Gay marriage in Latin America, and a breakaway church in Uganda

Somewhat lost in the shuffle over the holidays was a story with important consequences for understanding how the Vatican sees the world: celebration of the first same-sex marriage in Latin America on Dec. 28 in Argentina.

Earlier this year, a Buenos Aires court ruled that a local ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and ordered authorities to grant Alex Freyre and Jose Maria di Bello a marriage license. The couple set a date of Dec. 1, but facing a last-minute legal challenge, they travelled to the southernmost state of Tierra del Fuego where a pro-gay marriage governor welcomed the event.

To understand the implications for Vatican thinking, we need to bring the big picture into focus: Secularization and its discontents.

Oceans of ink have been spilled trying to define "secularization," but common-sense understands it as a general weakening of traditional religious faith, affiliation and practice, along with a strong distinction between church and state. In Catholic terms, it's linked to declines in Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Secularization is also associated with public policy measures that conflict with traditional Catholic morality -- same-sex marriage these days being, so to speak, the "tip of the spear."

In very broad strokes, Catholicism has bred three families of thought about what it all means.

First, there's the "Spirit of Vatican II" response, which holds that the declines associated with secularization point to a crisis in Catholic teaching and structures. The church's authoritarian way of exercising power conflicts with today's democratic and participatory ethos; its exclusion of women from ordained ministry costs it credibility in a world committed to gender equality; its triumphalist ecclesiology smacks of arrogance; and its teaching on sexual morality too often seems primitive and intolerant. Catholic losses to secularism are, according to this diagnosis, a symptom of failure to continue along the reform path associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Second, there's the "Evangelical Catholic" view, associated with the pontificate of John Paul II, which holds that what secularism reveals is not a crisis of structures but of nerve. Conventional secular wisdom notwithstanding, Catholic teaching expresses the truth about the human condition, so the challenge is to proclaim that truth boldly, creatively, and without fear. The hallmark of vibrant Catholicism is not tinkering with structures, but rather transforming the world in light of the gospel. One prerequisite is to foster a strong sense of Catholic identity inside the church, so that it can resist the corrosive effects of secularism and act in a unified and effective fashion as a leaven in the broader culture -- what Benedict XVI has called a "creative minority."

Third, there's what one might term the "World Church" outlook. In a nutshell, it holds that secularism is really only a pressing challenge in the West. In most other parts of the world, the grass-roots reality is instead flourishing religious pluralism, which breeds an extraordinarily competitive spiritual marketplace. In some places, the primary challenge is posed by newly radicalized and missionary strains of Islam or Hinduism; elsewhere, especially Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, it's Christian Pentecostalism. The urgent task is not so much policing Catholic identity, but rather developing creative strategies of pastoral outreach and ministry in order to satisfy this spiritual hunger. Being "bewitched" by secularization is, from this point of view, a peculiarly Western form of missing the forest for the trees.

Each of these three views has eminent spokespersons, and in vintage Catholic fashion one could probably argue there's some truth to all of them.

Of the three, the "World Church" view is the newcomer. The first two have defined the terms of Catholic debate for the last 50 years, and produced the church's most bruising battles. The "World Church" outlook is a more recent result of changing demographics (most prominently, the fact that two-thirds of Catholics today live in the global South) and the emergence of a globalized and multi-polar world. It invites a new perspective on secularization -- neither capitulating to it nor endlessly battling it, but rather diminishing its pride of place in the Catholic imagination.

If that "World Church" view were to gain ground, one possible consequence is that some of today's conflicts over Catholic identity might abate as a new set of priorities emerges.

Therein lies the importance of the Dec. 28 wedding ceremony in Tierra del Fuego, because it appears to suggest that secularization, or at least its expression in public policy, isn't an exclusively Western phenomenon after all. A deep fear in Vatican circles has always been that secularization will radiate out from the West and infect the rest of the world, and the first legally sanctioned gay marriage in Latin America will almost certainly be taken as confirmation of that alarm. It's not the only such development, which also includes legalization of gay marriage in Mexico City in December and passage of a same-sex adoption law in Uruguay in September. Worries about similar trends in Africa were expressed by bishops during last October's Synod for Africa.

Rightly or wrongly, all this will bolster the diagnosis that secularization is the defining threat facing Catholicism, and not just in Europe but across the board. If so, the tensions over Catholic identity that produced the deepest fissures in Catholicism in the 20th century may also become a defining feature of life in the 21st.

Geographically speaking, Tierra del Fuego is about as far away from Rome as it's possible to be. Psychologically, however, it's more central to the Vatican imagination right now than one might suspect.

* * *

Speaking of the world church, various media outlets reported recently that 20 renegade priests in Uganda, fed up with the church's discipline on celibacy, have broken away to found a new "Catholic Apostolic National Church." Given Uganda's rapidly growing Catholic population (projected to be 56 million by mid-century, making it the sixth largest Catholic country in the world), it's poised to be a powerhouse of the 21st century church, and its affairs are therefore worth tracking.

Founders of the breakaway church said they were inspired by former Zambian Archbishop Emmauel Milingo, who defected from the Catholic church in 2001 to marry in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, then briefly returned, only to break with Rome definitively in 2006 by ordaining four married men as bishops without papal permission.

Structurally speaking, the new Ugandan church is affiliated with a communion of small "Catholic Apostolic Churches" founded by the late Brazilian Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa, who served as the Catholic bishop of Botucatu in Brazil from 1924 to 1937. Costa was excommunicated by Pope Pius XII in 1945 for a host of doctrinal and canonical reasons, including his objection to priestly celibacy. The communion today claims a following of five million in 17 countries, and has become something of a destination of choice for Catholic dissidents who want to maintain apostolic succession but not submission to Rome.

I contacted the secretary general of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, Msgr. John Baptist Kauta, for some perspective.

First, Kauta said that from what he can see, claims of 20 Catholic priests joining the new church are inflated. Of the three founders who have identified themselves publicly, Kauta said, one is an Orthodox priest and another is a former Catholic seminarian who was never ordained (he had been in formation to become a religious brother). A third was a Catholic priest with the Missionaries of Africa.

I asked Kauta if the creation of the new church points to a broader tension over celibacy in African Catholicism.

"As far as I am concerned, the problem of celibacy is a problem of human nature and is not peculiar to Africa alone," Kauta said. He argued that in much Western discussion, African priests "get a bad rap," as if they are somehow less capable of celibacy than priests in other parts of the world.

This was Kauta's bottom line:

"The founders of the new church want to exploit the simple faith of our people," he said. "I doubt whether they are going to attract huge crowds. We have had other such movements but they have never been successful."

For the record, the new Ugandan church is the second "Catholic Apostolic Church" in Africa. The first is in Zambia, founded by a former Catholic priest, Luciano Anzanga Mbewe, who was excommunicated by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last June. Mbewe had been compelled to resign the priesthood in 2001 after reports that he had fathered two children. He was among the four men ordained bishops by Milingo in 2006.

[John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail is]

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