The Vatican’s state department sent a formal diplomatic cable to the Italian Republic last week, expressing concern about a proposed “anti-homophobia” law making its way through the country’s parliament.
The move prompted Italian media reports suggesting that Pope Francis and his curia might be at odds over homosexuality — and those reports are likely to soon inform the corners of the American commentariat that would pit the pope against Catholic doctrine, even on issues in which Pope Francis has been an outspoken defender of Church teaching.
The proposed law, dubbed “Zan’s bill” by the Italian media, would introduce new crimes related to “homophobic” and “transphobic” speech in the republic which, its critics say, could impede from teaching Catholic doctrine on gender and sexuality. The Vatican warned that the bill could also contravene a 1984 concordat between the Holy See and Italy guaranteeing the freedom of the Church and Catholic organizations in the country.
The immediate reaction to the news has focused on the Secretariat of State’s unprecedented decision to formally weigh in on the Italian legislative process. But recent media coverage suggests focus will soon shift to Pope Francis’ personal role in the intervention.
Some Italian pundits have tried to argue that the pope’s own foreign service was acting to spite him (in full view of the diplomatic world). But the former president of Italy’s constitutional court, who is currently the general councilor of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, has already called it “unthinkable” that the pope would not have approved personally the Vatican’s diplomatic complaint.
Given that the pope almost certainly approved personally the Vatican’s intervention last week, Francis is now likely to face criticism, just as he did when the CDF reaffirmed Catholic doctrine on sexuality earlier this year, from those who once believed the pope would eventually endorse a wholesale innovation on Catholic sexual ethics.
Regardless of whether that surprise is affected or sincere, it highlights the longstanding tension between media who portray Francis as a foil to his bishops, doctrine, and curia, and the reality of a pope fundamentally committed to the Church’s perennial teachings, albeit with a decidedly pastoral tone.
Earlier this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a response to a doctrinal question asking if the Church could formally bless same sex unions. The response, negative, underlined the Church’s unchanging teaching on the intrinsically disordered nature of homosexual acts, and of the grave sinfulness of sexual activity outside of marriage. The Church could not, the CDF said, bless sin.
That document was published with the express “assent” of the pope. It triggered an international backlash, with hundreds of German clergy staging a mass blessing of same-sex unions in protest, and withering criticism of Francis appearing many Catholic and secular outlets normally reliable in their support for the pope.
Many commentators — and even some clerical leaders — juxtaposed the CDF’s response to Francis’ often quoted, and nearly always mischaracterized line “Who am I to judge?” which was said in response to a specific question about priests who experience same-sex attraction but strive to live their lives and ministry in conformity with the Church’s teaching and disciple.
In recent days, the bishops of the United States voted overwhelmingly to move ahead with drafting a document on the Eucharist, which is set to include a section on so-called Eucharistic consistency, and the problem of Catholics receiving the sacrament while in a state of grave sin.
Some reports framed the bishops’ plan to re-present settled Church teaching and discipline as a plan to deny Biden Communion on a national level. Others accused the bishops of “flouting” warnings from Rome to stop, despite there being no such instruction.
Some reports concluded that the U.S. bishops had drawn a line of opposition on the pope’s authority framing the USCCB as in conflict with pope and the president “both liberals,” one newspaper tweeted.
While the most commonly cited point of contention between Biden and the bishops is his recently adopted abortion absolutism, something underlined by a recent letter from 60 pro-choice Democratic members of Congress, he remains at odds with the Church on a raft of issues, including the controversial Equality Act — which has many of the same provisions as the Italian bill to which the Vatican has formally objected.
Francis has, for his part, repeatedly denounced abortion as akin to contract murder and Nazi eugenics “with white gloves.” He is also the principal author of a document which coined the term Eucharistic coherence and said legislators and heads of government “cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged.”
Of course, there are those who would say that the pope’s tentative support among the Argentine bishops for a civil union measure during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires — support that was under the spotlight amid a controversy over doctored documentary footage last year — indicates that Francis is at odds with the Vatican’s approach to the Italian bill under question. But Francis and bishops in Argentina say he was proposing to his brother bishops, in line with Vatican guidance, that to avoid the wholesale passage of same-sex marriage in the country, the bishops endorse a compromise measure. Whether to agree with Francis on that is a matter of prudential judgment — but to use it to suggest that the pope departs from the Vatican’s approach to policy judgments on homosexuality would seem to be just another mischaracterization.
Francis is both lauded and derided for his spontaneous style and direct approach. To be sure, the pope has made some unusual moves, which have prompted real controversy and over which there are real and legitimate questions. But the perennial lesson of his papacy seems to be that he is never more “surprising” than when he is simply being Catholic.
As the old saying goes, the pope’s Catholic. Both Francis skeptics on the far “right” and Francis apologists on the far “left” seem to fall repeatedly for the myth that the pope wants to abandon doctrine — and both groups seem unwilling to believe it when the pope turns out to be a Catholic. It is not clear if they are equally surprised when bears shit in the woods.