The Sexual Revolution Reaches the Catholic Church

When Pope Francis released his papal document “Evangellii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)” in November 2013, it was enthusiastically received for its sound, humane and profoundly Christian take on so many issues facing the modern world. One notable feature was the complete absence of any reference to gay marriage or homosexuality, and little comment on the broader topic of human sexuality in all its forms. This seems surprising: one of the first challenges facing the Church to be identified by the Pope’s advisory group of eight cardinals, was the challenges facing marriage and family in the modern world – and Catholic bishops in many countries have been closely identified with fierce opposition to gay marriage, and its supposed threat to the family.

However, the reason for this omission is clear. Right in the opening paragraphs of the document. Francis explains up front that he has not attempted to cover everything of importance, because some things “require further study”. It has become clear in the months since, how seriously the Pope and his advisors are taking this imperative for further study into matters of marriage, family, and human sexuality. The study now under way is seen in several forms, most notably a global consultation on marriage and the family; a re-examination of the theology and history (especially of divorce, and communion for those who have remarried); and the experience in some countries, of gay marriage and civil unions.

A month before the publication of “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Vatican announced the summoning of an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, on the specific theme of marriage and the family. Almost immediately, there followed the announcement of a preparatory global consultation on the subject, specifically including laity as well as bishops and clergy. Similar preparatory consultations with the bishops before a synod are common, but this was the first time ever that this was designed to be done involving the Church as a whole.

Exploring the Views of the Faithful

With the bishops’ total lack of experience in genuine consultation or of any kind of opinion survey research, the actual implementation of this consultation was shambolic, but nevertheless valuable. In spite of the difficulties in implementation, Catholics responded in large numbers and with enthusiasm to the invitation to respond. Results have now been collated by national bishops’ conferences, and reports submitted to the Vatican – where in turn, a global report is being prepared, for circulation to the bishops to study in preparation for the Synod. For the most part, we do not yet know what these results are, but there are exceptions. Summary results have been made public for some countries of Europe and for Japan, and for some individual dioceses elsewhere. The results, indicating a wide gulf between formal Vatican teaching on sex and marriage, and actual belief and practice of ordinary Catholics, will make sobering reading for those attempting to hold the traditional line. Just like other people, it turns out, Catholics in Europe and Japan are having sex without waiting for marriage, practise contraception, do not agree with the absolute ban on communion for those who have remarried after divorce, and are disturbed by the Church’s intransigent hostility to people in same-sex relationships.

We do not have results of the consultation from other continents, where attitudes can be assumed to be more conservative, but we do have complementary information from a professional opinion survey done at about the same time, in twelve of the world’s largest Catholic countries. Even in Congo and Uganda, the most conservative of all, only about half of respondents agree with Church teaching on contraception. Across Latin America, fewer than a third of Catholics `agree with Catholic Church policy that says: “An individual who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, is living in sin which prevents them from receiving Communion”?`

Studying History and Theology

In addition to consulting Catholic opinion, preparations for the Synod have included other forms of study, notably on the question of pastoral responses to those who have remarried after divorce. Among the bishops themselves, this is already a contentious issue. German bishops have already announced proposals for easier access to communion for those who have remarried, and have been heavily criticized by some colleagues for this decision. This will be one of the primary topics for deliberation at the Synod. An important introduction to this subject was the theme of a major address by Cardinal Walter Kasper to the February consistory of cardinals.

Kasper will be one of the co-presidents of the Synod, and on that account alone this should be taken seriously. In addition, Pope Francis expressed his warm support for its content, adding weight to its importance. In a two hour address Cardinal Kasper reflected widely on the value and importance of family and its problems, concluding with some thoughts on divorce and remarriage. In this final passage, he presented information from the thinking and practice of the early Church, to suggest that while the Church is compelled by Jesus’ own words to hold that marriage vows cannot be dissolved, there are paths to a more compassionate, pastorally-sensitive response than the absolute ban on communion. This is because, alongside Jesus’ clear teaching that divorce is unacceptable, the early Church (before Augustine), also accepted Jesus’ equally clear teaching that all sins may be forgiven.

What will be relevant for the bishops considering the entire range of sexual doctrines at the Synod, should be Kasper’s example in looking back at history, as well as his emphasis on pastoral sensitivity alongside doctrinal rules. Such an investigation of the history of sexual doctrines, should prompt a reappraisal of the current horror of cohabitation before marriage, and also a new look at the value of committed same-sex relationships. Greater pastoral sensitivity to those remarried after divorce should similarly offer guidelines for greater sensitivity to same-sex couples, and the steadily increasing number who have formalized their relationships in marriage.

