Theological turning point: Why the Vatican has turned against progressive Catholics and the LGBTIQ movement

“The biggest theological story in the world right now – by far – is coming from Germany,” says the Southern Baptist pundit Albert Mohler, head of one of the world’s largest theological colleges.

In a co-ordinated effort, over 100 Catholic Churches in Germany have held mass blessings of gay partnerships the Washinton Post reports:

“The rainbow is a political sign,” one priest, Hans-Albert Gunk of the Dominikanerkloster St. Albertus Magnus, told congregants at one of the first events in the multiday procession of ceremonies the Post reported. “God excludes no one from his love,” he said.

Just as in many protestant denominations, a battle over LGBTIQ issues has been waged in the Catholic Church. Germany happens to be a hotspot for liberal attitudes. And just as in the Anglican and Methodist worlds, Africa provides a conservative counterbalance.

The German mass-protest (“mass” both because of its size and the blessings occurring at Catholic masses) is a response to a ruling by the Vatican that same sex blessings are not legitimate in the Catholic Church. As Eternity reported in March, the ruling was  endorsed by Pope Francis and came as a “dubium” or answer to a doctrinal question. The dubium was “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?”. And the responsum or answer was “Negative.”

So the orthodox or Biblical answer to the issue of same sex marriage or blessings was upheld – by a Pope who famously had said of gay relationships “who am I to judge?” and was earlier seen by some liberal Catholics as favouring a revision of that doctrine.

“… the Rhine flows into the Tiber, and hits the Zambesi.”

The  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s commentary affirmed that marriage must confirm to “designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord”.

In reaction to the Vatican ruling, liberal Catholic priests in Germany who had conducted gay blessing ceremonies in semi secret, have begun to conduct them very publically, according to Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal. This somewhat matches the protests in the Unitied Methodist Church, with 1,000 ministers coming out publically as African delegates defeated a push for LGBTIQ ministers and same sex marriage in that church.

Just like the United Methodists who are spread across North America, Africa, Asia and Europe, the progressive forces in the Catholic church have come up against a conservative majority spread throught a global church. While the Anglican Communion has effectively split along geographical lines with progressive majorities – and more liberal doctrines – in the United States and Canada, and a strongly conservatibe “Global South”, the Methodists have not worked out whether to split or adopt regional variations. The Catholics, with their ideal of being a universal church, do not have the option.

Mohler reminds his readers of a useful metaphor of Catholicism, the idea of three rivers – the Tiber (the river of Rome), the Rhine (the German River), and the Zambezi (the mighty African river). In To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Ross Douthat – who is both a New York Times columnist and a devout Catholic – recalls a saying that summed up Vatican II: “the Rhine flows into the Tiber” (metaphorically). At Vatican II, the liberal German theological influence was at its height.

But of a 2014 Synod, he quotes another “the Rhine flows into the Tiber, and hits the Zambesi.”

This year’s events in the Catholic world show that the Zambesi remains the stronger river.