April 9, 2024 - 11:55am

It cannot be that surprising to most observers that the Vatican has strongly criticised so-called gender reassignment surgeries in a new teaching document. “Catholic Church opposes gender ideology” should be the ultimately “dog bites man” story.

And yet there will be people to whom the document is a disappointment. In the public mind Pope Francis tends to be regarded as a reformer, an opponent of overly-formal liturgy, and a harsh critic of modern capitalism. He has changed the wording of the Catechism to totally condemn the death penalty, has tried to soften the Church’s rhetoric on sexuality, and is attempting to make the government of the Church more democratic through “synodality”.

This has raised expectations that he is a “liberal” who will formally amend the Church’s longstanding and endlessly criticised doctrines on sexuality, marriage, the sanctity of life, and the human body. But such expectations arise from a confusion of theology and politics. Francis is broadly on the political Left, in economic terms. His experiences of Latin America in the second half of the last century have made him hostile to anything resembling authoritarian nationalism, and he has a deep dislike and suspicion of the Anglo-American free market tradition. He is an anti-imperialist.

But he is also a theologically conservative Catholic, with all that implies. A decade ago, he publicly threatened mafiosi with hellfire, and frequently mentions the devil in his homilies and public reflections. He has condemned abortion in unambiguous and vigorous terms, notably comparing doctors who carry out the procedure to contract killers. Even his much-debated suggestion that some Catholics who have remarried after divorce should be allowed to receive Communion was made in the context of re-affirming core teaching on marriage and the sacraments.

This combination of social conservatism with a Left-leaning view of the economy, criminal justice and international relations is not at all unusual among Christians, and in no way inconsistent. It is commonly found among observant believing Catholics, including many whom I know personally. The Church’s thinking about politics and social relations is undergirded by concepts such as the sinfulness of all humans and the inevitable fallibility of human institutions, the dignity of the individual, the importance of mercy, and the significance of the created body.

The way in which these categories are applied to contemporary issues does not break down neatly along conventional Left-Right lines. For example, the idea of God-given dignity precludes abortion, euthanasia and gender reassignment surgery, but it also provides the intellectual and moral basis for Catholic penal reformers, for the food banks run by almost every parish in the country, and for organisations such as Pax Christi which work for peace and reconciliation. The Christian message challenges, and transcends, every political ideology.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.