The recent change in Vatican policy allowing priests to bless same-gender couples has provoked an unprecedented backlash against Pope Francis and his openness to LGBTQ+ people, a backlash that some fear might devolve into a schism in the Catholic Church.

In Africa, home to almost three hundred million of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics, Catholic bishops in Zambia, Malawi, and Uganda have declared that the blessings of same-gender couples are not permitted in their jurisdictions. Thirty-one of Africa’s fifty-four nation-states have laws penalizing homosexuality and homosexual behavior as criminal.

In Europe, the Polish bishops conference stated that it does not intend to implement a policy of blessings of same-sex couples. In the UK, the British Confraternity of Catholic Clergy issued a position paper stating that blessings of same-sex couples “are pastorally and practically inadmissible.” German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former head of the Vatican office for doctrine, said the policy is “self-contradictory” and called upon diocesan priests to ban the blessings.

In Kazakhstan, Archbishop Tomash Peta and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Saint Mary in Astana issued a statement declaring the new policy a “great deception,” asserting that allowing blessings of same-sex couples “directly and seriously contradict Divine Revelation and the uninterrupted, bimillennial doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church.”

The Kazakhstan statement also warns priests and laity that “this effort to legitimize such blessings” will have “far-reaching and destructive consequences” and makes the Catholic Church into a “propagandist” for “gender ideology.”

In the USA, Reuter quotes Notre Dame University professor Ulrich L. Lehner: the policy “invites misunderstanding and will sow confusion … it is, and I hate to say it, an invitation to schism”.

In his Christmas audience with members of the Curia, in response to these criticisms and attacks, Pope Francis warned that too many clerics held rigid ideological positions that prevented them from understanding and addressing the actual needs and concerns of the people.

At root the argument between Francis and his detractors has to do with the nature of the pastoral work of the Catholic Church. Francis sees the Church as a type of field hospital and sanctuary in combat zones, a place of refuge and care for those most in need of understanding and compassion. His opponents see the Church as the guardian of God’s eternal, unchangeable laws.

In the approach of Francis, you first minister to actual persons in their actual situations. In his opponents’ approach, you begin pastoral care by calling for repentance.

The fear of schism is a real concern.

The ordination of women and openness to sexual minorities has seriously split the Anglican Churches in African countries. In February 2023, the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) declared itself in “impaired communion” with the Church of England due to its decision to allow blessings for same-sex couples. This action highlights the depth of the divisions within the world-wide Anglican Communion.

Since 2019, more than 6,000 United Methodist Church congregations have voted to disaffiliate from the denomination, representing around one-fifth of its total churches. Many of these congregations have joined the newly formed Global Methodist Church, which explicitly prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy.

Sex/Religion is a powerful explosive mix that is cynically exploited not only to cause destructive divisions among Christians but also to cause insidious hatreds among citizens in our civil society.

Putin says he is waging war against Ukraine to stop the spread of Western sexual decadence from destroying Russia’s families. Some American Christians believe him and echo his crusade for “family values.” Archbishop Kirill of Moscow, Patriarch of all Russian Orthodox Churches, has justified Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a “holy war” to stop the subversion of Russian culture by “gay parades” and other sexual perversions of Western culture.

Those of us who promote tolerance must address the real concerns of people who are confused and alarmed at the rapid social changes involving gender and sexuality. Otherwise, we will soon face a strong reaction against the basic liberal values of our society.

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Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network for Justice and Peace; member, Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.

This Op-Ed published in Windy City Times 02 January 2024

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