Infighting in the Vatican

Deep divisions over divorce and homosexuality were revealed by the recent synod, reports Eddie Ford

For the first time in nearly three decades, the Vatican over October 5-19 held an extraordinary synod on the theme of “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation”.1 Called by pope Francis I, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to “continue the reflection and journey of the whole church”, 253 bishops and other participants engaged in the type of infighting between traditionalists and reformers that has not been seen since the Second Vatican Council.2

Controversy centred on the Instrumentum laboris (‘working instrument’), which itself represented a break with precedent, based as it was on a questionnaire sent globally to bishops’ conferences asking them to distribute it “immediately” and “as widely as possible”, so that “input from local sources” could be received and collated.3 Never before has the church hierarchy asked so directly for feedback and opinion from ordinary Catholics. The document included 39 questions on nine topics, including contraception, same-sex unions, cohabitation by unwed couples, divorce, and so on. Predictably, the specific issues that provoked most controversy concerned, firstly, whether to allow Catholics to receive the Eucharist (communion) after they have divorced and “invalidly” attempted remarriage; secondly, whether a “fraternal space” should be found in the church for gays; and, thirdly, how to pastorally approach those who are living in “irregular situations” - including Catholics who are invalidly married, as well as unmarried couples who are cohabitating.

You can see why the bureaucracy, or at least a section of it, has made this move. The Catholic church is by definition an inherently conservative body, but at the end of the day you have to keep people on board if you want to survive, let alone flourish. That can only mean bringing the church down to earth a bit. After all, even many bishops complain that the church’s own teachings on family and sexual matters are more or less impenetrable. The Vatican’s main document on sex, for instance, is the Humanae Vitae encyclical, issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI (who not coincidentally was beatified on October 19 by Francis for his “farsightedness and wisdom”). This reaffirms the church’s teaching from “time immemorial” on the sanctity of life, married love, responsible parenthood and artificial contraception - ie, continued rejection of most forms of birth control. But the document uses torturously obscure theological language and argumentation, not to mention the 41 dense footnotes that reinforce the impression that it was written on another planet.4

Then we have the church’s punishing rules on divorce that prevent millions of devotees from receiving communion, yet it is a right granted to murderers or rapists, as long as they are lawfully married or single - a clearly unsustainable position that just generates resentment and unhappiness, and one that the Church of England sensibly abandoned. Showing the general line of march, Walter Kasper, a prominent German cardinal widely known in media circles as “the pope’s theologian”, has argued that Rome should look to the Eastern Orthodox church for guidance and allow some people who had remarried to do a “period of penance” that would eventually lift their ban on holy communion. He stressed that his proposed reform would preserve the “indissolubility” of marriage: it would merely involve taking a “more tolerant” attitude towards the person’s second, civil, marriage.

Consider too that more than half of American Catholics, just like in Britain, do not even consider homosexuality a sin any more - so why is the church hierarchy so obsessed about it? No wonder that younger, more progressively-minded Catholics in the US are no longer attending services. Pew Research data released this year found that regular American churchgoers tend to be older and less likely to support gays and lesbians, while younger Catholics attend church far less - and no fewer than 85% of those 18-to-29-year-olds say they support LGBT rights. Since the 1950s, self-reported regular US church attendance rates have dropped from 75% to now 39%.5

The same essentially goes for Italy, the supposed Catholic motherland. An extensive government survey conducted two years ago found that almost two-thirds felt homosexuals in partnerships should have the same rights as married couples and a more recent poll this year suggested a majority of Italians now favoured the introduction of gay marriage - yet the Italian constitution still insists that the family is a “natural society founded on matrimony” and does not recognise same-sex unions - meaning that Italy is the only country in western Europe (disregarding freakish micro-states, such as Monaco) that does not grant legal status to same-sex unions. Even staunchly Catholic Malta now has same-sex civil partnerships.

In that sense, there may be some truth to the adage that the Roman Catholic church thinks in centuries and then introduces change almost overnight. There has been a definite shift in church orientation, especially symbolised by divorce. Francis’s predecessor, the former ‘head of the inquisition’6, Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger), described homosexual relationships as “intrinsically disordered” and an “objective moral evil” in a 1986 Vatican document, when he was chief theological adviser to Pope John Paul II. Francis, on the other hand, told journalists last year: “If a person seeks god and has goodwill, then who am I to judge?” Significantly he is the first pontiff ever to use the word ‘gay’ in public rather than ‘homosexual’.

Yes, it is a bit surprising that it is Francis who seems to be pushing the reform agenda. He was selected for the top job by cardinals who had mostly been appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both ultra-reactionaries - and there is little doubt that the 76-year-old Francis was chosen last year precisely because of his age, the belief being he would dutifully uphold the status quo. A not unreasonable expectation, given that his six years as Jesuit leader in Argentina were characterised by a highly authoritarian and conservative outlook.

There are also the rumours that he cooperated with the 1976-83 military junta. But this merely demonstrates that not even the mighty Catholic church can ignore the more socially liberal consensus that has emerged, at least in the west, over the last 20 to 30 years. Indeed, in many respects, it is quite remarkable that the church has held out for so long.


