For the next two weeks, an extraordinary gathering of Catholic Church leaders will meet in Rome to discuss the future of marriage and family. In many ways, it’s the typical collection of older, mostly white men (and, in keeping with the Church’s benighted view of women, one nun). But it could signal the beginning of the end of the love affair between the Catholic Church and the anti-gay evangelical right.
The synod will not reach any conclusion, and it certainly won’t result in a change in Church policy on marriage equality. But would it could do is signal a shift in emphasis, away from the harsh condemnations of Pope Francis’s predecessors toward a less political, more pastoral approach to families of all kinds.
And that would be bad news for the religious right in America.
For the better part of the marriage wars, antigay evangelicals have been joined at the front with the Catholic hierarchy, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who has made attacking gays seem like the most important issue facing the Church today. In fact, hatred of gays become a great unifier among former enemies. Pastor Fred Hagee liked to call the Catholic Church “the great whore of Babylon,” but that didn’t stop the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue from embracing Hagee because they agreed to hate others (us) more than each other.
Rick Santorum’s dismal presidential candidacy only solidified the relationship between conservative Protestants and the Catholic leadership. Santorum is Catholic, but he was the candidate who spoke the language of the Protestant religious right. Evangelicals didn’t exactly trust Romney (or his Mormonism), and Newt Gingrich’s marital track record left a lot to be desired. Of all the candidates, Santorum was the one who resonated the most with evangelicals, because he saw the world the way they did: black and white, and fast headed to hell in a handbasket.
Pope Francis has already signaled that he’s not thrilled with bishops who think the Church is a better dressed version of the GOP. When it came time to appoint a replacement for Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, the pope reached well into the ranks to come up with Blase Cupich, the bishop of Spokane. Cupich opposed Washington state’s marriage equality measure in 2012, but he made a point of saying the Church “has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility towards homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity.”
Now that might not sound like much, but contrast it with Bishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis who played a leading role in that state’s campaign and who calls marriage equality a plot by Satan. Or compare it to Cardinal George himself, who defunded a charity that give bikes to poor kids because the charity belonged to an umbrella group that had endorsed marriage equality.
Francis has also apparently demoted one of the most outspoken American bishops, Raymond Burke, moving him to a lower ranked ceremonial position from his powerful Vatican post. Burke is best known for threatening to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians, like John Kerry, whom Burke deemed insufficiently Catholic.
In another sign that the Church is coming off its hard line, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave an interview in which he said that Catholic schools’ firings of LGBT teachers is a situation that “needs to be rectified.” O’Malley is well regarded by the pope, so he’s not speaking out of turn.
It would be a material change for the better if the Church stopped firing teachers and asking elderly gay parishioners to get a divorce. But it would also have a big political impact in the U.S. The antigay religious right has depended on the Catholic bishops to help carry the case for them and, just as importantly, to give them extra credibility. If the pope decides that the Church should focus more on things like poverty, then the political landscape will be very different.
Already, conservatives are showing signs of panic. A group of four dozen Catholic and evangelical conservatives has issued an open letter to the pope, urging him to “support efforts to preserve what is right and just in existing marriage laws, to resist any changes to those laws that would further weaken the institution, and to restore legal provisions that protect marriage as a conjugal union of one man and one woman.” Among the luminaries to sign that letter is evangelical superstar Rick Warren, who insists that he never opposed marriage equality.
Now for a lot of people, the changes will seem small–kind of the same old homophobia, but in new wine skins. But considering that the Church’s clock counts in centuries, not hours, any change would be momentous. And if it sets the anti-gay right further adrift from mainstream politics, all the better. Bishops shouldn’t be making common cause with haters.
Too bad it would take the pope to point that out to them.