Pope Francis has never been known to hold a strict view of documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In 2016, a reporter asked him about a 2003 CDF document prohibiting recognition of gay civil unions. He replied, “I do not remember that document well.” In fact, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had disregarded the document’s directive and endorsed legislation in favor of gay civil unions.
Another indication of his casual view of CDF documents was his advice in 2013 to a group of liberal religious visiting him from the Caribbean and Latin America. Don’t fear corrections from the CDF, he told them: “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of the Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing. But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward. Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it. I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up.”
Last week the CDF issued a straightforward ruling against church blessings for gay couples, saying that God “does not and cannot bless sin.” The CDF stated that gay relationships are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”
It was a rare unambiguous reaffirmation of Church teaching during the Pope Francis era, and it has the Catholic Left reeling in dismay. That displeasure should put to rest any doubts about where figures such as Jesuit Father James Martin stand on the Church’s teaching regarding the sinfulness of homosexual acts. Martin is usually coy on this subject, but his open disappointment with the CDF’s ruling indicates clearly that he opposes the teaching and was just biding his time until it changed. Martin has sent out a series of disconsolate tweets over the ruling, including a hysterical one in which he quotes an anonymous mother:
The mother of a gay teen once said to me, "Does the Vatican realize what the language they use can do to a 14 year old boy? It can destroy him." https://t.co/1prRfbnJR2
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) March 18, 2021
In an attempt to boost morale, the Tablet in Great Britain, one of the Catholic Left’s leading publications, has tried to cast the CDF’s ruling as rushed, irregular, and temporary.
Tablet reporter Christopher Lamb claims that “without consulting the members of the congregation, a small group of officials in the Holy Office drafted a ruling and then presented it to Pope Francis for sign-off in the lead up to his visit to Iraq.” Lamb found a churchman to downplay the document:
“It’s just not enough to say ‘we can’t, we can’t’,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australia Bishops’ Conference, told me yesterday during a webinar for The Tablet. “That may be important, but it’s only one word in a much, much longer and more complex conversation. In that sense, what the CDF has said in that statement isn’t by any means causa finita est, the end of the conversation. I think it should give greater impetus to another kind of conversation about inclusion.”
America, the magazine put out by the Jesuit order, also sought to downplay the significance of the document. “The Vatican’s statement on gay unions was drafted by a much smaller group of people than would ordinarily write a doc like this, and it passed Pope Francis’ desk so quickly that the Vatican hesitated to say he approved it,” says its correspondent Colleen Dulle.
Meanwhile, a Belgian bishop in Antwerp, Johan Bonny, has openly rejected the document, saying, “I want to apologize to all for whom this is painful and incomprehensible.” He says that “sin is one of the most difficult theological and moral categories to define, and one of the last to pin on people and their way of living together.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who is arguably the most powerful prelate in America, sympathized with those who oppose the CDF ruling. He said that “the understandable reaction among many to this response will be disappointment,” and that this “should prompt us in the Church and in the archdiocese to redouble our efforts to be creative and resilient in finding ways to welcome and encourage all LGBTQ people in our family of faith.” In other words, Cupich plans to ignore the ruling.
The Catholic Left is clearly hoping that the pope will walk the ruling back. So far he hasn’t done that, though a top Vatican official close to him, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, signaled sympathy for the Catholic Left’s consternation. “I do want to insist that nobody, nobody must ever be excluded from the pastoral care and love and concern of the church,” he said.
The coverage of the ruling by the secular media, usually so supportive of this pope, has been notably subdued. Like America and the Tablet, the Associated Press tried to create distance between the ruling and the pope.
“The rollout of the document was unusual. The Vatican press office gave no advance notice that it was coming out. The document itself said Francis had only been ‘informed and gave his assent to the publication,’ ” the AP reported. “Other documents from the Vatican orthodoxy office have carried a much more authoritative-sounding endorsement from the pope. One issued June 24 on the validity of some baptisms, for example, said Francis had ‘approved these responses and ordered their publication.’ ”
But no matter how liberals spin it, this development is a serious setback for them. They had long expected a liberalization of Church teaching on homosexuality under a pope whose signature phrase is, “Who am I to judge?” In 2013, the year he made that remark, the homosexual magazine the Advocate crowned him its “Person of the Year.” Elton John called Pope Francis “his hero.” Elton John is not saying that anymore. He tweeted bitterly that the Vatican had invested in his movie but now hypocritically withholds support from the very kind of relationship his movie depicted.
The pope has never seemed too troubled by such contradictions, or in general by the gulf between teaching and practice on contentious matters. The Catholic Left assumed he would close that gulf by liberalizing teaching. But that’s not always his style. Sometimes he prefers to let the tension continue. This matter is likely to remain murky for years to come, especially since he has been promoting so many prelates who support changes to the teaching on homosexuality. He recently added to the Congregation for Bishops Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who has spoken openly of “rethinking” the Church’s teachings on sexuality.
The fact that Cardinal Cupich is already making subversive remarks about the CDF ruling, without fear of censure, indicates that it won’t dispel the lax atmosphere in the Church anytime soon. Besides, in ignoring a CDF statement, Cupich and company can plausibly claim to be following an example set by the pope himself.