sex and the Vatican

The Roman Catholic church is in trouble over sex – again. Ed Field looks at the problem and comes up with a simple idea: it's time for a Reformation.

We’re all fallible. Except the Pope, under certain conditions, laid down centuries ago by the Catholic Church. Forgive me for raising the issue of papal infallibility – it’s a bit unfair when the Vatican is in such a state of utter, plane-crash disarray – but the temptation to give in to a little schadenfreude is just too much. Moreover, this Church’s obstinate refusal to face some serious truths about the way they run their show, and to reform, begs comment.

Before you accuse me of being a rabid anti-theist, let me say that I know, and am fond of, enough people who have some sort of faith system to respect their right to do whatever it takes to maintain it, as long as they do it in a way that does not abuse the rest of us. Unfortunately this can involve belonging to a large and unwieldy institution, whose antique dogma, ossified morality and proselytising ways are often incomprehensible – and occasionally abhorrent – to me. So while I may love the person, I don’t always feel the same way about the religion they have chosen to embrace – which is just another of those little social conflicts that make life so interesting.

Back to the Church of Rome, where all the brouhaha is taking place at the moment, be it in the Vatican, where gay orgies and blackmail are being suggested by the Italian media, or here in the UK. One moment the most senior British Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, is suggesting that the rule of celibacy for his clergy should be terminated, and the next he is facing allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’. And now his resignation has been accepted by Il Papa. Last year O’Brien was voted ‘Bigot of the Year’ by Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity, for his pernicious and alienating views on gay marriage.

All this follows on the Pope’s disastrous 2005 message against the use of condoms to his church’s more than one billion adherents.

All this follows on the Pope’s disastrous 2005 message against the use of condoms to his church’s more than one billion adherents. Taken at any level this was massively irresponsible, but given the amount of medical expertise available on the epidemic spread of AIDS in Africa, it was criminal, even genocidal. Add to that the ‘paedophile priest’ scandal, rumbling on for the past six decades, and it is the Church, rather than Eliot’s precarious hippopotamus, resting on its belly in the African mud.

Why is the Catholic Church so sex-obsessed? The answer may lie in the old adage: ‘if you control people’s sexuality, you control their lives too’. Especially if this control has the approval of the state, the laws of the land, and is reinforced with the threat of burning miscreants alive as well as the promise of roasting them in hell for all eternity after death. Most of us are happily aware that this heady power of sexual suppression has, of late, greatly diminished, but there is still a strong nostalgic desire within the Catholic hierarchy to fiddle about with the erotic lives of its flock. Perhaps this is because they don’t (or at least aren’t supposed to) have one of their own; the act of loving Jesus will take care of those testosterone surges and all that arrested sexual development. Well, I’m sorry, but human nature tells me that it won’t.

I can’t help thinking of Hadrian VII, by Baron Corvo (aka Frederick Rolfe, an eccentric, failed candidate for the Catholic priesthood). It was a lovely piece of Edwardian fantasy about – surprise, surprise – an eccentric, failed candidate for the priesthood who, through a series of extraordinary twists and turns, goes to Rome and gets elected Pope, the first English Pope since the twelfth century. The new, chain-smoking pontiff then sets about reforming Sancta Mater Ecclesia in a way that shocks the sclerotic old bag to her very core.

Rolfe was as openly gay as anyone dared to be in those days. He certainly made no secret of it. So I feel sure that, were he alive today, there would be a place for him as a priest in that rather obscure splinter of the Church of Rome, the Reformed Catholic Church. They have their international headquarters in Toledo. That’s Toledo, Ohio, by the way, not Spain. I’ve got the feeling they’re not very rich and I know that their website definitely needs a bit of a makeover. And they have yet to wangle a 110-acre city state of their own like the Vatican. But it’s a good start.

The RCC say, “We welcome all people without regard to race, colour, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, contraception beliefs, or other issues that are between the Creator and the created. We neither condone, nor do we practice discrimination implicitly or tacitly on the basis of any human authority.” They are happy about gay marriage, they love women priests and priests marrying post-ordination are also A1-OK.

So, Your Next Holiness, please note: all you have to do is to adopt the RCC’s rules and that’s the reformation taken care of. You could even give it a capital ‘R’, and it would go down rather well in history. The only thing lacking in the RCC’s credo is a powerful ecumenical drive for the genuine homogenisation of all Christian churches. Such an action would stop this silly sectarian guff that continues around the globe. And give a shining example to those other, slightly younger and schism-prone religions with a tendency to underline their differences by car-bombing scores of innocent bystanders in the belief that they are infallibly right to do so.