For the past six years there have been Catholics praying on a London pavement every Sunday to try to stop other Catholics attending mass. The “gay masses” at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Soho, became a global symbol of the church’s struggles over homosexuality. Within the church was a congregation that went on gay pride marches: outside it were campaigners for gay shame.
For years this had no effect, but last autumn the incoming head of the CDF, the Vatican’s doctrinal police, announced that he intended to tackle the Soho masses. Once the lidless eye of the CDF was turned against them the masses were doomed. The English hierarchy, which had protected them from their inception, has now withdrawn their protection.
A statement by Archbishop Vincent Nichols announced that the masses would end in Lent this year, and would be replaced by “pastoral care”, based around the Jesuit church in Farm Street, which would not involve a celebration of communion.
The church itself is to be handed over to the “ordinariate” of former Anglicans opposed to women priests. The Anglican subculture from which the ordinariate emerged was extremely camp, concerned with dressing up both physically and spiritually – so it’s difficult to see this as a decisive blow against gay Christianity. But it is a clear victory for Catholic conservatives.
The campaigners objected to the idea that there were people within the congregation receiving communion every week despite the fact that they had sex outside marriage, repeatedly and without sincere repentance. The masses, they said, had become a dating agency.
Quite possibly this did happen to some extent. Any gathering of Catholic laypeople defined both by their celibacy and by their interest in sex could in a way be described as a dating agency. In fact, when this sort of activity is called youth work, and involves both sexes, the church is all for it. But then there is an acceptable terminus to the interest. Happy heterosexual couples can get married and cure their celibacy, possibly even their happiness, with the full blessing of the church.
Gay people can’t. In fact, the campaign against gay marriage is probably what made the masses seem a really dangerous experiment in Rome: once gay people are seen as entirely normal and with the same kind of longings as everyone else, who knows what rights may not be granted them?
A conservative could argue that the same applies with divorced and separated Catholics. They are not meant to take communion if they remarry. Many do, of course, but the rules are clear. So far as I know, there are no special masses for divorced and separated Catholics in Britain (there are in America) though there are support groups where – horrible thought – adults might fall in love, which might lead to dancing.
However, gatherings of divorced and separated Catholics aren’t picketed. So far as I know, remarried Catholics aren’t rejected by their congregations, any more than couples who use artificial birth control. They are both accepted as being part of the normal human condition. Gay people aren’t so much, especially by older Catholics.
So one might hope that this is going to be a matter of generational change. The teaching won’t change: since its condemnation of artificial birth control, the Catholic church has constructed a logical structure where every part reinforces every other, as elegant and empty as a beehive tomb. But the slow change and humanisation of attitudes across society will make the rules a dead letter.
This will only happen, though, if the religious case is made for it. Young Catholics are not noticeably more “secular” than other ones. If they were, they wouldn’t be Catholics at all. They feel that if they are going to be mocked and treated as weirdos for their faith, it must be something that makes a real difference. Defying society’s norms about sex is one way to do this. That will change as they grow up, of course. But by then they will be middle-aged Catholics, beaten into realism, conscious of their own sins as much as other people’s. There will be new young enthusiasts to replace them.
What absolutely won’t happen is that the problem will somehow go away. Some gay people will go on being Catholics, and some Catholics – a disproportionate number, I suspect – will continue to be gay. Religion is fundamentally about questions of identity, and gay people have more cause than most to take seriously the mysteries of their own identity. The masses may be over, but the mess will continue.