Language matters. In 1986 then dean of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, said gay people were subject to "a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder". Last week's CDF document said same-sex couples could not be blessed by the Church as "it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation". Same sex unions, it said, were "not ordered to the Creator's plan" and so "cannot be considered licit". God, it said, "does not and cannot bless sin".
Since becoming Pope eight years ago he has shown an inclination to favour the spirit of the law over the letter of that law
Such language and the ban it sustained, approved by Pope Francis, could represent for him what the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, banning artificial means of contraception, did for Pope Paul VI, who approved it. Widely rejected by Catholics, Humanae Vitae greatly damaged that pope's authority.
Indications are that many Catholics, including priests and some bishops, will ignore last week’s CDF document. Already under attack from the Catholic right, Pope Francis has now also alienated staunch supporters among the Church’s liberals. It was perhaps inevitable he should find himself in this situation, while at once raising hopes of a more inclusive institution but without then deviating from a rigid dogma.
Since becoming Pope eight years ago he has shown an inclination to favour the spirit of the law over the letter of that law. One of the more celebrated examples was that 2013 reply to a media query about gay people as he flew back to Rome from a visit to Brazil, when he said: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" It led to false hopes, however.
But when pushed to act, as with this CDF document last week, Pope Francis has always come down on the side of the letter of the law. By doing so he alienates the many Catholics who yearn for change in their Church.