The real infighting at the synod broke out when a relatio post disceptationem (‘bringing back’) or draft interim report was published on October 13.7 Some Vaticanologists and gay rights groups regarded it as a real change in the church’s stance and detected a voice that seemed to echo Francis’s earlier comment to journalists. Traditionalists were horrified though. Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, an Opus Dei member on the ultra-conservative wing, wrote that the church was facing the “danger of a great schism”.

Similarly, US cardinal Leo Raymond Burke told the Catholic World Report that the relatio “lacks a solid foundation” in the sacred scriptures and magisterium (the Catholic teaching authority)8 and disapprovingly noted that it gives “the impression” of “inventing a totally new” and “revolutionary” teaching on marriage and the family. Burke is not some nobody from the backwaters, but the current prefect of the supreme tribunal of the apostolic signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court.9 He is a leading authority on doctrine, who vigorously opposes any move to relax the ban on remarried divorcees taking communion - having openly criticised Francis for allowing Kasper to “sow confusion” about church teachings on marriage and argued that a “clear affirmation” of Catholic doctrine was “long overdue”.

The passages in the relatio that most offended reactionaries like Burke was the suggestion that the Catholic church should be “welcoming homosexual persons”, and that “homosexual unions” could provide “precious support” to each other, despite the “moral problems” associated with them. Even worse - or so it seems - was the following idea: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community ... Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” (my emphasis).

There was an immediate furore - this was beyond the pale. Conservative bishops loudly protested that the report had been “hijacked” by liberals added to the drafting committee at the last minute by Francis. In fact, a devious attempt was made by a faction of conservative, English-speaking bishops to deliberately muddy the waters by getting the synod secretariat to release a new English translation of the relatio that changed “welcoming homosexual persons” to “providing for homosexual persons”.10 Another alteration was that the phrase “partners”, an incendiary term that implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, became the much chillier “these persons”. Such was the uproar and confusion over the English ‘translation’ that a Vatican spokesperson was forced to confirm that the original version of the relatio was the only official document.

However, the conservatives managed to regain the upper hand, thanks to the Byzantine voting system, which requires that every paragraph (there are 62 in total) has to be voted on separately and needs a two-third majority to be included in the synod’s report.11 We learnt from a Vatican official that voting numbers had been released at the behest of Francis, who wanted the process to be transparent - another break with precedent. Though still receiving more than 50% of the vote, the ‘revolutionary’ passages on gay relationships and divorced or “invalidly” remarried Catholics being readmitted to the Eucharist could not muster the necessary two-thirds majority and were therefore binned.

Hence the final report published on October 18 makes no mention of the “gifts and qualities” or the “precious support” offered by gays - just forget it. Instead, as an alternative, a paragraph entitled “Pastoral attention to people of homosexual orientation” - no more “welcoming” of gays - sternly reminds us that “no grounds whatsoever exist for assimilating or drawing analogies, however remote, between homosexual unions and god’s design for matrimony and the family”. There you have it. Nevertheless, it continues, “men and women with homosexual tendencies should be accepted with respect and sensitivity” and generously adds that “unjust discrimination” against gays “is to be avoided”.

But even this decidedly less gay-friendly passage narrowly failed to gain two-thirds approval - there were 118 in favour and 62 against.12 Because the actual names of the voting bishops were not released, however, it was unclear whether the paragraph’s failure to pass was actually due to a ‘protest vote’ by progressive bishops who had wanted to keep more of the original wording. The only paragraph that received unanimous support was a bland, motherhood-and-apple-pie passage confirming that the “wish for a family is still alive, especially among young people, and this motivates the church, expert in humanity and faithful to her mission, tirelessly and with profound conviction to announce the ‘gospel of the family’” - though it is worth noting that a paragraph condemning the linking of international financial aid to the introduction of laws that “institutionalise” same-sex marriage did manage to get a super-majority.

Upon hearing the outcome of the extraordinary synod, the New Ways Ministry, a US Catholic gay rights group, said it was “very disappointing” that the synod’s final report had not retained the “gracious welcome” to lesbians and gays that had briefly appeared in the relatio - though it did take hope from the synod’s “openness to discussion”: the struggle is only just beginning. Another group, Dignity USA, issued a statement regretting the fact that “doctrine won out over pastoral need”. As for Francis, arguably the loser at the synod, he displayed no disappointment - he welcomed the “animated discussions” that had just taken place and was glad there had been an honest fight rather than a “false and acquiescent peace”. He might have a point.

Of course, the New Ways Ministry is quite correct - the battle will be resumed very shortly. The final report is only a preparatory document for the larger synod that will take place next year. The Holy See press office made it clear that nothing in the report was either “accepted” or “rejected” - the paragraphs, or sentiments, that could not win a super-majority on this occasion “cannot be considered as dismissed”.

So the Catholic church will have to continue its struggle to catch up with the 20th century.



1. www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20140626_instrumentum-laboris-familia_en.html.

2. www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1404341.htm.

3. http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-asks-parish-level-input-synod-document.

4. www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html.

5. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/25/no-clear-pope-francis-effect-among-u-s-catholics.

6. That is, ‘Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’.

7. http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2014/10/13/0751/03037.html.

8. The magisterium constitutes a “single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the church” (www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html).

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostolic_Signatura.

10. http://religiondispatches.org/conservative-bishops-get-different-translation-dialing-back-language-on-lgbt-acceptance.

11. www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/synods-final-report-shows-nuance-on-homosexuality-remarriage-21175.

12. The Observer October 19.