Is Pope Francis afraid of a Church schism?
Western People 30.3.2021
A week , we’re told, can be a long time in politics. In the Catholic Church too. Last week I wrote with some feeling that we had turned a significant corner with the announcement by the Irish bishops that a national synod was in hand, and that we were about to embrace a new way of being Church – the way of ‘synodality’, described by Pope Francis as a path that ‘God expects of the Church of the third millennium’.
In this space for more than 40 years, repetitiously and for many tediously, I’ve been going on about the vision of the Second Vatican Council and the imperative of reform. Now the news that 60 years after that council, the Irish bishops had finally accepted the need for synodality – described as ‘a walking together’ of people, priests and pope, a collaborative leadership that listens and discerns and that empowers all the baptised – left me stunned. Almost 60 years after the bishops left Rome, suddenly for Ireland the Great Council was back on track.
Even though I feared that many will feel that it’s all too little and too late (and it may well be), even though I knew it would take time (and we’ve very little time left), even though I felt it would take huge resources (at a time when we’re running on almost on empty) and even though I knew that many would attempt to derail it, I was still unashamedly exhilarated that we had turned such a significant corner.
A week later, it seems as if the derailment is already under way and, distressingly from the heart of the Vatican itself. A statement was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in response to a question from the German bishops as to whether priests could officially bless same-sex unions. The answer, predictably and unexpectedly, was No.
It was no news to anyone that, in the teaching of the Catholic Church, marriage between a man and a woman and marriage of a same sex couple were not on the same page. But what jarred was not just the content of the CDF pronouncement but the language and the tone used and the fact that Pope Francis had signed the document. (I will come to that last bit later.)
Reading the document, it seemed more like a Benedict statement than a Francis statement, more to do with the past than the present or the future, more Old Testament than New Testament. Benedict had once described homosexuality as an ‘objective disorder’ with a ‘tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil’. The CDF document seemed to echo that approach by saying that same sex unions were ‘not ordered to the Creator’s plan’ and couldn’t be blessed because God ‘does not and cannot bless sin’.
The reaction to the CDF’s crude dismissal of the possibility of blessing same-sex unions and the language and tone of the document brought an avalanche of criticism from among others, Mary McAleese, whose son is gay. She said that she was taken by surprise by the ‘unbearably vicious language’ of the Vatican document ‘which can only have brought more heartache to our gay children and to us, their families’.
Less predictably the content of the CDF document brought an avalanche of criticism too from senior figures in the Catholic Church, an indication that bishops particularly felt free to indicate their unhappiness with the statement.
Cardinal Cupich of Chicago said that the Church has to find ways and means to be creative in welcoming and encouraging all LGBT people into the family of faith.
Mark Coleridge, the archbishop of Brisbane, said it was no solution to say ’we can’t bless same-sex unions’; there’s no point (he said) in saying what we can’t do, we need to look at what we can do.
Johann Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, said he felt ashamed of his Church and he apologised to all who felt that it was painful and incomprehensible to describe gays who had stable unions as ‘living in sin’. God, the bishop said, has ‘never been stingy with his blessing on people’.
In Germany, more than 1,000 people, many of them priests have signed a letter saying that they would not refuse to give blessings. In France, Catholic bishops have been planning the bones of a formula for a church ceremony to deal with same-sex unions. And in some countries, priests already blessing same-sex unions have indicated their intention to continue doing so.
The question is not that opinions vary in the Catholic Church but why Pope Francis, who has explicitly encouraged a new openness in ministering to gay Catholics, now seems to have taken a sudden about-turn. After all, Francis was the reason why popes stopped talking about homosexuality being ‘a disordered state’ when famously asked about gay people: ‘Who am I to judge?’
One explanation is that Francis was so distracted in his preparing for his visit to Iraq that he didn’t give the CDF document his attention. No doubt he was distracted but it’s not a very convincing explanation.
A second explanation is that Francis prefers to balance any new development in church teaching or pastoral practice with a re-statement of traditional teaching and thereby creates the space for discussion and discernment so that a change will gradually emerge. That makes more sense.
A third explanation may be that Francis is fearful that the grip of the very conservative church leadership that emerged during the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict may lead to a schism (or a break-up) of the Catholic Church – with the US Catholic Church seemingly already knocking at that reckless door. It is known that Francis fears that consequence.
Or it may be that Francis decided not to put a stay on the CDF statement but knowing that, as it now appears, the document didn’t go through the monthly plenary meeting of the CDF (as is the practice) but was put together by a small sub-committee, may allow him to revisit the subject. Whatever the explanation, Francis has questions to answer.
One experienced Vatican watcher, Gerard O’Connell, has said that there’s no reason to believe that Francis has back-tracked on this issue. Hopefully that’s the case. Otherwise it’s hard to see how his cherished reform and particularly his policy of synodality will gain any real purchase in the Catholic Church.
Vatican sources suggest that the CDF statement was an attempt to undermine developments in the German Catholic Church, which seems intent on pushing the boundaries of reform. If it was, it seems to have failed spectacularly.
200 German theologians have criticised the document as ‘lacking theological depth, hermeneutical understanding and intellectual rigour’ and peppered a short statement with words like ‘paternalistic’, ‘discrimination’ and the CDF undermining its own authority.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Irish theologians could find the courage to name this truth?