By Kumar David –
Three of my four grandparents were Catholics though the fourth, a Protestant, was a match and more in the internecine religious wars that assailed my ancestry two and three generations ago. I may well have been corralled within some Christian flock had I not fled to godless opium-averse Marxism. Catholicism has lived up (and lived down; Borgia Pope Alexander VI fathered seven, it is thought by four partners) to its all inclusive name, flushed with life, incarnadine of complexion. I have it on the authority of my old friend Father Paul Cxyz, SJ, that the fabled prayer of St Augustine (“Oh Lord give me chastity, but not yet”) is no myth. I envision the good saint, on bended knee, thus imploring the Almighty each night, at bedtime – double-entendre not intended!
Seriously though, Catholicism is the church of the masses, of the hundreds of millions, it is existentially refracted in the life of toilers, reflected in the poor, it is the refuge of the huddled throng. From a left vantage I see in the Church of Rome, a kindred spirit to great trade unions and the million strong social-democratic parties of the inter-war years. Could Liberation Theology, for example, have issued from any other church? Prissy evangelicals, Born-Agains who bore you to tears and the ISIL-avatarish rampaging fundamentalists cannot resonate to the revolutionary credo of activists fired up in a mass church. However, the Catholic Church is also the habitat of hardnosed throwbacks to ideologically Neanderthal times as the voting in the Synod illustrates, but I am running ahead.
It is not surprising that the Interim Report of the just concluded Synod of Bishops in the Vatican broached a new stance on homosexuality and contraception. It was a ground-breaking initiative, earth shaking to stay with the metaphor, considering the vast spread of the flock. The Church is waking up to the practices of its faithful billion; it has turned progressive unlike those prissy sects. The ordination of “them that hold up half the heavens” and maybe even matrimony for the clergy, are not inconceivable down the road. What the hell; how long can you keep women out of the inner sanctums, and why not formalise what a not negligible number indulge in on the side anyway?
What the Synod said
It is only possible to touch briefly on the sections dealing with homosexuality and birth control in the Interim Report issued on 13 October during a pause in the Synod. Here are the crucial paragraphs; the ellipses […] are in the text, not inserted by me.
Providing for homosexual persons
50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
51. The question of homosexuality requires serious reflection on how to devise realistic approaches to affective growth, human development and maturation in the Gospel, while integrating the sexual aspect, all of which constitute an important educative challenge. Moreover, the Church affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same level as marriage between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that the pastor’s outlook be pressured or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations based on gender ideology.
52. Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to […] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.
The transmission of life and the challenge of the declining birth-rate
53. Today, the diffusion of a mentality which reduces the generation of life to accommodate an individual’s or couple’s plans is easily observable. Sometimes, economic factors are burdensome, contributing to a sharp drop in the birth-rate which weakens the social fabric, thus compromising relations between generations and rendering a future outlook less certain. Openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love.
54. Realistic language is probably also needed in this instance, language which knows how to start by listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life as that which human life needs to live life fully. This serves as the basis for an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods of human reproduction, which allow a couple to live in a harmonious and conscious manner the communication between husband and wife, in all its aspects, along with their responsibility at procreating life. In this regard, we should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of regulating births.
Paragraphs 50 and 51 are an astonishing departure both in content and tone from anything the Church has said before. Previous texts were marked by frustration with teachings not well-received and instructions not followed. Here the emphasis is on going to the people, in their own world, and exudes a sense of humility; it is pastoral. Previously, the furthest the church would go in sympathizing with homosexuals was to say they were “objectively disoriented” poor sods. Paragraph 53 and 54 are also potential dynamite; guarded openings to future dialogue on birth control and abortion, that is, the “evaluation of methods of regulating births”.
Christian evangelicals who refer to the Pope as the anti-Christ and deem the Catholic Church the agent of the devil have hit back fast and furious. For them “every word in the Bible is eternal literal truth, not one can be interpreted anew”; such fundamentalists are a mirror of ISIL. Disquiet was also expressed by conservative laity and some Bishops at the Synod. The subheading above the 50-th paragraph and the paragraph itself as quoted here are a revised English translation issued some days after a first version. The earlier English subheading said “To welcome homosexual persons” instead of the revised “Providing for homosexual persons”. Paragraph 50 first said “Are we capable of welcoming these persons, guaranteeing them a space of fraternity in our community?” The revised translation reads: “Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities?” (Ellipses […] not inserted by me).
The Italian official text is closer to the first English translation and its revision to less precise English was the first shot across the bows in the counterattack. The web is heavy with debate; the nays are as numerous as the yeas. Below are two, selected from thousands, to give readers a flavour.
Yea-sayer: Thank God for Pope Francis who was sent to us by the Holy Spirit. He has guided the Synod into a path of mercy and love for Catholics who have suffered. Pope Francis is another Pope John XXIII who opened the Church to a new Era of gentleness and kindness.
Nay-sayer: Regardless of what English verb was chosen to translate the Italian, the damage is already done. Speaking personally, I have come to believe that Francis intended this ”damage” all along. I waited a long time before reaching what I think is an inescapable conclusion: viz. the man is a liberal who embraces the worldview that plagues us since the time of the French revolution and the subsequent bloodletting. His appointments, his demotions (Cardinal Burke, for example), his many wandering and imprecise interviews with declared enemies of Catholicism, his choice of words, those prelates whom he has chosen NOT to reprimand for statements denigrating pro-life combatants, etc. It is deliberate and we must resign ourselves to having an authentic liberal in the See of St. Peter. For me, he is a bad pope finally, a catastrophe in the modern media-dominated society. There have been worse popes in the past and I suppose there will be more of them in the future.
Nay-sayer has had his way for now. On Saturday (16) an alliance of conservative Cardinals and reactionary Bishops rejected Paragraph 50 despite the toning down and another proposal to allow homosexuals and divorcees to receive Holy Communion was also rejected. They inflicted a setback on Pope Francis; nevertheless his closing address on 18 October was a masterpiece, read more here.
The voting, 118 in favour of the text, 62 against, fell just short the requisite two-thirds majority. It is not clear who spearheaded opposition but Latin Americans and Africans are likely to have backed the pontiff. There are, of course, many hardcore Episcopal reactionaries in the Church and not an unfamiliar breed in Lanka. It is now up to the Catholic laity to intervene in decisive numbers and steer their church out of primitive medievalism into Twenty-first Century sunlight. A good step will be if the turnout in January to greet Pope Francis in the Philippines is multi-millions strong, and if many lakhs wind their way to Papal masses in Madhu and Galle Face Green.
A crucial struggle in the long history of the Catholic Church has commenced; it is not easy to see how it will develop. I confess to being an admirer of Pope Francis, but how long he will survive the backlash is moot. His concern is the exploited, not theological banalities; some say he took a firm but quiet stand against the military dictatorship in Argentina, others dispute it. It is obvious that he chose the name Francis, the saint of the poor, with much deliberation; en passant I hope some day a Pope will opt for Augustine (no one has dared yet for obvious reasons) and give us all a chuckle. Francis moves in measured steps, first an aura of change (in statecraft we call it populism), then a quiet period when it seemed that that was all, but actually the Synod was in preparation; now this carefully crafted Synod in full awareness of its stirring consequences; then the setback. There will be a period of review and consolidation before the next initiative, but whether the Church will have much relevance in modern times depends on its eventual victory.