Show Hide image

Scruffies against the straights

How much longer can the Catholic Church resist change as its influence shrinks?

When Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Primate of Scot­land, went all Dirty Harry last month on proposals to legalise gay marriage, the wider world witnessed fissures within Catholicism more reminiscent of the Anglican Communion than the Church of Rome, with its presumed conformity. It was “madness”, the cardinal declared, to advocate gay marriage. It “represents a gro­tesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. It was like bringing back “slavery”.

Meanwhile the Catholic Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark, Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith, issued an irenic “pastoral” letter. “We have a duty to married people today,” they wrote, “and to those who come after us, to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.” Evidence of disagreement on this and other matters was more conspicuous in the Catholic media, where much of the fragmented state of Church identity is played out.

In the broadest terms, Catholicism in the west is divided between the “scruffies” – who strive for an inclusive “big tent” Church (accepting a pluralism of viewpoints and practice, especially on sexual morality and gender) – and the “straights”, who espouse a strictly defined identity, obedient to papal teaching, and declare, for instance, that you can’t help it if you’re gay but it’s a grave sin to get up to anything.

The Catholic journalist Damian Thompson, a vociferous “straight”, attacked the inclusivist-inclined Archbishop Nichols from his Telegraph blog, accusing him of “PC waffling”, and of currying favour with Catholic homosexuals by allowing “rainbow activists” to celebrate “diversity” with gay-friendly Masses in Soho. Archbishop Nichols, he opined, had become wobbly on same-sex legal unions. Thompson, nicknamed “the blood-crazed ferret” by liberal Catholic journalists (charity is not high on the virtue agenda of Catholic bloggers), is a former editor of the conservative Catholic Herald. That paper weighed in to praise Cardinal O’Brien for his “courage”, blaming the gay marriage proposal, and its defenders and fence-sitters, on “metropolitan liberals”.

Included in the Herald’s liberal hall of infamy was its chief competitor, the international weekly newspaper the Tablet, a routine victim of Thompson’s sharp tongue. The Tablet had roundly criticised Cardinal O’Brien for his “ill-chosen words”, accusing him of doing “a disservice to the cause he is trying to support”. The paper also hosted in its pages an article by the feminist Catholic theologian Tina Beattie, who opined that “maybe we heterosexuals need the marriages of our homosexual friends to help us to understand what marriage looks like when it’s not corrupted by traditions of domination and subordination”.

Papal stick

As the prospects for schism in the Anglican Church loom large with Rowan Williams’s imminent departure from Canterbury, the Catholic Church is obviously not speaking with one voice. The Anglican Communion lacks a pope to impose conformity by putting a bit of stick about; and Benedict XVI has not been slow to declare that marriage is “by nature” designed for the procreation of children. Yet many scruffies who yearn for more local discretion and freedom of thought and expression believe that the papal stick is part of the problem of Catholicism’s centrifugal tendencies, not the solution.

Up to the 1950s, we Catholics knew what we believed. We walked in step – even though it felt at times like a goose-step. We attended an identical Mass the world over, incomprehensibly in Latin (liturgical conformity is not always what it’s cracked up to be). With a Darwinian instinct for survival against all predators, we were conscious of the difference between Cath­olic and non-Catholic – me and not me.

Then came the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, when the Catholic Church began to engage with society, other Christian denominations and other religions. The Council called for a decentralised Church. The leading meta­phor was a “pilgrim people of God on the move”, instead of the “Citadel” of previous modern popes. Catholics were invited to converse rather than merely listen and obey. So we discussed sex and gender issues: contraception, divorce, remarriage, married priests, women priests, being gay . . . We discussed; but nothing much changed, except that 100,000 clergy left the priesthood, mostly because they no longer wished to remain celibate.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, as the post-conciliar enthusiasms settled and soured, the Church was dividing between conservatives, who believed that the surrender of authority from the centre had gone too far, and progressives, who believed that the process had gone full speed into reverse. A case in point was Pope Paul VI’s verdict against contraception in 1968. Had the bishops and the faithful been given the freedom to decide, in keeping with the proposed decentralised norms, on whether contraception was a sin or not, Catholics would have been allowed to practise contraception in good conscience. Paul VI’s verdict meant that they could not.

Under Pope John Paul II, the clawing back of authority continued. He became the great centraliser, keeping a tight grip on the nomination of bishops, oppressing dissident theologians, outlawing liberation theology in South America. Contraception, he pronounced, was a “grave” sin comparable with abortion, to be forgiven only in confession. Aids victims who used condoms to protect their partners from infection were also in grave sin.

Most married Catholics were on the Pill at some point or another. Incapable of making a “firm purpose of amendment”, they stopped going to confession – yet they continued to go to communion. The split between practice and teaching had opened up a chasm. John Paul II was the darling of conservatives who longed for a return of the Church of the ice-box control freak Pope Pius XII (1939-58). That John Paul had helped topple communism and was a man of great charisma enabled him to keep the liberals onside; but only just. The election of Benedict XVI has been a huge disappointment for liberals. Given his age, it is largely seen as a caretaker pontificate, continuing the policies of John Paul II, and yet there is an underlying atmosphere of unreality, of suspense, as the faithful await the next papacy. As well as the split between teaching and practice, a central problem is Catholic moral influence.

The testing ground for Catholic moral authority in anglophone countries has been located mainly in church-state relations. In the United States, bishops have been in dispute with Barack Obama’s administration over new health-care insurance arrangements, determined to ensure that these will not provide workers with coverage for contraception, sterilisation and abortion-inducing drugs. The Irish government has been wrestling with the Catholic hierarchy over rules to eradicate future clerical sexual abuse. In Britain, the Labour government clashed with the hierarchy over equality issues as practised by Catholic adoption agencies – specifically, the state’s requirement that same-sex couples not be discriminated against. But who speaks authentically for the Catholic moral viewpoint? And is anyone taking notice?

A crucial catalyst for the decline in Catholic moral influence has been the scandal of paedophile priests. Catholics are fundamentally divided over its systemic causes. Conservatives blame the liberalising tendencies of Vatican II; the progressive view (shared by many non-Catholics) blames Catholic clericalism – its secrecy, entitlements, privileges, celibacy.

The scandal has noticeably weakened the Catholic Church’s moral voice, even in its work relating to poverty. Its “Common Good” social ethics, invoking grass-roots responsibility and action, have made a positive contribution to the postwar world, but its influence has been diminished by papal intransigence on the use of condoms to combat the spread of Aids in Africa. Against this background, Cardinal O’Brien’s huffing and puffing appears both comic and grotesque.

Apart from those conservative constituencies that think O’Brien “courageous”, many Catholics in England and Wales object to the implication that his views represent Catholic identity. Small wonder that the Catholic commentator Clifford Longley, an author of the Common Good document in Britain, opened an edition of Radio 4’s Moral Maze by saying that the cardinal’s outburst was encouraging him to “join the other camp”.

Yet Longley’s comment is hardly dissent: for dissent requires opposition to recognised authority, and disagreement over what constitutes authentic Catholicism can be seen at every level. Outside Detroit last summer, a group of Catholics known as Call to Holiness, including bishops, priests and laypeople, held their 13th annual conference to promote strict obedience to papal teaching and to condemn liberal Catholicism. Up the road, a liberal group known as Call to Action, similarly composed of lay and clerical delegates, met to repudiate the claims of Call to Holiness and all it stands for. When the local bishop refused to espouse either side, the influential conservative online Catholic World Report condemned him as a liberal. Meanwhile, a neighbouring diocesan bishop excommunicated 13 members of Call to Action, arguing that they were heretical.

