One of the lesser-known good works of the Catholic Church was that the Vatican invested in a fund that financed the Elton John biographical film Rocketman. Elton John and the Vatican have now fallen out after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) clarified that same-sex unions “cannot be considered licit”. Marriage remains, in the teaching of the Church, a union between a man and a woman ordained for the procreation of children. Elton John, who is married to David Furnish, may eventually make his peace with the Vatican but I think it’s going to take a long, long time.
Gay unions, according to the CDF, cannot be part of that divine plan and thus cannot receive the sincere blessing of the Church. The clarification came in response to parishes in the US, Germany and Austria that had been extending their blessings to same-sex unions. The severity of the judgment came as a disappointment to groups within the Church such as Catholics for Choice and the New Ways Ministry, not least because Pope Francis has made a few tentatively progressive noises in the past.
In Francesco, a biographical documentary (the Pope’s very own Rocketman), Francis signalled that he favoured the granting of legal rights to gay people. In 2013, he said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” The CDF, even though it appended some conciliatory remarks to its judgment about respect, has no such doubts. Neither really does Pope Francis, who confirmed that the CDF had told an important truth about the liturgical rite.
Really, what does anyone expect? This is the Catholic Church. The men in charge of Catholic doctrine think homosexual activity is a sin that cannot receive the blessing of God, and they say so. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stick around.
Doctrinal severity has always struck me as one of the appeals of the Catholic Church. Think of the many “lapsed” Catholics you know and then try to imagine a lapsed Anglican. That is more or less the starting position. The Catholics really mean this stuff and they find it hard to shake it off even when they try.
It is naive to be surprised or shocked at the decree. There was, though, another response from within the fold of the Church that went beyond theological disappointment. Robert Mickens, the editor of the English-language Catholic newspaper La Croix, suggested that the move might also be inexpedient: “It seems funny that the Church, which is haemorrhaging numbers and money, is looking for ways to exclude even more people. People belong to the Church out of choice nowadays rather than out of some kind of compunction or fear of going to hell.” Go easy on the doctrine, in other words, for fear of upsetting the customers.
I would prefer the Catholic Church to go easy on the doctrine but Mickens is quite wrong, tactically speaking, on this one. Doctrinal purity and tactical expediency, in fact, lead to the same place.
[see also: Personal Story: Sex, guilt and Catholicism]
The Catholic Church in 2021 is like an investment bank in the 1990s, worried about diminishing returns in the developed markets but excited by the prospect of the developing economies.
Pope Francis has visited Africa four times since he became pontiff in 2013. He has already appointed more than ten African cardinals, compared to six from the full term of his predecessor.
The reason for the pivot is that, between 1980 and 2012, the number of Catholics in the world increased by 57 per cent to 1.2 billion. The growth in Europe was 6 per cent. In Africa it was 238 per cent.
The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2060 more than four in ten Christians will be from sub-Saharan Africa. Power in the Church is shifting as never before. Indeed, Pope Francis enjoys his authority in the Catholic Church precisely because of a previous shift.
In his A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch tells the story of Timothy I, the leader of the Catholic Church in the east in the 780s. From his headquarters in Antioch, Timothy ruled over a quarter of all Catholics, as many as the Pope himself. The unrivalled authority of the Pope, and the shift from Antioch to Rome, happened because of the growth of observance in the West and the Mongol invasion of the Middle East. The Church moved into its emerging market.
It is doing so again because this is the point at which liturgical consistency meets the growth target. Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Philippines and Russia are seven of the nations that the Pew Research Center predicts will be among the top ten largest Catholic countries by 2050. Same-sex marriage is illegal in all of them. There is no obvious benefit to the Church in a marriage of progressive politics and doctrine.
In the West, this will mean that the slow detaching of the Church-sanctioned doctrine from actual belief will continue. The second Catholic to be president of the United States, the ostensibly devout Joe Biden, blithely indicated that he didn’t care too much for the judgment of the CDF.
The US still has one of the largest Catholic populations, but that may well change. The gaze of the Church is towards the developing nations. It should be noted that the Catholic Church is one of the largest non-state providers of health and education in the world. The Holy See facilitates an enormous array of charities that benefit some of the poorest of the world. The good works are admirable, although it is a shame they have to be inspired by bad theology.
[see also: What the left can learn from Pope Francis]
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold