Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!
The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.
Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening…
Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.
Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”. Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.
What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”. Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It’s key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.
This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.
Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.
Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people’s lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.
Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.
So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.
Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.
Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.
Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.
In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin “temptations” that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to “chart a middle course between ‘hostile inflexibility’ to the letter of the law and a ‘false sense of mercy’”.
Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.
In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.
The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.
Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.
That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!
Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.