Experience of Gay Marriage and Civil Unions

For years, many bishops have been conspicuous in their political struggles to oppose legal provisions or gay marriage and gay adoption, but as marriage and family equality have spread inexorably across three continents (with more to come), it’s been obvious that this has influenced some notable changes in thinking. Early in the movement for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, opposition was to civil unions as well as to full marriage, but we now have an expanding list of senior cardinals and bishops who have acknowledged the value of civil unions. In some cases, this has been purely tactical, accepting these as a lesser evil than giving the name “marriage”, but in others, there has been explicit recognition of their intrinsic value.

Part of the impulse to this re-evaluation has been the actual experience of those countries and states which have introduced either marriage or civil unions. Civil unions have now been available in Denmark and later elsewhere since 1989, and full gay marriage in the Netherlands since 2002. Experience has contradicted the bishops’ dire warnings of great harm to marriage and society that (they believed) would ensue. Instead, the evidence has been in the other direction, of some clear benefits to same-sex couples and their children, to respect for the institution of marriage, and to other social benefits.

The political struggles have also forced both sides to clearly examine and articulate their arguments, in public debates, in legislative hearings, and in courts of law. Over and over, the arguments presented by the opponents of gay marriage/civil unions, have been found to be based on poor foundations.

That this is prompting serious study in the Catholic Church has been spelled out by Pope Francis himself, who was recently reported in a newspaper interview as having implied indirectly, the possibility of church support for civil unions – and in private conversation with Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Archbishop of New York), said that the Church needed to study the matter further. How will the bishops respond?

Right from the start, neither the Synod nor the consultation have been presented as an occasion to change in any way the doctrines on marriage, family, or sexual practice, but simply as one to reconsider more appropriate pastoral responses. Responses by some bishops to the consultation results have already shown that they see the problem purely in the simplistic terms of more effective teaching of the existing doctrine and rules, with no recognition at all that perhaps it is the rules themselves that are flawed. Others, and most particularly the national bishops’ conferences of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan, have acknowledged that the problem is profound, and must be addressed at a much more fundamental level.

The response to Cardinal Kasper’s thoughts on divorce also show a clear divide. Pope Francis and others have praised it, but some more conservative cardinals are digging in their heels in resistance. One source claims that a majority of cardinals are in disagreement, and Cardinal Mueller, head of the CDF, has been engaged for months in a very public dispute with the German bishops on the subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. Cardinal Burke has gone public with his opinion that Kasper’s address contained many “egregious errors” – but Cardinal Kasper very obviously has the ear and support of the Pope, and Burke equally obviously does not.

It’s far too early to speculate on what the bishops of the Synod will conclude, but one thing should now be beyond dispute: a process of careful study of these issues has only just begun. The two previous Popes had a predisposition to deal with those who even appeared to be dissenting from the traditional line by silencing them, but Francis is encouraging free and frank debate. The process began with the announcement of the Synod and the consultation, but will continue. The bishops now have the results of their own national surveys to consider and digest. Those who are to attend the Synod will be given a report on the global findings, as well as other material, to ponder. The Synod itself has a full two weeks of deliberations – and that will still not end it. Initial conclusions will then be taken back, for further consideration and consultation during 2015, in preparation for a second Synod which will include not only bishops, but also a selection of lay people, who will have a very different perspective on marriage and family based on real world experience.

In the background of the discussions on marriage, family and sexuality, will be Pope Francis’ repeated reminders of the importance of the sensus fidelium: the principle that in matters of doctrine, the validity of any teaching rests on its reception by the Church as a whole. As they confront the overwhelming evidence that large parts of the Church’s sexual doctrines simply do not have the support of the Church as a whole, the bishops will be forced to find a way to reconcile this with that principle.

The Synod was emphatically not called to alter in any way any part of Catholic doctrine on marriage or sex, but actions often have unintended consequences. It must be at least possible that this two year process of further study and consultation will result in the admission that  perhaps some elements of teaching do after all, need to be changed. The poet Phillip Larkin wrote that “sex began in nineteen sixty three”. Fifty years later, in 2013, the Catholic Church may have finally caught up, and begun to engage responsibly with the sexual revolution.

● Terence Weldon