Is the pope Catholic? Apparently, a lot of bishops don’t think so. The just-finished Vatican synod on the family harkened back to the good ol’ days of the Borgias in terms of intrigue and (at least metaphorical) back-stabbing. The main target was Pope Francis, who had the temerity to suggest that the Catholic Church may want to check the calendar to see what century it’s in.
When the idea of the synod was first floated last year, it seemed as if the Vatican might be very slowly thawing its attitude toward LGBT people. After all, last year’s run up to the current synod featured a devout, married heterosexual couple giving the pope a lecture about the importance of gay rights. Plus an early draft of the synod document suggested that there might be real progress in the offing.
So where did we end up after the 270 bishops were done their work? A tiny opening for heterosexual couples who live together on the grounds that their “lasting” and “reliable” relationships may eventually lead to marriage. As for gay people, a reaffirmation that we should be treated with respect, which of course does not extend to marriage equality or, for that matter, nondiscrimination protections.
The synod’s tight-fisted approach to empathy comes as no surprise. After all, Francis has largely acquired his reputation as the lovable pope by changing the Vatican’s tone even though he shows no signs of disagreeing with its policies.
But even the tone change is threatening to the hard-liners, who pulled out all the stops during the synod. Rumors appeared that Francis has a brain tumor, implying that his judgment was impaired. An African cardinal said that Islamic terrorists and western liberal cultural (including marriage equality) were the twin “beasts of the Apocalypse.” Another unnamed bishop said that the synod had the “whiff of Satan.” Thirteen bishops, including New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, wrote a confidential letter to the pope (promptly leaked) complaining the Francis’s decisions leading up the synod would not end up “reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family.”
In short, Pope Francis has his own version of the Republican Freedom Caucus in Congress: a group of extremists who are so focused on doctrinal purity (as they define it) that anyone who deviates one degree is anathema. Even the pope.
It’s not as if Pope Francis was ever going to embrace marriage equality. But even acknowledging the validity of gay people in any meaningful way is so threatening to a faction of the hierarchy that they would gladly take down the pope for his extraordinarily modest remarks. So if you thought change was coming, think again. The Church is in a battle among ultra-conservatives and not-so-conservatives. Whoever wins, it’s not likely to mean a lot.