Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the ebullient Archbishop of New York, has welcomed the ‘wise decision’ by organisers of the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade to lift their ban on gay groups marching under their own banners. He has ‘no problem with it at all’. His predecessor, Cardinal John O’Connor, who supported the ban in 1990, must be turning in his grave. More to the point, conservative American Catholics feel let down by Dolan, an orthodox and tribal prelate who likes to roll up his sleeves and jab in the direction of the snidely liberal New York Times.
Here’s the response of Deal Hudson, a leading Catholic Republican (and certainly not an anti-gay bigot):
Cardinal Dolan’s mistake, in this prudential matter, is precisely of the same kind made over and over by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when it allows the Catholic Campaign for Human Development to invest its money in coalitions that contain organisations explicitly committed to ends such as abortion, gay marriage, and birth control. By giving Catholic money to such coalitions, the bishops are lending their collective moral authority to the work of groups who seek to subvert Church teaching. The US Catholic Church has become, to give it a name, ‘The Church With Blurred Boundaries’.
In May, the New York Times gloatingly predicted that its old foe – who despite his avuncular manner carries the whiff of a prince-bishop about him – would lose influence in the era of Humble Pope Francis. But now Tim Dolan has reached out to gay groups in a manner that proclaims (to quote his boss): ‘Who am I to judge?’ And the left-wing Catholics whom Hudson dislikes are jubilant.
Christopher Hale, a ‘progressive’ Catholic, used Dolan’s comments as the hook for a Time magazine article headed ‘Is the Catholic Church “Evolving” on Gay Marriage?’. Conservatives would say this is a classic example of what John Rentoul calls a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No). The Church insists that homosexual acts are sinful and, although it may eventually ditch the insulting label ‘intrinsically disordered’, it has no authority to change Christ’s teaching that sex outside marriage is always wrong. The magisterium of the Catholic Church is immutable on the big questions. You couldn’t reverse Paul VI’s absolute ban on artificial contraception or John Paul II’s declaration that women priests are a theological impossibility without, effectively, abolishing the office of Pope. And neither of these rulings is as blindingly obvious, from the perspective of ‘natural law’, as the sinfulness of homosexual genital acts.
But Hale doesn’t ask whether the Church is about to allow gay marriage. He asks if its attitude towards it is ‘evolving’, a slippery concept. And he provides evidence to suggest that the answer is yes:
This closes a remarkable summer in which a number of high-ranking Catholic prelates have signalled that Pope Francis’s more open posture on gay issues has permeated through the Catholic world. In May, a top-ranking Italian bishop [the secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference, Nunzio Galantino, bishop of of Cassano all’Joniosaid] said that the Church should be more open to arguments in support of same-sex marriage. And just a few weeks ago, one of Pope Francis’s closest friends Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes said in an interview that he ‘didn’t know’ whether Jesus would oppose gay marriage.
This is indeed ‘evolution’ on the part of individual bishops. If Hummes and Galantino had said those things under John Paul II they’d have been hauled before the Pope. And they are influential. They are not representative of the majority of the world’s Catholics, most of whom share the hostility of traditional societies everywhere towards homosexuality. They are, however, in touch with the attitudes of many run-of-the-mill Catholics in America and Europe, whose anti-gay sentiment has dissipated almost as fast as that of Western society at large.
What we’re heading towards is exactly what Deal Hudson describes: a Church of blurred boundaries. No doubt this particular boundary would have blurred anyway, but Pope Francis has done his own smudging with the theological photoshop: the man who refuses to judge homosexual Catholics also believes that gay marriage as a proposition emanates from ‘the Father of Lies’ – that is, the Devil. Also, he supports civil unions. Probably.
Such confusion is as likely to lead to a Catholic civil war as it is to an officially sanctioned ‘evolution’ towards a gay-friendly stance – that is, the Church turning a blind eye towards gay unions, which is the most that its magisterium will allow it to do. No subject is as dangerous as this one. Just ask the Archbishop of Canterbury. Twenty years ago it seemed that women’s ordination would split the Anglican Communion. Instead, it was homosexuality. Justin Welby is terrified that, if the Church of England permits same-sex weddings, it will endanger the lives of Anglicans in Muslim countries.
Magnify the Anglican conflict a hundredfold and that will give you some idea of what might happen if the world’s senior Christian Church tears itself apart over homosexuality. Hudson is a moderate conservative; more hardline American Catholics are spitting tacks over Dolan’s concession. Yet another front is opening in America’s culture wars. And one dreads to think what African bishops would say if they were asked to soften their stance on anal sex (which is all that homosexuality means to them).
Gay Catholics are in a horrible position here. Their Church teaches (and will go on teaching, however it finesses it) that they can’t follow their natural sexual impulses without sinning. But are they right to direct their anger at the Vatican? Maybe the fight they ought to be picking is with Jesus of Nazareth, who said nothing about homosexuality but who was so rigidly opposed to divorce – a fact conveniently overlooked by every Church except that of Rome – that it’s very, very difficult to imagine him blessing gay marriage.
These are deep waters. Perhaps the argument will be rehearsed at the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in October to discuss the Family. Most observers think, however, that the Synod will run a mile from any formal ‘evolution’ in the direction of gay rights. And, practically speaking, it will be right to do so. Any further blurring of boundaries on this supremely toxic subject and all hell will break loose.