Sex and the Holy See

Talking dirty in Vatican City

Photograph by Dr. Frank Pio
Vatican City, 2003. Photograph by Dr. Frank Pio

vatican city—For an institution run by celibate men, the Vatican certainly has a lot to say about the sex lives of others. Over the years it has issued such directives as “Educational Guidance in Human Love” (1983) and “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” (1995). The latest bulletin, produced by a body within the Vatican called the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is entitled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.” It both reiterates the Church’s position on homosexuality and instructs Catholic politicians on the need to obstruct or deny the passage of any laws allowing two people of the same sex to marry.

In a setting as august as the Vatican, the idea that our souls are its business can seem less strange. Briefcase-carrying priests on their way to work pass by a basilica that exhausted both Raphael and Michelangelo before it was finally consecrated in 1626; they walk through a courtyard designed in the seventeenth century by Bernini, presided over by the statues of 140 saints. Cardinals send e-mails and hold press conferences, and priests conduct casual morning meetings over cappuccino in a café named after the Church’s founder, St. Peter, not so far from where he was crucified for his faith, upside down, in 64 A.D.

But in countries far from Vatican City, the release of this latest bulletin seemed, at best, bizarre and anachronistic and, at worst, an undue meddling in the affairs of democratic nations. It tells all Catholic politicians they have a choice: they can risk eternal damnation by passing a law favoured by the courts and many of their constituents, or they can obey the Church and save their immortal souls. When the document was distributed on July 31, it was greeted in Canada by headlines that screamed “Vatican Targets Gay Marriage Laws” and “Pope to MPs: Stop Gay Marriage,” as though anyone ever thought the Pope might be in favour of it.

“It seems comical to me that people expect the Vatican not to say things that are absolutely core Catholic ideas,” says John Allen, Vatican Correspondent for the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter. Allen has also written a book about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was a co-author of the Vatican bulletin on the issue of same-sex marriage. “The idea that the moral choices you make shape your eternal destiny is a core principle of the Catholic Catechism. You can’t expect the Vatican to just forget about it because it’s politically inconvenient.”

This most recent set of instructions wasn’t written by the Pope. It emerged from the bureaucracy of the Vatican, with the Pope’s approval. Anyone reading the Canadian papers, however, might have thought that the Pope himself had been on the phone to Ottawa demanding that all good Catholics toe the line. And though the timing of the document—released shortly after the provincial court of appeal in Ontario ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny people of the same sex the right to marry each other––might have made it appear as though it were written with Canada in mind, it had, in fact, been in the works for at least two years, ever since the Vatican first noted the trend toward approving gay marriage that was gathering momentum across Europe and North America.

“Somebody probably looked around and said, ‘Jeez, we’ve got a lot of countries that despite our best efforts are adopting these laws we don’t think they should adopt. So, how should we respond?’” Allen says. Two members of the Sacred Congregation were then given the task of writing the document in consultation with the rest of the group. “Which is why it takes two years to produce something that has exactly one paragraph of new content. Everything else [in the document] has been on word processors for ages.”

The old content Allen is referring to is about the Church’s position on homosexuality. The document is careful to state that homosexual people should not be discriminated against, but it stresses that homosexual sex should not be sanctioned through marriage, not even in non-religious civil ceremonies.

The new content, says Allen, is the Church’s call to conscientious objection by politicians and by anyone else in a position to gum up the paperwork. It not only advises Catholics in charge of changing the law to refuse to do so, it also urges Catholics in charge of, say, issuing marriage licences to refuse to grant them to same-sex couples, even if the law says they must.

“Conscientious objection is the Church’s response to a new legal situation it doesn’t want,” Allen says. “They at least want to carve out space so that people who agree with them aren’t forced to act in violation of their faith. That’s the new element of this document, and it is in effect a recognition that they’ve lost on the level of the law.” This new element was something that most of the press coverage missed.

It’s an approach the Vatican has tried before. A few years ago, despite the Church’s objections, the Italian ministry of health approved the so-called “morning-after pill”—a kind of contraceptive—for sale throughout the country. The Vatican considered it a form of abortion and issued directions urging Catholic pharmacists not to dispense it. That edict might have made it slightly more difficult for women to obtain the drug, but it is still available for purchase in Italian pharmacies.

In Rome, such Vatican pronouncements are usually greeted with counter arguments right in St. Peter’s Square. When the Vatican released its same-sex marriage document, the largest Italian advocacy group for gays and lesbians, Arcigay Nazionale, assembled a few dozen people in front of St. Peter’s Basilica to wave placards comparing the Vatican to the Taliban.

A staff member of Arcigay, Renato Sabbadini, admitted that the document was “no more offensive than usual” and joked that the Vatican might, in fact, have become a little more reasonable, since it had at least acknowledged that homosexual feelings might be beyond a person’s control. “But,” he added, “asking members of parliament to oppose legislation is a heavy form of interference in the democratic life of a country.”

About a month after the Vatican issued the bulletin on gay marriage, the European Parliament, in its annual report on human-rights issues, recommended that homosexuals be allowed to marry and adopt children. It was one more indication of a cultural shift in developed countries toward the acceptance, and eventual legalization, of same-sex marriage—a trend that makes the Vatican’s position appear, increasingly, to be an idea from another age.

“One of the big criticisms that many in the Vatican have with the Catholic Church in many parts of the world, including Canada, is that it is insufficiently critical of the culture,” Allen says. He means that Church institutions outside Rome sometimes allow themselves to be influenced by changing societal values in their own communities rather than listening solely to their more conservative masters in Rome. “They are so eager to play nice and get along and not make waves, that they have, in effect, surrendered on some of the core moral and doctrin-al principles the Church is supposed to insist on. That sort of criticism—that you guys are out of touch—while it may be true, doesn’t cut much ice here.”

Jeannie Marshall
Jeannie Marshall ( is the author of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.