Bad news for the Catholic Church is frequently greeted, in some parts of the LGBTI community, with rejoicing. Hence the cheers, following last October’s synod on the family. Liberals and conservatives falling out? Great! Talk of a split? What could be better?
The problem, though, is this particular piece of ‘bad news’ is equally bad news for the millions of LGBTI people who do not live in broadly progressive countries.
Understanding why this is so requires taking a step back and developing a critique of the Catholic Church that goes beyond simple dislike. It means understanding both how it has developed, historically, and how it is in large part prisoner of its own history right now.
Let’s begin with last October. The Catholic Church attempted a wholesale re-examination of how it relates to families. Within this, two large and controversial questions were its relationship with divorced people, and with the LGBTI community. Hopes were high that significant change might follow.
In the end, little changed: little was achieved, beyond an agreement to use less inflammatory language. The synod ended in acrimony. The conservatives proved more conservative, more intransigent than anticipated, the liberals – myself included – were disappointed.
Perhaps we were being less than realistic in the first place. The demographics of the present church show some 1.3 billion followers with the fastest growing segment in sub-Saharan Africa, an area not exactly known for its celebration of LGBTI values.
That said, it would be wrong (and racist) to equate the west with progressive thinking, the rest of the world with some dark opposite – consider the fundamentalism that afflicts a range of churches in the United States.
The Church of England’s Archbishop Justin Welby, faced with the prospect of a split in the Anglican Church over gay marriage, observed it ‘would not be a disaster’. The Catholic Church views such an outcome very differently. It may have a point.
Because of its size, the Catholic Church straddles the world, including millions of people whose views on LGBTI rights range from ultra-regressive to highly progressive. Inevitably, it ends up taking a middle of the road position which, equally inevitably, looks very backward from our perspective.
Yet to dismiss the church as ONLY backwards looking misses a much bigger point. In those areas that are most antipathetic towards LGBTI rights, it is frequently a force for progress. Sometimes the main one, sometimes the only one.
It is Catholic clergy who often raise the most powerful voice against the persecution of LGBTIs in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.
In the UK, the London LGBTI Catholic group have intervened regularly with the Home Office in support of LGBTI Catholics from Nigeria or Uganda who have come to this country seeking asylum after persecution in those countries for being gay.
The church is not going to disappear. And while a split church might be helpful to campaigners in some parts of the world, it would be disastrous for those campaigning elsewhere, in areas where oppression is greatest, and where clergy protect minorities from persecution.
Back to the synod.
Many chalked this up as a victory for the conservatives, who sent Pope Francis a stern letter part way through the synod warning that any further travel down the liberal road risked a major split akin to the catholic/ protestant schism several centuries earlier.
Others argued it had been a victory for the liberals, in the sense the issues raised are now on the table and in the end, it is the Pope who decides on future direction. After all, the church has never claimed to be a democracy.
Or perhaps it is a bit of both.
The debate that took place was in one sense about so little, had so much about it the whiff of counting angels dancing on the end of a pin, that one might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.
It could not – Pope Francis made plain from the outset – tinker with doctrine. It had no scope to discover, miraculously, that to be gay was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of God. Even less to pronounce, out of the blue, that same-sex marriage was suddenly hunky dory and the Pope would be getting down with Elton John at his next anniversary bash.
Rather, the talk was all about language and ceremony. Why?
Well, the Catholic Church has long had a list of moral rules that have their origin in the gospels. Only a few of these are about sex – the vast majority are about leading a life marked not by greed and excess, but moderation and consideration for others.
Yet – as few can have failed to notice – a large and, arguably disproportionate focus of church rhetoric is on the sexual. Divorcees and homosexuality!
These were the issues where the synod could make a difference. If the church could not change its basic doctrine, it could at least dial down the rhetoric.
It could be nicer all round: less confrontational. As Charles Caput, the conservative Archbishop from Philadelphia, put it: using the phrase ‘intrinsically disordered’ to talk about gays and lesbians is not a great idea. He told Catholic News site Crux: ‘That language automatically sets people off and probably isn’t useful anymore.’
Of course, Archbishop Caput is not going to recognize the validity of gay relationships any time soon. And for those brought up on a steady drip of hostility towards the Catholic Church, such small change is unlikely to be even remotely convincing.
That, though, misses the point. For some 15 centuries, the church managed its flock as a moral command and control center, putting forth edicts, wagging its finger at every least transgression, and painting a very clear picture of right and wrong.
Then, in the 1960s, came Vatican II, in which the focus was suddenly on persuasion, on speaking a new language in order to speak to Catholics the world over as equals.
Without defining a single new doctrine, just using a new positive vocabulary of spiritual kinship, the council significantly reshaped the church.
That is the trick that Pope Francis was attempting to repeat.
Some of us are lucky enough to have got used to the progressive agendas of so many western governments and hoped for more but fundamental change was never on the cards.
What is clear is that the Pope continues to try and balance a desire for a far more inclusive church with the need to avoid it splitting up.
He has had few victories so far but the language is shifting. And, if what has gone before is any indicator of what is to follow, where language leads, hearts will eventually follow.