Linking five pressing issues (listed by the Guardian) that the next pope will have to address, is a common theme sex and gender. But the these cannot be dealt with adequately without first tackling a more fundamental problem: the clerical culture of top -down, authoritarian control by a (theoretically) celibate clergy, with no understanding whatsoever of real human relationships.
Controversies about the Catholic Church, sex and bodies feature prominently in news reports, but rank quite low in the official orders of Church teaching. The reason for this disproportionate featuring in the media is simple – there is a huge disconnect between what the Vatican”s ivory tower ideologues pronounce, and the experience and belief of real world Catholics, who understand what loving, committed sexual relationships are all about. That disconnect arises from an authoritarian, top – down clerical culture of control, with sexual rules devised by celibate theologians, with no attempt to listen attentively to the voices of sexual experience, or even to pay proper attention to the findings of natural or human science on the true nature of sexuality.
The Guardian’s five issues are:
Contraception and Aids
Pope Benedict XVI appeared to signal a break with traditional teaching on the use of condoms almost three years ago when he said the use of condoms was acceptable “in certain cases”. ( However), the Vatican later clarified the remarks, stressing that the pope has “not reformed or changed the church’s teaching” on the matter.
In 2009, during his first trip to Africa as pope, Benedict provoked outrage after declaring that condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV and Aids – and could make the problem worse.
The issue of condoms and Aids is obviously important for the Church’s credibility in Africa, but the matter of contraception in Vatican doctrine is of far greater relevance than only in HIV prevention. The entire case for an absolute prohibition rests on an assumption that every sexual act must be open to procreation. Once that assumption is rejected, the entire structure of Catholic orthodoxy on sexual ethics comes into question. But in fact, that assumption was firmly rejected decades ago, by the papal commission which had been established to consider the matter. Pope Paul VI lacked the courage to accept their recommendations, and instead wrote into “Humanae Vitae” the absolute prohibition we have today.
That conclusion has never been accepted by the people of the church, who routinely ignore it as a matter of conscience, and often with the approval or even encouragement of their priests. Many historians see in this the origins of a fundamental, steady erosion of the moral authority of the church.
Sexual abuse within the church
That erosion of moral authority was dramatically accelerated by the disclosures over recent decades of widespread sexual abuse by priests, and later by the mounting evidence of deliberate attempts by bishops to cover up those crimes, and the abject failure of the Vatican to intervene appropriately.
The horrific sexual abuse scandals that have erupted in the US and Europe and haunted so much of his papacy are far from resolved. Although he has spoken of the church’s “shame” over what he termed the “unspeakable crimes” committed by paedophile priests and apologised to victims, many critics feel the Vatican was – and still is – far too slow, too reluctant and too secretive when it comes to acknowledging and investigating sexual abuse.
Homosexuality and same-sex marriage
In recent years, and especially as the movement to equal marriage has accelerated world – wide, the Vatican and many bishops have caused divisions and outrage among many Catholics by the intensity of the efforts, money and rhetorical excesses they have devoted to resist equality and inclusion, oblivious to the evidence that most Catholics, with personal understanding of life in real families, in fact support the principle of equal marriage, and do not see same – sex relationships as even a matter of morality, at all.
Despite long ago condemning physical and verbal violence against gay people as deplorable and something deserving of “condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs”, the pope made it clear that he had no intention of departing from the church’s teachings on homosexuality and gay marriage. In his final Christmas message, he said modern attitudes to sexuality and moves to promote same-sex marriage constituted an attack “on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child”.
The oligarchs are tying themselves in knots on this. Historically, there was a time that the church recognized the value in intimate relationships between male couples, by blessing them in formal liturgical rites, in church. Some notable bishops and influential church councils are again acknowledging the strong case for legal protection for these relationships, in law. But the official position remains that these unions must be strenuously opposed, and the horror of all genital acts outside of procreation is contradicted by other formal teaching:
- the idea that unless a doctrine has been accepted by the church as a whole, it is not valid
- the primacy of conscience
- the importance of paying due attention to the findings of science
- “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” (Catechism, 2333)
- “Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (Catechism, 2337)
Pope Benedict’s decision to give a top job to a cardinal who believes terminations to be wrong even in rape cases spoke volumes about the Vatican’s enduring opposition to abortion. In 2010, he appointed Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, a position often regarded as the third most important job in the Vatican as its holder is responsible for drawing up shortlists of future bishops. Earlier the same year, Ouellet told an anti-abortion conference in Quebec City that terminating a pregnancy was a “moral crime” even in rape cases. Ouellet is now tipped as a possible successor as pope.
Most Catholics undoubtedly agree with the core Church teaching that abortion is, in principle, morally abhorrent, but where they part company with the Vatican ideologues, is in matters of nuance and detail. The Vatican insists that its position is “pro-life”, but in practice, it is pro-birth – privileging the unborn foetus over the mother, where the mother’s life is itself endangered, and recognize the trauma experienced by women who become pregnant after rape. Research shows that most Catholics take a more compassionate view, agreeing that abortion should be avoided in most circumstances – but accepting that there are exceptions.
In April last year, he delivered a fierce rebuke to “disobedient” Roman Catholics who had challenged church teaching on topics including women’s ordination and priestly celibacy. “Is disobedience a path of renewal for the church?” he asked rhetorically, during a sermon in St Peter’s on the day Catholic priests around the world renew their vows. He went on to point out that the Vatican’s views on women priests were “definitive” and that the existing ban on them formed part of the church’s “divine constitution”.
It is undoubtedly true that in Catholic tradition, the priesthood has been restricted to men. But in the modern insistence that this is part of the church’s divine constitution is a modern one, contradicted by an earlier commission’s finding that women’s ordination is not in contravention of scripture, scholarly evidence that there were in fact women deacons and possibly priests in the early church, and the obvious fact that the place of women in society has changed dramatically from the situation which pertained in Christ’s own day. But the biggest problem about his intransigence is not even that women many not be ordained (a significant proportion of Catholics would agree), but with his absolute prohibition even on discussing the possibility.
And that is the core problem. WithVatican II, the Catholic Church proclaimed the importance of being a “listening church”, of reading the signs of the times, and of collegiality, at all levels. But under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, these principles have been studiously ignored. It is little wonder then, that on matters of sexuality and gender, the Vatican is so dramatically out of touch with ordinary Catholics and with the real world – or that its moral authority has been so badly compromised and eroded.
Duffy, Eamonn: Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes
O’Malley, John W: What Happened at Vatican II
- Next pope’s in-tray: five key issues for the Catholic church (guardian.co.uk)
- The Pope Resigns: Your Thoughts (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Pope Benedict’s resignation brings end to paradoxical papacy (guardian.co.uk)
- Pope Benedict XVI pushed the Catholic Church backward: DiManno (thestar.com)
- Pope Benedict ‘complicit in child sex abuse scandals’, say victims’ groups (guardian.co.uk)
- Pope’s mission to revive faith clouded by scandal (kansascity.com)
- Female ordination group seeks a ‘Holy shakeup’ (upi.com)
- Stage set for papal struggle (sacbee.com)