Asymmetric Culture War in the Church of Francis

There’s a rift in the Catholic Church in Italy between “Pope Francis Catholics” and those who favor a more muscular response when “non-negotiable values” (an expression Francis never uses) are at stake. The split is particularly visible at the moment because Italy is close to joining other European countries and the West with a law on same-sex unions. It won’t happen without protest.

On January 30, an organization of lay groups (including the Neocatecumenal Way) will hold a rally in Rome to protest the Italian parliament’s consideration of the law. The rally is not the initiative of the Italian bishops, but it has their “external” support, if in an ambiguous way. The president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (appointed president of the conference by Benedict XVI in 2007, likely to be replaced in 2017) strongly voiced his backing, while the powerful secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino (appointed by Francis in March 2014 and now the most visible spokesperson for Francis among the Italian bishops) emphasized that the Catholic laity have the right to organize the rally but did not come out strongly in favor of it. Most Italian bishops support the rally; those who do not are very cautious in establishing distance between themselves and the Bagnasco camp.

The rally is called “Family Day,” and it’s modeled on the 2007 event held by Italian Catholics who turned out in huge numbers to support the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian bishops in their protest against a proposal by the center-left Romano Prodi to legalize same-sex civil unions (as distinct from gay marriage). Family Day 2007 marked the height of the clash between the political theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on one side, and the political tradition of Catholic progressivism in Italy on the other. Since then, Catholic progressivism in Italian politics has all but disappeared (though not only because of Family Day).

This is relevant for the whole church because Francis has taken a different position than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

He has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics. Italian bishops are divided, and the once-powerful lay movements are divided between progressives afraid to go on the record in favor of legislation on same-sex unions or same-sex marriage, and those who continue to use the rhetoric of the culture war and plan to descend on Rome for the rally. The paradox is that the only Catholics who are responding to Francis’s call for the engagement of the laity in public issues are those who use the bellicose language that Francis makes a point of eschewing. Catholics who welcome Francis’s style and ecclesiology are now less organized and less motivated to stake out visible positions in the church and in politics. Francis is not a culture war pope, but the only organized Catholics he can count on in Italy are those inclined to frame the relationship between the church and the secular age in terms of culture war. In this sense, ecclesiastical politics in the Church of Francis is asymmetric.

But the “Francis effect” does seem to have had an impact on the president of the Italian bishops, Bagnasco. In his opening speech to the meeting of the episcopate on January 25, the cardinal made a cautious opening to civil unions; his pre-Family Day speech of 2007 was much stronger in emphasizing the “non-negotiable values” and the opposition to any law about same-sex unions. This difference between the stance of the bishops nine years ago and today won’t probably go unnoticed among the leaders and participants of this year’s Family Day. But Francis is still pretty much alone in the Italian Church. It is the “institutional solitude” that was also typical of a predecessor to whom he is very close, John XXIII.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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