By Libby Purves in THE TIMES, 26 October 2020.

Pope Francis, though probably not on purpose, chose a good moment for a bombshell. Pandemic anxiety, domestic confinement, separations and bereavements have made the world aware of what is good in life. The over-important, the frivolous and the priggishly doctrinaire have been reminded in lockdown months about the value of faithful partnership and honest love. And here is a pope defying Roman Catholic tradition by affirming, alongside broader condemnations of violence and degradation, that homosexual people as “children of God” have a right to family life and legal civil unions. In the same film he is seen encouraging two gay men to come to church with their three children.

Years ago in Buenos Aires he said much the same. Some are puzzled because then and now he makes the distinction between such a civil partnership and Christian marriage. But theologically that’s unremarkable for a Catholic, to whom matrimony is a sacrament conferring a divine grace. Conventional Catholics also consider contraception wrong, believing that every act of marital union should lie obediently open to the creation of new life. They may equally, as a Scottish cardinal I interviewed in 1978 did, condemn IVF because getting the sperm involves the “sin of Onan”. The Today editor flinched and wouldn’t run it.

I swerved away myself after the encyclical Humanae Vitae, but grew up familiar with Roman Catholic logic. If your reverence is for the central purpose of sex being procreation, you are bound to think differently about what constitutes a marriage. Biology meets theology: same-sex couples do not create new life together. They can, joyfully and responsibly, commission it by recruiting an outsider. Most of us now smile on that. But it is not illogical for a liberal pope to make the distinction between the matrimonial “sacrament” and strong gay partnerships, even while openly rejecting his church’s harshness on “deviant behaviour” and “intrinsically disordered” gay people.

It is a fascinating moment. Francis’s predecessor, the still-combative Benedict, stands against him, using words such as “Antichrist”. They clash not only on this topic but, last year, over Benedict’s extraordinary defence of bishops who didn’t report clerical child abuse or help the victims. To him, “temporary suspension from priestly office had to be sufficient to bring about purification and clarification”. Francis in contrast speaks of victims, abolishes the old secrecy and firmly tells the church to report abusers to civil authorities and protect children “from ravenous wolves”.

There is a link between these two topics: the sexual horror that, often hypocritically, condemns gay love is weirdly allied to the prurient silence that covers real sexual misdeeds. If all non-reproductive sex is wrong, it seems to argue, maybe the abuse of vulnerable children is just part of that general wrongness, something for the confessional not the police.

This preposterous, cruel and inhumane attitude does exist, and it finds its echo in the equally insupportable idea that homosexuals incline to child rape more than heterosexuals. So Pope Francis’s tribute to gay partners and families is revolutionary not only within the Vatican but the global church itself.

Senior clerics are close to threatening a schism. Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea compares “western homosexual and abortion ideologies” to the “twin beasts” of Nazism and communism. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria speaks of LGBTQ orientations as “disordered” and not to be accepted, and their Archbishop Kaigama congratulated the former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for legislating severely against gay people and protecting his country “against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our continent the dumping ground for the promotion of immoral practices”.

In the Philippines, Bishop Arturo Bastes openly expressed “serious doubts about the moral correctness” of the Pope. In the US, Archbishop Tobin says the Pope is contradicting the long-standing teaching of the church; in Colombia and Peru, Catholic priests have organised anti-gay marches. The late Spanish cardinal Sebastian Aguilar said homosexuality was a “defect”, comparing it to his (presumably less sinful) high blood pressure.

Yet even in the developing world there are voices standing with Francis: in India in 2018 Cardinal Gracias backed decriminalisation of gay sex; in southern Africa a group of bishops vigorously condemned the anti-gay laws of Uganda and Nigeria, asking: “Where is the prophetic voice of the church in condemning the general homophobia?”

Well, it speaks in Pope Francis, but from a tightrope. Like the church itself, the Vatican, already plagued by accusations of financial and sexual corruption, divides both on homosexuality and on protecting clerical abusers. Sour statements from the supposedly retired Benedict keep on coming. Priestly celibacy — another medieval hangover and a further example of the difficulty all religions seem to have in hauling their minds above the waist — fuels another division, after married Anglican priests who convert were allowed to carry on, wife and all. There is plenty to fight over.

Because a seventh of the global population looks to the Church of Rome, any formal schism would shock the world. But maybe it would not be entirely a bad thing. Imagine a re-energised, liberalised, smaller, poorer but still sacramental Catholicism, marching on with Franciscan joy, leaving its dated inhumanities in darkness. The idea will terrify some, excite others, and get a bored shrug from unbelievers. But it could happen.

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