Pope Not On Sex?

Bidh daoine a ’fuireach fo sgàil a chèile; people live in the shade of each other.

‘Pope Francis has complicated the Church’s position on sexuality, not clarified it.’ So says the New Yorker. In reality, he seems to be talking about something deeper than sex. (Deeper than sex!)

Catholics would be confused if they did think what the New Yorker thinks, since they should know Popes do not just make teaching up. It is the Church’s teaching, not the property of popes. The Pope has complicated our understanding of the teaching, not the teaching itself. That is good: most people have what you would do better to call a misunderstanding of it. Popes define the Church’s teaching in times of moral crisis; they don’t change it out of nowhere.

This pope has done neither here. He has not made an infallible definition. He has had two interviews spliced together. The sort of Catholic who is first in the normal run of things to say we should accept authority and hierarchy is rushing round just now trying to point this out. This isn’t infallible, they say; because they don’t like what he has said. They point out that it is not infallible — which is true –to hint that Catholics might choose to ignore it. Yet the same Catholics do not normally make infallibility their test of authority. Sex makes people do weird stuff.

There have been two infallible definitions: the Assumption of Mary (1950), and papal infallibility (1870). It obviously raises a chuckle to be told that a Pope has defined papal infallibility with infallibility; it sounds funny; but then: if the infallibility is true, he would define it infallibly. And that is the lot. Arguments can be made for including the Immaculate Conception (1850), but that is it.

Authoritarian Catholics usually accept papal teaching as authoritative well beyond those two decrees, and the ins and out of infallibility are not the point of this story. The Pope has complicated our understanding because he has commented but overturned nothing. Had he overturned Church teaching: that would be a story. That would be something Catholics would have to make up their minds on. Critics of Francis right now just want all this to go away; it’s not infallible.

When, a generation ago, people were told by Pope John Paul II — again, not infallibly — that homosexuality was a moral disorder, that was very wounding. Reports of that phrase damaged lots of people and the Church’s ‘image’ too; and again, the exact arguments don’t matter for this story. The Catholic view of the world is that there is an ordering in things, though we cannot see it fully worked out from our one place in all things. Life is not fixed, but arising to some purpose, and God’s will for things, not their atoms, is their natural order. That is where the idea comes from that going against God’s will is disorder. We should be beyond punishing everyone else with whose conscience we disagree.

Whether that is as bad as it sounded or not, that is where the language came from: teleology. Pope Francis did not repeat it; he did not contradict it.

Very conservative Catholics have said that the Pope has not changed the words, just the music. Like the other remarks, that is also true and short of the whole truth: the Pope has asked those conservatives to change their tune. The Pope has appealed to their consciences. He has pointed out that healthy families do not make absolute moral approval of every one of a family member’s decisions a requirement for staying in the family. Human beings work lives out over time and it is in the shelter of each other that the people live. Families break if they get to that point. Conservative Catholics can be so quick to repeat that sometimes the loving thing to do, is to tell the truth, that they forget: we can also tell the truth quite lovelessly. And the Church can be a bureaucratic and loveless place. Francis has reminded us to be family. If anyone needs to be reminded of that, it may be the clergy. A family which resembled a debating society on tricky issues more than it did a place of acceptance would be a poor place to grow up in, and it may be that the clergy are worn out by that too.

In fact one of the difficulties has been (on one analysis) that the clergy are publicly committed to this Catholic sexual teaching when privately a disproportionate number have a sexual nature that rubs against it. They are also celibate. In that respect clergy of whatever gender are more like one another than they are like anyone else, by virtue of an unusual way of life. All people struggle when growing up to discern and experience their sexual nature, whatever it turns out to be; but clergy have an additional and odd experience. Put all that together, and group-think meets thought-police (so this analysis goes). They could become a family to themselves, not to us. Conclusion: the problem here is not teaching or nature, but fear and lying. Lying to others; lying to oneself; lying to God. Truth, like love, runs deeper than sex. If the analysis is correct, those are facts; but if those are the facts, they do not prove any one of the responses possible is the correct response. Ending celibacy may or may not be the way to end the problems of lies and fear. Families experience fearful lying too, and Pope Francis has been saying that the Christian family does.

