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Sex, sin and the Catholics

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

May 2, 2019   8 mins

Pope Francis was supposed to be different. When the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio ascended to the papacy in 2013, conservatism had dominated the Vatican for thirty-five years. The new letter by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is typical of the earlier period: in it, the retired pontiff blames the sexual revolution of the 1960s for legitimising pedophilia and cites “homosexual cliques” within Catholic seminaries as a contributing factor for the sexual abuse scandal dogging the Church.

For Catholics who reject such ideas, Pope Francis was a breath of fresh air. Compared to his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he seemed modern, relatable and as close to progressive as a man emerging from the Catholic hierarchy could be. Francis’ compassionate attitude and “who am I to judge?” comments frightened conservative priests and lay members who saw their deeply-held beliefs being compromised.

On the other hand, they gave hope to progressive Catholics, who hoped the new pontiff would allow women to serve greater roles within the hierarchy; soften the Church’s hostile stance towards divorced parishioners; stop demonizing LGBT members; and take serious steps to end the horrific sexual abuse crises engulfing the Church.

Francis’ first major meetings of Catholic bishops – the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family – seemed to be move the Church in that direction. It was suggested that divorced Catholics be allowed to engage in the Eucharist; that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”; and that children within the Church must be protected from abuse.

Still, the last few years have been a disappointment for those hoping for a Francis-led Left-ward shift in the Church. Women are still barred from the priesthood, and the female editors of the Vatican’s women’s magazine recently resigned over complaints that they were being subordinated to men. Divorcees are regularly denied communion. Contraception remains banned by official Catholic doctrine.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has not endorsed blaming the gay clergy for the decades-long sexual abuse scandal that has left tens of thousands of victims across the world: at February’s much-heralded church conference on sexual abuse, the Pope kept discussions of homosexuality off the agenda. But he couldn’t prevent conversations from drifting in that direction, according to reports coming out of the summit. High-ranking Cardinals and bishops continue to declare that a vast “gay lobby” is corrupting the Church from within. Benedict’s latest letter is evidence that this thinking continues to endure in the highest of Church circles.

And this notion – that the larger problem within the Church is sexual liberation in general and homosexuality in particular – has been reinforced within the Church hierarchy for decades; it existed long before the current pontiff or his immediate predecessor had taken their first communion.

As Pope Francis tries to steer the Catholic Church in new directions regarding a host of issues, he is grappling with the legacies of the turbulent 1960s and the conservative 1980s, wrestling with the stances of the last two popes, and facing an accumulation of theology and tradition that spans millennia.


The modern Catholic Church cannot be understood without reflecting on the Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II. In the midst of the 1960s – a decade of social upheavals: decolonization, the Cold War, civil rights – hundreds of bishops met regularly with a view to radically reforming Catholicism for the modern world. Spanning four years and two popes, Vatican II arguably reshaped Catholicism more than any event in modern history.

The changes brought about included conducting mass in local languages instead of only Latin, recognizing religious freedom as a basic human right, encouraging dialogue with other faiths, condemning anti-Semitism, endorsing democracy, giving national Catholic hierarchies more autonomy, and creating the Synod of Bishops – a body of church leaders from around the world that would gather periodically to advise the Pope on important Church issues (as was the case for Francis’ 2014-2015 meetings).

For many leading Catholics, including the substantial bloc of progressive Latin American bishops who embraced liberation theology (a Marxist-inspired brand of Catholicism focused on justice for the poor and oppressed), Vatican II was a major step forward for the Church.

Yet the council also set the stage for a conservative backlash, in two ways. Firstly, the radical transformations of the Church went too far in the eyes of many Catholics, who subsequently sought to reign in the progressive movement. Benedict’s new letter is representative of this viewpoint where it cites Vatican II as introducing a moral relativism that watered down Church doctrine and lowered standards for clergy.

Secondly, Vatican II mostly ignored what Loyola professor Stephen R. Schloesser calls “biopolitics” – issues of sex, reproduction and the regulation of the human body. In some ways, this oversight was understandable. Many of the defining moments of modern biopolitics – the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent gay rights movement; Roe v. Wade; legalization of no-fault divorces and the widespread use of “the pill” in western societies – did not occur until after Vatican II concluded. But by offering little guidance on these issues, Vatican II created an opening for more conservative bishops to reassert their influence and put the brakes on what they saw an immoral Leftward shift in the Church.

Their opportunity came in the 1980s – just as the eras of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (in many ways a political liberal by modern American standards) and Carter gave way to the Reagan Revolution, and dissatisfaction with Labour set the stage for Thatcherism.

In 1978, Pope Paul VI, who had taken office during Vatican II, died. The new Pope, John Paul II, was sympathetic to the conservative faction of the Church.  In 1980, John Paul convened his first major bishops’ meeting, the Synod of the Family. Unlike Pope Francis’ meetings of the same name, the 1980 Synod pushed a conservative agenda.

Those clergy and faithful hoping that the Church would reaffirm its moral principles even in the face of changing societal norms were delighted with John Paul II and the archbishop he placed in charge of the Synod, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI). Together, they reaffirmed conservative positions on issues of divorce and remarriage, abortion, artificial contraception and celibacy. Catholics hoping the Church would adjust to changing times were disappointed.

Ratzinger’s handling of the Synod led John Paul to appoint the Cardinal as the primary official in charge of enforcing Catholic doctrine. In this capacity, Ratzinger issued a hugely influential 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” – a document intended to address the “problem” of homosexuality within the Church, the one major sexual issue left unaddressed by the 1980 Synod. The official Catholic stance toward gay Catholics is often described as “love the sinner, hate the sin”, but Ratzinger’s letter barely paid lip service to the first half of that formula. In his view:

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

The document went on to identify homosexuality as “a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent”.

While Ratzinger’s words and tone may sound harsh and even offensive, the substance of his remarks largely built upon and reasserted millennia of Judeo-Christian doctrines. He quotes both the Old Testament prohibition of same sex sexual relations and Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Romans, in which the Apostle labelled such activities “unnatural.”

And although Ratzinger doesn’t mention him by name, the future pope’s 1986 stance owes much to the works of Thomas Aquinas, the famed 13th Century theologian whose Summa Theologica systematised Catholic doctrine in ways that continue to shape the Church’s theology today. It was Aquinas who used St. Paul’s “unnatural” label to categorize all forms of sexuality outside the bounds of both marriage or procreative purposes: Summa placed same sex sexual activity alongside incest and even bestiality – all “unnatural” acts; fornication, adultery, and even rape were meanwhile classified as mortal sins that were still “natural” and thus less grave.

Condemning homosexuality as immoral for existing outside of the “sacrament of marriage” and the “transmission of life”, Ratzinger was following a line of argument directly from Aquinas.

These documents by John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger intentionally torpedoed any ideas that the Church would moderate its social positions to match the changing realities of the larger world. These conservative pontiffs and their supporters believed the Church was under attack by the forces of liberalism and moral relativism; they saw a need to strongly state that some doctrines were immutable.

For many women, remarried parishioners, proponents of contraception and particularly LGBTQ believers, the message was that they did not fully belong in the Church.

The future Pope Benedict’s 1986 letter also popularised a new idea that was not found in previous Church doctrines. Where it condemned the “pro-homosexual movement and…its deceitful propaganda”, both outside and inside the Church, it sowed the seeds of the idea that a gay conspiracy had materialized as a corrupting force within the Catholic hierarchy.

This conspiracy theory has only grown since the sexual abuse scandal broke. Conservative Catholic leaders and groups like the American-based Catholic League use the fact that the victims of abuse have been mostly boys as “proof” that the abuse is homosexual rather than paedophilic in nature. The abuse is, supposedly, just another form of the “self-indulgence” towards which gay priests are inclined. Pope Francis’ opponents – such as Carlo Maria Viganò, a disgruntled former Vatican ambassador to the United States – explicitly make this argument and accuse Francis of ignoring or even placating the “gay mafia” to the detriment of the Church.

Pope Francis has continued to fight for reform, removing high-ranking officials implicated with violating minors or covering up abuse; pushing the church into the #MeToo era by recognizing widespread sexual exploitation of nuns by priests; and dismissing the significance of a “gay lobby” pulling the strings within the Vatican. But he is facing an uphill battle, and the hill is a steep one.

His immediate predecessors had well over 30 years to enforce their socially conservative vision of Catholicism, and they were able to draw upon hundreds of years of Church doctrine to do so.


Even if Francis achieves his agenda, many progressive Catholics may still find themselves disappointed. Despite the various criticisms he has received from the Catholic Right, Pope Francis has demonstrated little interest in actually changing fundamental Church stances toward issues such as homosexuality, celibacy or women in the priesthood. His mission, which may still succeed, is more about changing the tone and focus of the church than altering its theology.

Instead of changing doctrines about sin, Pope Francis has attempted to emphasise those concerning humility and Amoris laetiti, “the joy of love” – as the address he gave after the Synods on the Family was called. Instead of discussing sex in terms of restrictions and prohibitions, Francis has attempted to emphasise the role of sex as “a gift from God”. And rather than searching for a “homosexual clique” at the centre of the Church’s problems, the Pope is seeking to directly hold abusive priests and their enablers to account and to change the culture that encouraged the Church to avoid scandal at the cost of not protecting its most vulnerable members.

In order to succeed, Pope Francis must keep walking this tightrope. He must convince conservative opponents that he is holding fast to scripture above the theology of his “liberation” mentors in Argentina; that he is committed to the traditions established by Church founders like Aquinas (an argument that the Pope has made, only to be greeted with skepticism); and that his papacy has more substantive continuity with his predecessors than widely believed.

While doing this, Francis will also have to change the tone of the Church’s message – and the attitude of its clergy – enough to make it inclusive to members who wish to remain part of the Catholic community without conforming to all the Church’s teachings on issues of sex and the body.

Francis’ Church would be one in which LGBTQ Catholics, divorcees, the remarried and those using birth control could participate in the public life of the Church, while they (and their priests) perhaps squint at the particulars of certain doctrines on which they disagree. It would be a Church where women feel respected and valued, even if their roles do not match their male counterparts. And it would be a Church where bishops and priests feel a solemn duty to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of their flock from abuse – and take swift action against colleagues who violate their trust, without searching for ways to deflect blame.

Despite its setbacks, Pope Francis’ approach so far – overwhelmingly emphasising the love and service components of the Catholic message, which conservatives and progressives should be able to agree upon – is perhaps the only feasible option for bridging the gaps between the factions that have developed within the Church since the 1960s. Though these gaps seem larger than ever today.

Jesus himself, to read Gospel accounts, held his followers to high standards (he equated lustfully looking at a woman with adultery, for example), while also conducting a ministry that sought out the marginalised and showed love and kindness toward those who failed to live up to the moral standards he espoused.

Within a Church still wrestling with the radicalism of the 1960s, Pope Francis’ attempt to enact a love-based “back to basics” approach to Christianity is perhaps the most radical strategy of all.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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