Kiss of peace

Catholic factionalism is rife across the globe, from the Roman centre to the peripheries of the developing world. Take the ultra-conservative television and radio news operation in North America EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network), run by an Ohioan nun, Mother Angelica. She reaches 148 million homes and countless viewers and listeners in 144 countries. When she disagreed with a pastoral letter on liturgy promulgated by Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, she trashed it as a liberal hotchpotch peddling sociology at the expense of religious mystery. She instructed the audience to accord “zero obedience” to the cardinal.  EWTN has also been known to promote creationism and calls Darwin “a fraud”. The station’s critics call it “fundamentalist”, yet its fans proclaim it as “Catholic mainstream”.

The proliferation of opinion and internecine bickering has been given prodigious impetus by Catholic internet sites, with their unstoppable capacity to challenge and subvert Rome’s authority. Rome may lay down the law through lapidary encyclicals and pastoral letters, but hosts of liberal, progressive, conservative, neoconservative, restorationist and reactionary factions then have their say on the web.

I attend a Catholic church called Corpus Christi in Covent Garden, London. The congregation is made up of workers from local restaurants, bars and hotels and, on weekdays, office workers. Looking about the church, one gets an impression of the parishioners’ lands of origin: there are some 60 nationalities, I am told. It is a reminder that 70 per cent of the Catholic faithful live in the southern hemisphere, and that the Church’s centre of gravity has moved to the developing regions of Latin America and Africa, and to Pacific countries such as the Philippines.

We sit and stand and sing together, share the small wafer of bread and exchange the kiss of peace. Most of the congregation would be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is in crisis. Yet, even while the Church might thrive in their far-flung countries of origin, our congregation in Convent Garden cannot for long escape the greying of the priesthood in Britain, or the defections of the young, the marginalised and the discouraged who have lost heart and turned away. If all those members of the faithful who came from Ireland, and their families and descendants, had kept the faith, there would be 15 million Catholics in Britain by now.

Because of defections, there are just over four million who call themselves Catholic. Since the mid-1960s, regular attendance at Mass has dropped from two million to a million – not even a quarter of the nominally Catholic population. Of these, about 40 per cent of married couples will divorce and remarry; most will have practised contraception and sex before marriage; hardly any go to confession.

Many Catholics expected, some hoped, that Benedict XVI would expel Catholics, including priests, who did not follow the strict teachings of the Church. A new pope may well do so, risking divisions similar to those in the Church of England.

The Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy once described the Catholic Church as a “conversation” reaching back and forwards in time and space; but there are other current images. There is talk, even in the Vatican, of the Church as a black hole, a dysfunctional family. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI once referred to the Church as a collapsing star, the detritus of dissent and relativism spinning in orbit around the shrinking mass of the true remnant.


Great world religions do not survive when they begin to yield to sectarianism. The unifying power of the papacy still holds the warring factions together in a semblance of cohesion, but is mere lip-service to papal authority enough to secure this?

The conservatives of the Church stick close to papal dictates, appropriating for themselves the identity of true Catholicism. At what price for Catholic moral and spiritual influence in the world, however? Benedict XVI once commented that Catholicism might well shrink and retreat to a catacomb existence in order to retain its authentic identity, allowing dissenters to do their thing outside the Church. He has not acted on that vision. And this month, he turns 85; he is increasingly frail, and the clock is ticking.

His successor, possibly a younger conser­vative reared in the ambience of the staunch former Cardinal Ratzinger, may yet make the catacomb a reality. The result would almost certainly be a widespread revolt of the faithful, clergy and bishops.

There is a view among liberal Catholics that the Church of England is a kind of laboratory, in which the future of the Catholic Church is being worked out in advance. If this is the case, Catholics cannot afford to be complacent about the problems of their Anglican brethren. Certainly they can take no comfort from a Church of England that seems destined for ever greater fragmentation, division and ultimate schism. For the Anglican Church today could be the Roman Church of tomorrow.

John Cornwell’s most recent book is “Newman’s Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint” (Continuum, £18.99).

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue