Is the Catholic Church taking a leaf out of the Trump playbook?

Jennifer O’Connell: Church rejection of gender fluidity was perfectly timed for Pride month

It was in a beautiful little church by the sea in Italy that I very nearly didn't get married 16 years ago.

While my wedding plans were falling apart, and my baffled guests were slowly melting in the heat of a tiny chapel, I was standing, entirely oblivious, on the terrace of my hotel room, sipping prosecco, and wondering where the wedding car was.

The good news is that my husband-to-be wasn’t attempting to do a runner. He left that to the priest, who seemed to have forgotten the wedding was due to take place. On top of that, he seemed to have lost all the required paperwork. “No!” he said eventually, shrugging his shoulders and dumping a sheaf of papers on his desk. “Your papers are not here. We’ll have to do the wedding another time.”

Our best man and best woman explained, in something approximating Italian, that this wasn't going to be very easily accomplished, what with the 120 guests from Ireland waiting in the church down the street. He shrugged. They argued, in as much as you can argue in a language you don't speak. Eventually, the priest had enough of the fun and games. Or maybe he found the papers. Or perhaps he took pity on us. He probably realised he wasn't going to get rid of the sweaty Irish hordes in his lovely church that easily. When I finally made it to the church, I was touched by how overjoyed everyone looked to see me.


I didn't think about the priest – who did go on to perform a lovely ceremony – too often after that. After the Ryan Report was published in 2009, I made the decision to avoid Catholic churches altogether and, other than other people's weddings and funerals, I've stuck pretty resolutely to that.

Clickbait priest

A few years later, I was working in a newsroom when I spotted the name of the Italian parish in online reports. The stories recounted how a priest in the parish had posted a Christmas newsletter to the door of his church, with warnings about how “girls and mature women going around scantily dressed and in provocative clothes”. If they were raped or abused, he said, “they should search their consciences and ask: did we bring this on ourselves? Is it possible that all of a sudden men have gone mad? We don’t believe it. The fact is that women are increasingly provocative, they become arrogant.”

Thankfully, it wasn't our own priest, but one of his parochial colleagues, a Padre Piero Corsi, who was making global headlines with this not-altogether festive message. Fr Piero Corsi was one of the first clickbait priests and, in fairness, he was probably an accidental one. But he wasn't the last, and seven years on, his pronouncements sound almost tame by comparison with some of the things you're likely to hear his colleagues holding forth on these days.

A priest in Kilkenny, Brother Tom Forde, recently captured international headlines after he appeared to compare gay people to "infected zombies". (The Capuchin Order later said his comments were "unfortunate" and expressed their strong reaffirmation of their welcome of all people.) In April, Catholic priests in Poland burned a pile of Harry Potter and Twilight books.

And, of course, there are the not-infrequent pronouncements by the Bishop of Lismore and Waterford, Phonsie Cullinan, who, two years ago, claimed the HPV vaccine was a "lifestyle issue" and was "lulling" young girls into promiscuity. He also apologised afterwards.

Headline stealing

It's not just the odd mouthy priest or incandescent bishop. The Vatican is partial to the occasional, unfortunately-timed missive itself – such as the teaching document it released earlier this month, entitled Male and Female He Created Them. As the name hints, the 31 page document flatly rejected the notion that gender is anything other than a strictly biological matter, arguing that acceptance of flexible ideas of gender pose a threat to traditional families.

The document, clearly, was not clickbait. It was a serious piece of church teaching. But from the Vatican’s point of view, I suspect there was nothing “unfortunate” about the timing. It landed exactly when it was supposed to, bang in the middle of Pride month, at the precise moment when LGBTQ+ people are appealing for greater tolerance and empathy, and stole all the headlines.

But the Vatican's teaching on gender didn't just coincide with Pride month. It also came in the aftermath of a devastating documentary on the sexual abuse of children by priests in Poland. And it arrived at the same time France began an independent inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Oh, and it coincided with a group of nuns in the US going public in a PBS documentary about the rape, forced abortion, emotional abuse and labour exploitation they had suffered at the hands of priests.

If you didn’t know the Catholic Church was above all that, you could be forgiven for thinking the organisation – or at least some of its members – have been taking a leaf out of the Donald Trump playbook, timing controversial statements to bolster their cultural relevance with their base, and distract the rest of us from the things they’d rather we didn’t focus on. But that would be very cynical.