Francis has pointed out that civil laws exist which give gay people the protection of law and that in some countries, LGBTQ folk are outlaws with reason to fear for their lives. The Church never taught that every civil law perfectly copies the eternal law of God — since nations’ laws contradict one another, at least some of them must fail to look like God’s — but gay people can use their civil rights and these help society to realise the Christian goal of family. Francis has not said these laws are God’s law; he has shown that God’s law requires a change of tune from loveless Christians. He has not approved ‘gay marriage’ or ‘gay adoption’; he has pointed out a right to civil partnership. He doesn’t really seem to be focussed on the issues people want to discuss at all.

When civil partnerships came into UK law, the price of getting the votes needed to pass it was also to promise that the Christian definition of marriage would remain enshrined in law. That promise was broken in just a decade. Marriage was redefined legally to make it an association between two competent and willing individuals. There is none now among the UK’s institutions that makes the children inescapably central. That is what Christian marriage proclaimed: that whether you had children or not in fact, openness to the possibility of life was the centre of marriage. Two partners may make sure they choose to have a child in a number of ways today, and childless couples can be heartbroken when the gift does not come their way; but marriage was a union that did not exclude the possibility of children as a gift not a choice. That was once its key defining feature. With the redefinition of marriage, we nowhere have an institution that proclaims that life is gratuitous, beyond our control, that the possibility (but not certainty) of children is at life’s heart; that one institution shows as much.

This has been a big, hidden loss for us. We still do, but don’t, sense that. Lockdown and the recession have been a frustration of many people’s wishes. A tiny virus has brought us low. We are not the authors of our being — that would be true, even were there no God. People have felt alone. Their notion that they are (or should be) unique and indispensable has been threatened. They have been aware that life is given, not in the sense that they must do as they told, but in the sense that either it happens or it does not, and that we cannot always make things so. We cannot have things always as we wish. Becoming a parent teaches that. The unique indispensability of a child teaches it. The old institution of marriage was supposed to teach that. All sorts of good human relationships can teach it; but marriage as defined by Christians made that reality essential to its form and symbolism and other relationships did not. That loss seemed small at the time to many and has still to come home fully. Defenders of marriage, as they saw themselves, struggled to say what marriage meant (and often, to disentangle its message from their own visceral prejudices). The words of marriage rites and the laws of marriage were chipped away at, and finally, Christian marriage was revised out of law.

The step-by-step and successful campaign to secularise marriage was not just about equality under the law; it also involved silencing that Gospel message. Now Pope Francis has tried to take up the message again, and conservatives still don’t get the point while others are dissatisfied rather than supportive because Pope Francis has not supported ‘equal marriage’. To do that that really would have been changing Church teaching. Both sides want to force him back on to their binary, backward-looking track. They demand ‘clarification’ to get him back on it. We ought to know what the Church says about marriage by now, and that no one knows how God judges individuals. Who am I to judge? the Pope said. That was in line with what John Paul II once wrote on a life-and-death issue: he said a certain act was wrong, and also wrote that we could not be certain how culpable any one person would be judged by God to be. (You can see for yourself in Evangelium vitae, scc 12, 18, 66.) Like Francis, John Paul recognised ‘personal situations’ but spoke out dramatically (he said) because social change had gone beyond them. And perhaps we could just about bear to live with people who disagreed with us, even if they were Christians, if only they said what they thought but did not, especially since they are Christians, presume to judge others. There are still deeper issues.

It is an interesting coinage, ‘equal marriage’, which obscures the difference between equal rights to association and the inequality of making the Christian vision of life quite invisible. Christians are being removed from the public sphere, and when you hear what some of them say you almost struggle to regret it. When you see the loveless attitudes in people, you almost want them to go away, even if that is no family and certainly, no liberal society. But the problem is: what they should be saying is vanishing too. Meanwhile we seem to be blind to the mirror-image secular illiberalism that is replacing religion in public life. People are bullied into zero-sum conflicts and a seamless line can be traced from our indifference to the dignity of inconvenient ‘others’ and the untidiness we find in ourselves all the way back to our willingness to rub out the gift of life from the start. So preoccupied have we become with matters of what used to be called second nature — politics and identity — that on all sides we are trashing the idea of shared human nature. Not everyone will agree with what has been written here, of course, but consider the possibility; that Francis has made a complicated point — and is not just ‘complicating things’.

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