Pope Francis’s Task

imageAs Pope Francis prepares for the upcoming and crucial synod on the family which must deal with such topics as divorce, contraception and same sex marriage, he has an exceptionally difficult task on his hands. It doesn’t need to be this way, though. As someone who stumbled across theological studies almost by accident, I was captivated by the intellectual brilliance, honesty and passion of the Christian theological tradition. As a typical Roman Catholic, I thought of my religion in a very one-dimensional way: to be a Roman Catholic was to ‘get’ mass on a Sunday. Nothing else really mattered. Hence the rise, since the liberalising Vatican 2, of the so-called ‘a la carte’ Catholic who attends mass but ignores church teachings with which he/she doesn’t agree. Most Catholics know what the mass is, but haven’t much of a clue where the church’s teachings on sexual matters come from. So the Pope will have to try to communicate the church’s moral teachings to a generation that is, on the one hand, directly descended from the sixties sexual revolutionaries and on the other, largely theologically illiterate. I don’t see how the church can for much longer avoid setting up parish based theology programmes for adults: then at least mature and interested Catholics will be able to make informed choices as to which moral teachings their consciences prompt them to accept or allow them to reject. Such a course of action would also further an important agenda of Vatican 2, which prioritised the autonomy of conscience over obedience.

There is another pressing issue also. Roman Catholicism grounds it’s sexual teachings largely on the 13th century natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas. He, in turn, based his thought on the biological science of the day, which presumed that only heterosexual, procreative sex occurs in nature; nor did he know anything about evolution. Were he alive today, he would, I am sure, reassess his moral conclusions in light of the fact – among many others – that the human species is most closely related to a primate species that is highly bisexual (bonobos). It is also a female dominant species, which would no doubt come as a major shock to the aristocratic and famously patriarchal Aquinas. That’s a topic for another day’s blog, however!

See my Sunday Times article “Apes Show it’s Natural to be Gay: the biologically grounded teachings of Thomas Aquinas could help today’s church learn to accept same sex relationships”.

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