- The Guardian, Wednesday 8 October 2014 20.54 BST
A battle is raging for the soul of the Catholic church, with influential cardinals increasingly open in their opposition to Pope Francis over issues including divorce, remarriage, contraception and same-sex relations.
Disagreement over these issues is likely to come to a head over the next few days, with the bishops gathering in Rome for an extraordinary synod on the family, called by the pope. Unusually, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire ahead of the synod seeking the views of Catholics around the world on family, marriage and sexuality. The hierarchy has been reluctant to publish the responses, but it is clear from their commentaries that many Catholics do not follow the church’s teachings.
Sometimes the teachings are rejected or ignored – such as the prohibition of artificial birth control and pre-marital sex – but sometimes people want a more compassionate and constructive approach to those who respect the teachings but have failed to live up to them, for example in the case of divorced and remarried Catholics. The central message of the Christian faith is, after all, not that of moral perfection but of forgiveness, mercy and redemption.
For those who take for granted the values of progressive liberalism, the Catholic church seems like a creakingly anachronistic institution. As a feminist I am treated with incredulity by those who cannot understand why I remain within the church, particularly when I am repeatedly censored because I speak out on issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.
I came to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in August 2012, when – along with 26 other Catholic theologians, priests and public figures – I signed a letter to the Times, saying Catholics could in good conscience support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples. Formerly known as the Inquisition, the CDF is a shadowy group of senior bishops and cardinals charged with the promotion and defence of Catholic doctrine. In my case, their intervention has resulted in the cancellation of several public appearances, including a short visiting fellowship to the University of San Diego in 2012, and most recently a talk for the Newman Association in Edinburgh. The association received a letter from Archbishop Leo Cushley, saying he was acting on the instructions of the CDF and that I was not allowed to speak in any church in his diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh.
This climate of theological censorship developed during the papacy of John Paul II, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was the CDF’s hardline president. Benedict appointed the equally authoritarian Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gerhard Müller to that post. Many were surprised when Pope Francis renewed Müller’s appointment, because his heavy-handed approach seemed at odds with Francis’s more open ethos.
Francis has described the church’s preoccupation with contraception, abortion and homosexuality as “obsessive”. It is, he says, a distraction from the church’s primary vocation to live the dynamic joy and freedom of the gospel in a way that makes it attractive to others. If the Catholic church has in recent decades appeared to function as a global police force primarily concerned with controlling people’s sex lives, Francis wants it to instead become a church of the ordinary people, and a champion of the poor and the marginalised over and against the tyranny of the modern economic system.
He has kickstarted the process of reform that followed the second Vatican council (1962–65), which stalled during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. While ruling out women’s ordination, he has been quietly insisting on the appointment of more women to positions of influence in the Vatican. For example, the number of women on the International Theological Commission, which acts as theological advisor to the Magisterium, has just been increased from two to five.
Whatever happens in Rome over the next week or so might be decisive for any future direction: the church of Francis or the church of Benedict? The power struggles being played out suggest these two factions might be heading for a messy divorce.
So, why would a feminist stay in such a male-dominated institution where progressive liberalism is repeatedly thwarted? Progress is a dubious concept, and our rights and freedoms are daily corroded by the politics of greed, power and wealth. The Catholic church has a rich tradition of social teaching and solidarity with the poor which challenges these neo-liberal corporate values and offers a different way of living. It is a rich and diverse tradition, weaving together a vast multicultural family that defies the growing xenophobia and exclusivity of modern western societies. It offers a perspective from which to evaluate our muddled values and short-term goals against a more enduring and hopeful outlook on what it means to be human.
The church’s intellectual heritage is a complex mixture of theology, philosophy, art and science that enriches the mind, even if its own leaders have tended to be the worst enemies of this tradition – the sex abuse scandal has revealed a malignant darkness at the heart of the hierarchy. Yet all this is just as true of life outside the church. One should expect better of those who claim to be Christian, but in reality we humans are a species with a peculiar proclivity towards violence, shame and corruption.
Christians call it original sin, and I find in the Catholic church a powerful narrative of hope and redemption in the midst of that.
It is surely worth struggling for.