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Feb 10 2013

The Catholic Church undermined from within

NPR had an interesting story on the controversy in France as that country’s legislature moves ahead on its plans to legalize same-sex marriage and allow adoption by same-sex couples. While the changes have support in the urban areas, the rural areas are more hostile, especially to the adoption provision, which is an interesting reversal of the situation in the US where same-sex adoption has become accepted.

The story is about a 74-year old Roman Catholic priest Elie Geffray in the village of Ereac (population 650) who also happens to be its mayor. Geffray is a supporter of same-sex marriage and says that he welcomes the changes and looks forward to marrying such couples once that is allowed. He says that, “Secularism is the great virtue of French democracy. It allows people of different convictions – Muslims, Catholics, atheists – to live together. I’m very attached to this principle because I must distinguish between the religious and the political in my two functions, and we must never mix them.”

He “supports same-sex marriage and adoption rights because he believes it is now time for gay citizens to be fully recognized and have equal rights” and also believes that “the Catholic Church made a huge mistake by getting involved in the debate over same-sex marriage.”

But it is not only elderly priests in remote rural areas that are defying the official line. I have heard that the much younger Catholic priest in the Cleveland suburb I live in speaks favorably in his sermons of gay people too and about his own brother who is gay and in a long-term loving relationship that is accepted by his family and how he thinks that the church is wrong on this issue.

I suspect that these are not the isolated cases they seem and such subversion of official Catholic doctrine by its foot soldiers (priests and nuns) is more common than we realize. After all, it is those people who are in touch with ordinary parishioners who come to them with their problems and, unless they are rigidly doctrinaire, they must be touched by the anguish that so many believing Catholics feel because they are doing things that the church deems to be grievous sins.

Given the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church, I am surprised that the bishops have not cracked down on such priests for their open opposition to church doctrine. Perhaps these priests are being indulged because the church is finding it increasingly hard to recruit priests and staff its churches so it can ill afford to discipline priests and yank them out of service. The local priest does not seem to have suffered any consequences, at least publicly, perhaps because he is popular with the parishioners of this somewhat affluent community and hauling him over the coals would create resentment, especially since the local bishop is already unpopular because of his authoritarian style and the high-handed way he closed many churches, a decision that was reversed by the Vatican. As for the French priest, it is unlikely that the church can spare someone for a small rural community.

On the other hand, the nuns in the US were rebuked for much less defiance. Perhaps this is because nuns are considered second-class and thus more likely to be put in their place by the male hierarchy.

The Catholic Church fascinates me as a sociological phenomenon. How many times must they be humiliatingly forced, kicking and screaming, to change their views on scientific and social and moral issues because the world and even its own followers and workers have left them far behind, before they realize that it is better to be forward thinking than anchored to the past? The top people cannot be that stupid. Surely they must realize that their dogged determination to not accept reality will speed the process of irrelevance because when it comes to homosexuality and contraception (and even abortion), they are not just losing the battle for hearts and minds but they have already lost?

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Kengi

    Never underestimate the power of the reality distortion field created by surrounding yourself with yes-men. I would imagine that it’s especially powerful if you believe you are the Earthly representative of a god.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    The top people cannot be that stupid

    Of course they’re not. But by the time they’re near the top of the heirarchy they are old, rich, and powerful and there’s reason to budge from the status quo. They’ve already got theirs. And they couldn’t care if the church collapses like a house of cards, as long as it doesn’t happen for a bit longer (and even if it does, they’ll be the ones throwing everyone else overboard while the ship sinks) It’s just like any other badly managed mega-business, except there’s no board of directors to come in and replace the top managers. It is, in fact, a perfect case study of why boards of directors are a good idea.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    That’s a good point about the usefulness of a board to oversee the organization and give it feedback from the ‘real world’. As I understand it, it is just such a board that is pushing for changes in the Boy Scouts of America.

  4. 4
    Ernest Valdemar (@ErnestValdemar)

    France is an interesting case, in that the constitution of the Fifth Republic embodies the legal concept of laicism, which goes beyond disestablishment or separation, and requires than any official government policy, legislation, decision, etc., must have a secular justification. So even if Father Gaffrey opposes marriage equality in line with his church, Mayor Gaffrey cannot legally oppose it on religious grounds.

    NB: IANAL, but I became interested in laicism when I started to question the effectiveness and consequences of the establishment and free-exercise clauses in the US constitution.

  5. 5
    lorn

    I suspect that a lot of the difference between the Catholic churches reaction to dissent in the US and French has to do with the relative positions of the church in the two countries. The French started their resistance to religion much earlier and have had longer to undermine the religious authorities and their standing within the culture. American nuns, both north and south, live in cultures that tolerate persecution from the church. If the Pope goes after French dissenters too strongly and openly it very well might undermine what little standing the Catholic church has held onto.

  6. 6
    Timothy

    And — for the first time in 600 years — a pope hands in his resignation:

    http://news.yahoo.com/pope-resign-feb-28-says-hes-too-infirm-115602824.html

    At approximately the same time many of these issues (such as gay marriage) are coming to a head.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    It was a surprise since he is an ambitious man who really wanted to be pope. He can’t give the reason that he is going to spend time with his family.

  8. 8
    Timothy

    leaving a job for ‘health reasons’ seems to run a close second to “spend time with family”.

    It’s rare that I believe either.

  9. 9
    baal

    I’m waiting with baited breath to find out if the top folks at the Holy See see having pope bene resign as a looking backwards action based on the RCC losing donating members in droves or as a forward looking pre-emptive step to get ahead of a scandal story that we’ll find out about eventually.

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