The shock waves from the Irish vote on Friday continue to reverberate. In an extremely sobering piece, the prominent English religion journalist Damian Thompson, himself a Roman Catholic, discusses the real potential that same-sex marriage has to provoke a schism in the Catholic Church. From his column:
• In the West, practising Catholics – let alone lapsed ones – are strikingly more gay-friendly than they were even 10 years ago. To quote Pew Research, ‘among churchgoing Catholics of all ages – that is, those who attend Mass at least weekly – roughly twice as many say homosexuality should be accepted (60 per cent) as say it should be discouraged (31 per cent)’. Admittedly, practising Catholics have been merrily disregarding Catholic teaching on contraception for years, safe in the knowledge that no one has a clue whether they follow the rules. But – no offence – gay couples in church often stick out a mile. If they’re in a civil union, many priests will refuse to give the Communion – or, alternatively, make a big show of allowing it. So much depends on the parish. Indeed, attitudes towards gays have become an easy way of distinguishing conservative from liberal parishes, and of creating division in the first place.
• Liberal bishops and priests, even some cardinals, are beginning to change their tune on same-sex marriage. Here’s one reaction to Ireland’s gay vote: ‘I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.’ That was the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, an arch-liberal who wins applause in the Irish media by attacking old-style Catholic prelates (many of whom, conveniently, are deeply compromised by covering up child abuse).
Thompson says that there is an enormous gulf between the bishops of Africa, where the Catholic faith is booming, and the liberal bishops of Europe (and North America, he might have added), where the faith is either dying or stalling out). Nobody among the Catholic hierarchy seems to have noticed that this issue has all but extinguished the global Anglican communion, which is down to a withering liberal European and North American flock, and a huge, vibrant African one. Meanwhile, there is the Synod coming up this fall, where there will be a showdown over communion for the divorced and for gays who do not live chastely (it is reported in the French media that today, key European bishops are meeting privately in the Vatican to plot out strategy for pushing through liberal reforms at the Synod). Thompson suspects that if this goes much further, the tension will snap the bonds of communion:
But (see above) Catholics have a Magisterium whose teachings on homosexuality can’t be changed without the Church deciding that it has the authority to scrap them. At which point some traditional Catholics will up sticks to the modern equivalent of Avignon and we’ll have two popes. Or three, if dear Benedict XVI is still alive.
You think this is alarmist? As Thompson avers, it has happened before (the Avignon papacies). Besides, the same people who tell you to relax are the ones who insisted that the marriage of their gay neighbors wouldn’t change a thing, and those who said it would were just being paranoid. Today, in 2015, you are a fool if you believe that. This issue is going to split nearly every church in our country, as it has been doing in the Mainline Protestant churches. (Though the Orthodox churches are among the most conservative, one hears talk through the Orthodox grapevine that revisionist, pro-gay opinions are taking root in elite ecclesial circles.) As the polling shows, even regular massgoing Catholics in the US do not stand with their Church on this issue, but with the Zeitgeist.
Normalizing homosexuality is so radically at odds with the clear teaching of the Bible, and two millennia of unbending Christian teaching, that should it happen in the Roman church at the fall Synod or at any time, the act will be a sign to traditional Catholics that something has gone terribly wrong — and we will likely have a schism.
Never bet on bishops of any church to take courageous, unpopular stands. For the bishops of Europe and North America, standing with Scripture and 2,000 years of consistent magisterial teaching is becoming extremely unpopular. What’s happening to Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco, besieged by his own flock, is a preview of what’s coming for many, maybe even most, American bishops. As the Pew numbers show, if the US held a referendum on same-sex marriage today, and limited the vote to Catholics who go to mass weekly, it would pass by Irish-style margins. Think about that.
Now, when gay-rights groups start suing under anti-discrimination law to remove the tax-exempt status from religious schools and institutions that uphold traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and sexuality in general, how strong do you anticipate bishops, priests, and lay leaders — Catholic and non-Catholic — to be in the face of those kinds of attacks? How much support do you expect they will have from a laity, the majority of which has already gone to the pro-SSM side? And on the Catholic front, how strong do you expect a bishop to be when he cannot count on Rome having his back, as is the case under this pontificate?
Questions like these are why there is no more important story in the life of the Christian churches in the West today than the struggle over gay rights. It cuts to the heart of the authority of Scripture and Tradition, as well as radically challenges the normative anthropology of Christianity. There are plenty of people, both inside and outside the churches, who have a vested interest in denying the radicalism of this struggle. But don’t be fooled. And don’t be misled on another point: These problems are not simply theoretical. They are right here, right now, and will only grow more powerful and more divisive. Ireland is a bellwether for all of us in the West, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.