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The confusion is the point

Pope Francis plays a tactical game in his undermining of doctrines on sexuality

Same-sex couples receive a public blessing at the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 20, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by Martin Meissner

The confusion is the point
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The Vatican is going to give the Roman Catholic faithful whiplash. In October, the Vatican secretary of state said no to the German bishops who want to ordain women and bless homosexual relationships. He warned that these topics were not up for discussion, and that those who defy church teaching may be subject to discipline. Nonetheless, there was unease among conservative Catholics, who feared that this assertion of orthodoxy was less about doctrinal fidelity than tactics.

They were right. In December, the Vatican released Fiducia Supplicans, which allows “spontaneous” non-liturgical pastoral blessings for same-sex couples and others in “irregular situations”—which is to say, those engaged in adultery and fornication as well as sodomy—while also insisting that blessing these couples does not mean “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.” Forceful pushback from laity, priests, and bishops resulted in an early January clarification via press release, in which the Vatican swore that it is not altering church doctrine. Really.

The incoherence is intentional, as the pope and his allies attempt to change Catholic teaching without changing Catholic teaching. Liberal Catholics may be eager for the pope to endorse the sexual revolution, but Francis knows that doing so would shatter the church he leads. Instead, he has eroded the bonds between church doctrine and practice, suggesting that doctrinal fidelity is an impediment to pastoral care, and that there is something hard-hearted about preaching and enforcing church teachings, especially about sex.

Thus, Fiducia Supplicans and its press-release addendum play both sides. Conservative Catholics can reassure themselves that Church teaching remains unchanged, even as liberal clergy are permitted to bless couples whose coupling is intrinsically sinful (it all depends on what the meanings of “blessing” and “couple” are).

In this, as in much else, the pope has empowered Catholic liberals who want to change church teaching and has punished traditional Catholics who seek to preserve it. The contrast between his disdain for Latin Mass-loving “trad Catholics” and his promotion of pro-LGBT clerics such as the Jesuit priest James Martin is not subtle.

And yet Francis has always pulled up short of trying to officially make changes to official Catholic doctrine. Faithful Catholics may find this comforting, a sign that the Holy Spirit is preserving their church from heresy even under a pope of dubious orthodoxy. For the rest of us, it is a sign that Francis is fickle, or, more likely, that he is clever enough not to provoke a schism in the church that he leads.

This is the liberal Catholic hope for Francis’ papacy—a church slowly transformed to accommodate the spirit of the age in general, and the sexual revolution in particular.

As Ross Douthat and others have observed, Francis has played a careful game—never officially overturning settled doctrines on marriage and sexuality, but constantly undermining them by word and deed. Doctrine is formally unchanged, but pastoral application changes in a manner that effectively negates it. In this way the Catholic Church might be transformed unofficially—and once it is remade in practice, the practically victorious liberals might set about officially changing its teachings with no real opposition left.

This is the liberal Catholic hope for Francis’ papacy—a church slowly transformed to accommodate the spirit of the age in general, and the sexual revolution in particular. The problem for the Catholic left is that there is no sign that reinforcements are coming to aid them. They thought that the pews would be full again if only there was a pope who focused on global warming and poor immigrants, and who toned down the old-fashioned sexual morality. But the dream that a liberalizing church would see a revival of its sagging membership has not been fulfilled.

The Catholic Church is going to keep shrinking for the foreseeable future, but its most dedicated members, along with the next generation of priests, is going to be much more conservative than Francis’ generation of priests and parishioners was. Benedict XVI’s prediction of a smaller, but more faithful, Catholic Church may be coming to pass. In the coming years, the people who will still be going to Mass are those who really believe.

Those who are entering the priesthood, or other forms of celibate religious life, now tend to be theologically conservative. Ditto for those still having children at anything like the rate of the stereotypical Catholic families of yore. In short, liberal Catholicism is going to go extinct unless the children of conservative Catholics stop being conservative but remain active in the church.

Furthermore, Francis is old and has suffered a string of health problems. Though he has reshaped the College of Cardinals in his image, there is no surety that the next pope will share his outlook. Liberal Catholics cannot trust historical inevitability, and therefore have reason to push the limits now. But as the response to Fiducia Supplicans makes clear, Pope Francis has reason to move cautiously. Whatever else he may want, the pope does not want his legacy to be a global schism. Instead, it will be confusion—and schism may now be inevitable.

Nathanael Blake

Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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