Stephen McGinty: Wanted - an original synod

Pope Francis is trying harder than his predecessors to understand homosexuality, but no-one should expect a rapid change in the Church’s teachings, says Stephen McGinty

Pope Francis in the Vatican yesterday. Picture: Getty
Pope Francis in the Vatican yesterday. Picture: Getty

OSCAR Wilde’s life was full of battles but none greater, in his estimation, than the one with the wallpaper of the Parisian hotel in which he lay dying. “This wallpaper will be the death of me,” he quipped one of us will have to go.” At the time the Irish author and playwright was a broken man, living in exile from polite society after his conviction for what Lord Alfred Douglas described as “the love that dare not speak its name”.

While Wilde was dying in Paris, one of his former lovers was in Rome composing the lyrics to a song which the current Archbishops of Glasgow and St Andrews and Edinburgh have since sung on many occasions. The Scots College in Rome, where priests have been trained for over 400 years, has a college song whose lyrics go as follows:

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From the land of purple heather, from the dear and distant north,

Scotland casts our lot together, Bonnie Scotland sends us forth,

To the city by the Tiber, to the height of St Peter’s Dome,

To bear the bright tradition back of everlasting Rome.

Here’s a hand and faith behind it, here’s my love till death shall part;

Give yours and I will bind it, with the dearest of my heart.

The author of the song was an Englishman, John Gray, a published poet and novelist who had been romantically entwined with Oscar Wilde, who named his celebrated character, Dorian Gray, after him in order to capture his affections. Accepted by the college as a mature student, Gray put away what he viewed as errors of his youth and rose to be a canon and secretary of the Scots College society.

I thought of both Oscar Wilde and John Gray this week when the Vatican published a document which has been described as “an earthquake” and a “stunning change” by supporters while one critic, John Smeaton, (not the hero of the attempted bombing of Glasgow Airport, but the founder of Voice of the Family) viewed it as “one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history”.

Now, first consider the fact that over the centuries the Catholic Church has produced a number of dodgy documents and speeches such as Pope Urban II’s decree launching the First Crusade in 1095 or the Inquisition’s 1616 instruction warning Galileo against telling people about his crazy notion that the earth circled the sun.

An institution that stretches back almost two thousand years is bound to have documents and statements that it rather regrets, so what made this week’s statement from the Synod on the Family so startling and inflammatory?

It was the fact that is was written not out of a spirit of condemnation – which we have largely come to expect whenever the Catholic Church turns its attention to matters of the flesh – but of understanding. It asked pertinent questions to which critics felt the obvious answer was no. “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

On the issue of gay relationships the statement said: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” What the Church was stating was that, finally, it recognised that love was an important component in gay relationships.

This document was prepared in the aftermath of a synod in which there was genuine discussion and debate on issues that affect modern Catholics. It was a synod to which members of the laity were invited, so celibate men sat and listened to couples who have actual sex, and who discussed the reality of life in the modern world.

An Australian couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola, told the synod how Catholic friends of theirs had allowed their gay son to bring his partner to Christmas dinner: “They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family.” Yet other Catholic groups viewed this as the wrong response as it “normalised” sexual behaviour which the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church still views as “an act of grave depravity”.

What should not be in doubt is that the Catholic Church remains opposed to homosexual acts. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, when head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith published ‘Homosexualitatis Problema’ a letter on the pastoral care of homosexual persons in which he wrote: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

In fact the Church’s view on gay marriage was made clear in this week’s statement which also said: “The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” However, what is clear is that Pope Francis is moving the Church’s focus away from the persistent condemnation of homosexuality that marked the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Closer to home, this conservative view was also reflected in the views of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning and the incendiary statements of the now disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien who appeared to have been practising that against which he preached.

It is as if Pope Francis is reverting to the old adage of “detest the sin but love the sinner”, but he’s actually going further in an attempt to understand the biological and genetic drive behind this “sin”. He’s rather good at this because he too views himself as a sinner and one who has endured his fair share of long dark nights of the soul, particularly in his years in charge of the Jesuit order in Argentina under the junta.

Yet no-one should hold their breath in the belief that the Catholic Church is going to change views which just 30 years ago were comfortably shared by the British Government and the majority of the British public. The success of gay rights has been a remarkable achievement, but when the Catholic Church changes it does so over centuries, not decades.

This week’s statement is, in effect, a holding document, a matter for discussion and wider thought and next year will be discussed again at a second synod. While it already has powerful critics – such as the head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, who described it as “unacceptable” – it clearly has the support of the Pope who became the first pontiff to use the word “gay” instead of ‘homosexual’ and who famously said of gay members of the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

For Oscar Wilde, who was born 160 years ago this week, and whose short stories such as The Happy Prince remain timeless odes to selfless love, the document could be read as a belated birthday present.