Given the recent history of the Catholic establishment’s intervention on gay marriage in Scotland it would be tempting to respond to the recent announcement of the Pope’s retirement in this publication from a very specific standpoint. Pope Benedict is a theological conservative whose pronouncements on sexuality have been neither compassionate nor progressive. His actions have given succor to the response we’ve seen from the Catholic establishment at home over the last twelve months which led to Cardinal O’Brien being awarded the dubious title of ‘bigot of the year’ in the 2012 Stonewall awards.
But the world is much bigger than Scotland and the issues much bigger than gay marriage. So what has Pope Benedict’s contribution been? What will be his legacy? And as we look to the election of a new Pope, what might the future hold? His own parting words remind us that his successor faces an enormous challenge to reconcile the church’s traditions in a rapidly changing world. The Catholic church may be declining in Europe, but it’s buoyant and even growing elsewhere, for example in Africa. It will be hard to please all of the people all of the time.
I will make no secret of the fact that I didn’t welcome Pope Benedict’s election. I remember the dismay I felt as I discussed the news with other liberal Catholics. I’ve said previously that it’s pretty odd being a gay Catholic if you’re someone who chooses to act on your attraction to people of the same sex. It’s arguably even odder if you don’t, but that’s another story. Pope Benedict’s election was a moment that tested the boundaries of that oddness. And yet I found myself enormously immersed in his visit to the UK. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness, undoubted intelligence and commitment to ecumenical dialogue.
When I heard about Pope Benedict’s retirement I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with a friend when Pope John Paul died. My friend asserted that his had been a failed papacy. I had big differences with Pope John Paul too, not just on sexuality but on politics. Yet his had been far from a failed papacy. Like it or not, he was an inspiration to millions who arguably breathed new life into a divided church at a very particular moment in 20th century history. But success or failure, his legacy also included theological rigidity on a series of issues relating to gender and sexuality, most disgracefully his opposition to the use of condoms.
Pope Benedict inherited that legacy and has largely reinforced it. On condom use he appeared to signal a change but only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances (would that HIV in Africa was exceptional) and the Vatican subsequently made it clear the church’s position hadn’t altered. He has taken some important steps further than his predecessor on the issue of abuse within the church, including apologising to victims. But the Vatican’s response has remained painfully conservative and opaque. He has attacked gay marriage as ‘evil’ and its supporters as ‘immoral’. He has made key appointments shoring up his conservative stance, including one of a Cardinal opposed to abortion even in cases of rape. And he has reasserted the Vatican’s opposition to women’s ordination as a matter of ‘divine constitution’, lashing out at those who dared to disobey within the church.
There have been many other aspects to Pope Benedict’s tenure. But what I’ve highlighted is a failure to grapple with issues of gender and human sexuality. The Pope has said that he is standing down because he feels his health doesn’t enable him to continue to confront the challenges of the modern world. That may be so but it’s also very clear that where these issues are concerned his theological stance hasn’t enabled him to engage with a changing world either.
He’s not entirely alone in this respect of course. The Anglican response on one or two of these issues has been little better. It’s also true that millions around the world, including some in Scotland and the UK, appear to support his stance on most of these issues. The truth at home in fact is rather different. British Social Attitudes and British Election Study data over the last thirty years shows that those identifying as Catholics have become gradually more liberal on gay relationships and gay adoption (a prominent issue here in recent weeks) at a similar rate to those with no religion. And whilst their views are less liberal than those with no religion, they are often more liberal than those who identify as Anglicans, other Christians and those of other religion.
The unavoidable fact at home however is that the Christian church’s relevance is waning and this is no less true of the Catholic church, arguably more so. As someone who believes passionately in the need for a moral compass in society independent of popular sentiment and that Catholic social teaching can be a force for good on questions of social justice, I think that’s very sad. But on questions of gender and human sexuality the world is changing and hurrah for that. The pace of change is faster in the developed world. But the relevance of change to the lives of people in Africa, for example, is enormous. The ravaging effect of HIV across that continent is well known. And the appalling treatment of sexual minorities in some African countries is now at least in the world’s gaze. Those things mean that while a more liberal stance on such issues may be far from welcome there, for those suffering it is even more pressing and urgent than it is at home.
Pope Benedict has constantly appealed for peace and reached out to other religious traditions for which he deserves credit. But while his resistance to modernity on issues of gender and human sexuality may be applauded in some parts of the world, his stance means that whatever else he might have been or done, it’s arguable that a key feature of his legacy has been declining relevance. And it has compromised the ability of the Catholic church to be a clarion call for social good at a time when the world urgently needs it.
It’s all too easy within a largely secular discourse to assume that change on these issues within the church can and should happen overnight. It most certainly should in some respects, condom use in particular, but it certainly won’t on other issues, gay marriage for example. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that a turn to liberalism would be uncomplicated or that it wouldn’t be regarded by many Catholics as hugely divisive. It is absurd however, that in the face of seemingly unending scandals about abuse within the Catholic church, the establishment can’t at least begin to think more openly about the chastity and marriage of priests.
I was touched listening to Sister Wendy on Desert Island Discs recently who when asked about the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortion, just responded in a quiet way that change would come and that we must be patient. But as Pope Benedict slips into retirement, and liberal Catholics nervously await the election of a new Pope, patience is a virtue I’m struggling with. The harsh truth is that unless and until the Catholic establishment at the Vatican and at home can grapple more sensitively and progressively with issues of gender and human sexuality, it can expect a rough ride. And in the West in particular, it will be increasingly marginalised on other issues where it has much of value and relevance to say.