Where’s the “Rebuke”?  Mainstream Media Inventing another Vatican Feud

Commentary By Hilary White, Rome correspondent

ROME, December 4, 2009 ( - It is always entertaining watching the international secular news coverage of the various goings on at the Vatican; it's like a kind of sport. If there were score cards available, they would have to award points to journalists for "least religious knowledge" and, perhaps, on a scale of one to ten, "most eager to spot a turf war."

When the media catches what it thinks is the scent of a division between the forces of light (liberal Catholicism, or what I like to call "Catholicism lite") and the evil cabal of reactionaries they still believe is lurking behind the walls, a kind of baying sound rises eerily off the internet.

In this week's coverage of the statement by Mexican Cardinal Barragan on the spiritual condition of active homosexuals, the baying sound is still echoing.

Headlines, plus a little sly editorialising in "news" stories, said that the cardinal had been "rebuked" by a shocked Vatican spokesman who, they said, had scrambled to "distance" himself from the offending statement.

Ah, I thought, the venerable MSU School of journalism: "Making Stuff Up."

No one who works in Rome was surprised to see that such a forthright statement of the perennial and unchanging teaching of the Church - to wit, "if you die in a state of unrepented mortal sin, you will go to hell" - was met with waves of astonished media coverage from Bombay to Blooming Grove New York. Fair enough, I thought. Frankly, most people just don't hear this kind of un-spun, un-reconstructed Catholicism from the Church's various pulpits, including diocesan communications offices, these days. No wonder it came as a surprise.

What set this all off is that Cardinal Barragan commented in an interview with an Italian language Catholic website - naturally described as "conservative" in most of the press - "Transsexuals and homosexuals will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven and it is not me who says this, but Saint Paul."

He went on, "People are not born homosexual. They become homosexual, for different reasons: education issues or because they did not develop their own identity during adolescence. It may not be their fault, but acting against nature and the dignity of the human body is an insult to God."

Barragan's comments were a pretty straightforward statement of Catholic teaching, as is easily confirmed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in section 2357, says, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."

But it was not more than hours after the story broke that a new meme was established: that "the Vatican," had, variously, "corrected," or "rebuked" the cardinal. Quoted as proof was a statement obtained by email from the head of the Vatican Press Office, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, who quoted the same Catechism of the Catholic Church allegedly as a corrective to the cardinal's "harsh" judgment.

The Baltimore Sun trumpeted: "Cardinal draws Vatican rebuke for anti-gay talk." The New York Times told us, with a conspiratorial wink, "The Vatican distanced itself from the comments in a statement that was highly unusual because it indirectly criticized a top Church official."

Points for prevarication and faux-turf-war-spotting all round.

After hunting about (and it took quite a bit of hunting), I found the most complete version of Fr. Lombardi's emailed comments at the Catholic News Service.

What he had done was issued a gentle warning that a website is not a definitive source for what the Church teaches.

So far, no rebuke.

He also called the issue of the Church's teaching on homosexuality "complex and delicate," which I suppose he meant pastorally, which I suppose is true. Homosexuals, like anyone else, do not like to be told not to sin sexually. Most especially since the rest of the world is busily engaged in "affirming" them in their sins.

Lombardi then quoted the actual authority on Catholic doctrine, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, he said, "does talk about homosexual acts as 'disordered,' but takes into account the fact that 'the number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible."

Lombardi then quoted the second half of the catechism's section on homosexuality, that says that as individuals, homosexuals "must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity, and 'every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

So, the "rebuke" and "correction" of "the Vatican" to a senior member of, oh yeah, "the Vatican," was in fact nothing more than a direct reiteration of the original comments, albeit with a slightly different emphasis.

In other words, Barragan and Lombardi, both spokesmen of the Catholic Church, both gave a straightforward declaration of the teaching of the Catholic Church as it is laid out in the catechism thereof.

So…where's the "rebuke"?

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