This is a fight the Vatican can't win
Don't expect the faithful to obey this edict on homosexuality
Thursday July 31 2003
Is homosexuality Christianity's next Darwinism? And
is it likely to come
off just as badly from picking a battle it cannot win? The Vatican published
a document yesterday which described any proposal for state recognition of
homosexual relationships as the "legalisation of evil".
That shocking and cruel language tried to commit
the Catholic church to
total opposition to a social trend that increasingly looks irresistible. It
is a classic example of how to embarrass your friends and motivate your
Just as poor Bishop Sam Wilberforce committed the
Christianity of his day
to out-and-out opposition to the new theory of evolution, these are words
that will sooner or later have to be eaten. As every schoolboy knows - or
will be endlessly reminded by the scientist Richard Dawkins if he has
forgotten - Christianity picked a fight with science in the middle of the
19th century, and lost. The rest is, well, not quite history, but a
considerable ongoing problem for Christianity's credibility.
The agency issuing the document, the Congregation
of the Doctrine of the
Faith (CDF), felt Catholic bishops and politicians needed fortifying as they
responded to growing demands for legal recognition of homosexual
relationships, usually, but not always accurately, described as homosexual
The British government is one of a growing number
to have put forward
proposals of this kind, although its recent consultative document explicitly
stated that the legal status being suggested was not marriage. The CDF is
not impressed by such assurances. Homosexual acts are condemned by scripture
as a "serious depravity", and so the state cannot, and must not, recognise
them in any way.
Significantly, and this is where the CDF is halfway
to losing the argument
before it is even started, one of its objections to such acts is that they
are not compatible with Catholic teaching about the purpose of sexual
activity in general. To be morally acceptable, each and every act of
intercourse has to be "open to the transmission of life", to use the
And this, of course, is the teaching of Pope Paul
encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968, outlawing artificial birth control in all
its forms. And few facts about the Catholic church are better known than
that this teaching is now far more honoured in the breach than in the
observance. Married Catholics have long got used to turning a blind eye to
this ruling, and in very large numbers they have had the tacit support of
their priests in so doing.
And as the Church of England has found, acceptance
that not every act of
sexual intercourse has to be potentially fertile opens the door to sex for
relationship purposes only, sex as the expression of a loving bond, sex
indeed which can deepen that bond and make it long-lasting.
Homosexual Christians have made known the discovery
that sex can play that
role in their lives too. They have formed committed partnerships, and they
sense in their bones that what they have done is right. That is not
dissimilar to the witness of Catholic married couples, who have used
contraceptives and found them beneficial to their relationship.
How then can they be evil?
But the Vatican is not open to argument. "When
legislation in favour of
the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a
legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his
opposition clearly and publicly, and to vote against it. To vote in favour
of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral." To which many
such "Catholic legislators" will only reply, at least under their breath,
that to issue orders so unreasonable they are unlikely to be obeyed is, to
say the least, gravely silly.
Already the Catholic bishops of England and Wales
have set up a working
party to decide how to respond to the British government's proposals. One
Catholic churchman was heard to mutter that "we needed this Vatican document
like we needed a hole in the head".
The Catholic church is actually a warm-hearted
organisation. Very few
priests want to pick a fight with the homosexuals in their congregations. In
private many priests will not demand that they bring a sudden end to a
faithful, loving relationship, but instead look for ways of deepening it.
Friendship, even between homosexuals, is always good, they will say.
Cardinal Hume said as much himself.
Sooner or later the Vatican will have to realise
that the faithful are no
longer really listening to it on this issue, as they are no longer listening
to it about contraception. The change is by no means an overnight or
painless process, just as the acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution was
not an overnight process. They can make it easy for themselves or they can
make it difficult. The Vatican has chosen the latter way, but the church at
large, I am sure, will prefer the former.
Clifford Longley is the author of Chosen