Pope Francis, October 25, 2020, at the Vatican.(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The paradox at the heart of Catholicism

Catholic catechism is one thing, but the beliefs of the more than a billion adherents are often something entirely different

I spent many years in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote two best-selling books about it, and lectured to Catholic groups all over North America. In other words, I know it well. And at the heart of the institution is a paradox, a tension, one that is in many ways productive but can also be painful and cruel. The teachings of the church, the catechism, are one thing but the beliefs of the more than a billion adherents are often something entirely different. That may be a result of simple unknowing – of which there is a rather large cloud – where people haven’t been formed in their faith and know little, beyond the rudimentary, of what they’re supposed to believe. Then there are those who do know but reject. Catholic churches are full of people who may embrace the core beliefs but think and act just like non-Catholics, particularly when it comes to issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage, sex outside of marriage, and even abortion. It’s this disconnect that leads to once overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as Ireland or Spain embracing liberal social ideas with what seems like breathtaking speed and openness. It wouldn’t be a surprise if everybody were more honest about the whole thing.

Catholic churches are full of people who may embrace the core beliefs but think and act just like non-Catholics

Much of this began in the 1960s after the reforming Second Vatican Council but it was also an inevitable product of modernity. The insular cannot be maintained in an era of diversity and increased media access. The church just didn’t matter as much any more. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to close the barn doors but the holy horsemen had already bolted. A new wave of more orthodox clergy was ordained – the Pope John Paul generation – but ostensibly Catholic schools and universities, especially in the United States, had too much independence to be restrained. The gap between laity and Rome deepened and widened inexorably.

Then came Francis. The key to his pontificate is not – as some commentators have argued – that he has shocked ordinary Catholics but that he has delighted them: seeming to reflect their ideas and to confirm what they always thought. As is shown by his latest comment in a television documentary where he says that, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” Then, in a comment that truly is unprecedented for a Pope, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Catholic teaching insists that while LGBTQ people are to be treated with respect, homosexual activity is sinful, “objectively disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” It’s crassly patronizing, fails to grasp the reality of inherent sexuality, and is ignored by numerous Catholics, but it’s still the official Vatican line. Francis recently told a group of parents of LGBTQ children that, “God loves your children as they are. The Church loves your children as they are, because they are children of God” so these new comments aren’t entirely surprising and, when unpacked, may not be quite as radical as some believe. But it’s refreshing, encouraging, and has also revealed the divided church in all of its fierceness.

Within days of the Pope’s statement, one leading Catholic blogger in Canada wrote, “May St. Joseph open Bergoglio’s eyes, or close them forever!” He was far from alone. Terms such as “anti-Pope” and “anti-Christ” abounded and there were countless columns written asking whether this was any longer a valid Papacy.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a champion of conservative Catholicism, wrote “the simple faithful as well as bishops and priests feel betrayed by what Bergoglio has affirmed. It is not necessary to be theologians to understand that the approval of civil unions is in clear contradiction of the Magisterial documents of the Church, including recent ones. Such approval also constitutes a very grave assist to the LGBTQ ideology which today is being imposed on the global level.”

He continued, “We know very well that what the homosexualist lobby wants to obtain is not the integration of normal and honest people but rather the imposition of seriously sinful, socially destabilizing models of life that have always been exploited to demolish the family and society. It is no coincidence that the promotion of the homosexual agenda is part of the globalist project, in conjunction with the destruction of the natural family.”

Bishop Athanasius Schneider stated that the church must, “clearly reject any civil union of two persons of the same sex, a union which has the aim that these persons seek sexual pleasure from each other. Even if persons living in such unions should not engage in mutual sexual pleasure — which in reality has been shown to be quite unrealistic — such unions represent a great scandal, a public recognition of the sins of fornication against nature and a continuous proximate occasion of sin.” He continued, “every true Catholic, every true Catholic priest, every true Catholic bishop must with deep sorrow and a weeping heart regret and protest against the unheard fact, that Pope Francis, the Roman Pontiff, the successor of the apostle Peter, the Vicar of Christ on earth, uttered.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American prelate with a major and organized following, wrote that it was, “a source of deepest sadness and pressing pastoral concern that the private opinions reported with so much emphasis by the press and attributed to Pope Francis do not correspond to the constant teaching of the Church, as it is expressed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and is guarded, protected and interpreted by the Magisterium. Equally sad and concerning is the turmoil, confusion, and error they cause among the Catholic faithful, as is the scandal they cause, in general, by giving the totally false impression that the Catholic Church has had a change of course, that is, has changed its perennial teaching regarding such fundamental and critical questions.”

There was, of course, support or – sometimes almost as roaring – silence from other senior clergy, and delight from progressive Catholics and ordinary people in the pews. For tens of millions of Catholics, this seemed an acknowledgement of the self-evident, and even a still fairly conservative step in those countries where full equal marriage has been legal for some years. It’s more of a bolt, and a blessing, in those parts of the Catholic world where LGBTQ people are still marginalized and even persecuted, sometimes by the Catholic Church itself.

So, what happens next? To change the teachings of the church on sexuality and gender demands a revolutionary advance and it’s certainly not going to happen under Francis, if ever. The church can ordain married man, though likely won’t, but it can’t make women priests or marry same-sex couples without reversing dogma on its understanding of natural law, the nature of marriage, and the somewhat strange premise that because Jesus was male only a man can consecrate at the Mass. Thus nothing will happen quickly if at all. Conservatives are, frankly, waiting for Francis to die and praying that his successor is a traditionalist. Progressives, less vocal because they’re often controlled and even silenced by their superiors, look for another, younger liberal pontiff. If the next Pope does follow in his predecessor’s footsteps you’ll see a significant movement to the eastern Orthodox churches and to separatist Catholic groups such as the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of Pius X. Every sign is there, and a waiting game is being played. It’s less a church unified than a church coming to terms with reality and change. God knows, it’s long overdue. God knows, He really does.

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