation in Europe.
There has even been something of a softening among sections of the European clergy. Catholic bishops in Germany voted in 2015 to relax so-called “morality clauses’” previously inserted into lay workers’ contracts used to sack those who entered into same-sex unions. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and the UK’s most senior Catholic, has presided over a so-called “gay mass” for LGBT Catholics in his diocese and held discussions with LGBT activists.
Pope Francis’s remarks certainly changed Catholicism’s tone. Some clergy appear more willing to accept and reach out pastorally to LGBT Catholics, rather than simply condemn or demonise them from a distance. Nonetheless, the conventional assumption that Francis’s leadership, combined with increasing Western secularisation, is inexorably leading to a more liberal, eventually pro-gay Catholic Church is deeply flawed.
Francis’s position on gay rights is perhaps not as progressive as many initially assumed. He is actively fuelling a continental shift in power within the Church, which is increasing the influence over Catholic doctrine of a deeply conservative, anti-gay clergy and laity. At the very moment European and North American Catholics are becoming overwhelmingly sympathetic towards their gay brothers and sisters, power within the Church is flowing precipitously away from the liberal Global North to a traditionalist Global South.
Francis’s vision is not simply of a more generous, less reproachful Church, he is also using the power of the papacy to shift the global centre of Catholic gravity southwards, from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia. For centuries, European (especially Italian) congregations have been grossly over-represented in the Vatican’s corridors of power. Francis himself was the first ever Latin American Pope and one of only a handful not from Europe.
But, thanks to Francis, this imbalance of power is being corrected. He has appointed dozens of new cardinals chiefly from across the Global South, including the first ever Catholic prelates from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Tonga. There are now, for the very first time, more non-European than European cardinals in the body who will participate in the next conclave to elect a future Pope.
Power is shifting primarily from Europe, where congregations are in steep decline, to Africa, site of the Church’s most rapid and continued growth. Africa’s Catholic population has grown by a staggering 238% since 1980 to nearly 200 million people. Only one in four Catholics today are European and on current trends this figure will only continue to shrink. No longer can it be said, as the Anglo-French Catholic intellectual Hilaire Belloc once wrote, that “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.”
On economic and environmental issues, Francis and the rapidly increasing congregations and newly enfranchised clergy of the developing world are singing from the same hymn sheet. Unsurprisingly they support his unequivocally progressive message on the need to combat global climate change and redistribute global wealth. But, unlike Francis, they want the Church to pursue a much tougher line on homosexuality.
Africa is a “hotbed of homophobia,” perhaps even the world’s "most homophobic continent." In most Sub-Saharan African countries sex between two consenting men or two consenting women is illegal, and the LGBT community faces severe, often lethal persecution. These laws and prejudices have been somewhat fuelled and lent legitimacy by the rhetoric of Africa’s hard-line Catholic clergy.
Last year, for example, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea counted homosexuality among the "apocalyptic beasts" facing African Catholics. “What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century,” he said, “Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.” The contrast between the words of Francis and Sarah could not be starker. With many similarly-minded, traditionalist African clergy being elevated to cardinals, the consequence for the Church’s future tone and teaching on homosexuality could not be clearer.
Some believe that diverging views between African conservatives and European liberals on the nature and acceptability of homosexuality has the potential to split the universal Church. While such a full-scale schism (a Reformation 2.0) is unlikely, the ideological, theological and socio-cultural chasm between the two sides is real, and significant.
Pope Francis is in the process of fundamentally transforming the Catholic Church to make it, among other things, both more welcoming of LGBT Catholics and more representative of Rome’s truly global flock. But achieving the latter could make the former unattainable. As a result, rather than heralding the beginning of a new liberal Catholic epoch on homosexuality, Francis’s papacy may be little more than a fleeting liberal interlude.