Many people were taken aback this week when Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, called Ireland’s referendum to allow gay marriage “not only a defeat for Christian principles, but also somewhat a defeat for humanity.”­ The reason for the surprise is because the 60-year-old cardinal has been portrayed as being more open-minded than the stereotypical Vatican bureaucrat or the average Church conservative.

“I was deeply saddened by the result,” Cardinal Parolin told the press. “Certainly, as the Archbishop of Dublin said, the Church needs to do a reality check, but in my opinion it must do so in the sense that it has to actually strengthen its entire commitment (to marriage) and also make an effort to evangelize our culture,” he said.

The cardinal’s comments turned the heads of those that believed (perhaps a bit too naively) that Pope Francis had led the Church to adopt a more conciliatory tone in dealing with the so-called culture wars. But it is precisely culture—and Italian culture in particular—that is the key to understanding Cardinal Parolin’s strong reaction.

Italy has remained the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs. At least up to now. It does not allow stem-cell research and has some of the most restrictive legislation concerning other bioethical issues. It does not even recognize so-called “living wills” that allow individuals to refuse life support in cases when they are left comatose.

Italy is one of the only European countries that does not allow civil unions—even between heterosexuals. And only this week did it finally modify one of the Europe’s most restrictive and complicated divorce laws, allowing couples to file for divorce six months after legally separating rather than having to wait three years.

Without indulging too much in stereotypes, the general cultural mentality in Italy remains conservative. Until recently, that was especially true concerning the family. However, things are changing. And it’s likely that a majority of Italians today would not completely agree with Cardinal Parolin’s apocalyptic assessment of the Irish referendum. 

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Speaking of the family, the Jesuit-run Gregorian University here in Rome was the venue of a major, closed-door symposium on Monday that discussed some of the more thorny issues that the Synod of Bishops will continue debating in October at its next general assembly on marriage and the family.

The presidents of the national episcopal conferences of Germany, France and Switzerland brought together some fifty theologians, bishops, Roman Curia officials and lay experts for a “day of study.” Synod delegates for the three bishops’ conferences joined the discussions. It seems most of the focus was on proposals to help bring divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back into the full sacramental life of the Church, as indicated by Cardinal Walter Kasper.

Some reports labeled the encounter as a secret strategy meeting for “progressives” that are trying to undermine longstanding Church teaching. But one of the theologians who attended rejected that. According the French news agency iMedia, lay Biblicist Anne-Marie Pelletier—who, incidentally, was last year’s recipient of the Ratzinger Prize in theology—described the participants as people “faithful to Christ” who were searching to make the Church’s teachings better understood and more credible. Most of them are believed to be supportive of the Kasper proposal.

A statement made afterwards by the German bishops’ conference said the first part of the day was dedicated to reflecting more in depth on the Gospel injunction against divorce. “The words of Jesus concerning marriage and divorce have to be interpreted in the context of his entire proclamation and of the tradition of the Church,” it read, while also noting that doctrine develops.

Some of the participants apparently argued that the Church needed to reevaluate and update its teaching on human sexuality. “A further development of the theology of love is necessary, which follows up on the tradition of the moral-theological differentiations and which integrates new insights from anthropology, as well as from sociology,” said the statement. But conservative commentators lambasted the gathering, saying it was “obsessed with same-sex caresses and marital infidelity.”

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Indeed, there are secretive meetings and initiatives going on in the run-up to the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops. But they concern a group of traditionalists and other defenders of the Church’s status quo who are working overtime to block any development of doctrine or pastoral practice in the field of marriage and sexuality.

The core of this group is based in Rome. And its most ambitious project to date has been the publication of a book last year aimed at countering the Kasper proposals. Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church is edited by Fr. Robert Dodaro, an American Augustinian that has been in Rome since the 1980s. A brilliant scholar and an authority on the writings of St. Augustine, he is currently president of the Patristic Institute Augustinianum, probably the most serious of all the pontifical faculties in Rome.

Fr. Dodaro enlisted five cardinals, three other clerics and a lay professor to contribute essays for the volume. They include Cardinals Walter Brandmüller (retired president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences); Raymond Burke (Patron, Knights of Malta); Carlo Caffarra (Archbishop of Bologna and founding president of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family); Velasio De Paolis, CS (canon lawyer and former papal delegate charged with reforming the Legion of Christ); and Gerhard Müller (prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

The other contributors are Archbishop Cyril Vasil' (Eastern Rite Jesuit and secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches); Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ (an Oxford-trained classics scholar at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago); and Professor John Rist (Philosopher and Patristic scholar at Catholic University of America).

There are other leading clerics in Rome (and elsewhere) who are also part of this group and who are worried that Pope Francis is sympathetic, if not supportive, of the Kasper proposals. They include big names like Cardinals George Pell (prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy) and Robert Sarah (prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship).

And there are not only men involved. A key component to this semper idem crowd that will countenance no change is Professor Marguerite Peeters, a Belgian that teaches at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. She is Cardinal Sarah’s and some other Vatican officials’ go-to “expert” on countering gender theory.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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