The Vatican forcefully rejected assertions by an Italian priest that recent earthquakes in Italy are divine punishment for the nation’s passage of same-gender civil unions earlier this year.
Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli told Radio Maria, a rightwing news outlet, that recent earthquakes were “divine punishment [for] the offence to the family and the dignity of marriage, in particular through civil unions.”
Cavalcoli, a Dominican, said elsewhere that “the sins of man” caused the earthquakes, reported The Guardian. Citing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Scripture, Cavalcoli said the alleged sins of same-gender partners deserve divine punishment. He said, according to La Repubblica, that “a homosexual is a person who sins against nature.”
A series of severe earthquakes have rocked central Italy recently, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless because of widespread damage, including the destruction of the Basilica of St. Benedict in Nursia. The Catholic Church, and in particular Pope Francis, has offered its support for survivors.
Church leaders swiftly and sharply criticized the priest for his damaging statements on the radio. Archbishop Angelo Becciu, a top deputy in the Secretariat of State, said, according to La Repubblica:
” ‘They are offensive statements for believers and scandalous for those who do not believe. . .[Such beliefs are] dated to the pre-Christian period and are unresponsive to theology of the Church because they are contrary to the vision of God offered to us by Christ who revealed to us the face of God’s love, not a capricious and vengeful God. . .The earthquake victims forgive us, they deserve the Pope’s solidarity.’ “
Becciu said the church is like Mary, mother of mercy, “who bends over a weeping child and wipes their tears, especially in terrible moments like those of the earthquake.” He called on Radio Maria to “moderate the tone of its language” and practice mercy. The outlet has in the past been charged with being anti-Semitic, reported Reuters, but in this case it suspended the priest as an on-air personality.
Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti said “the idea of divine punishment is in itself a divine caricature,” and described Cavalcoli’s remarks as “blasphemous nonsense,” reported La Repubblica.
Bishop Antonio Napolioni of Cremona said Christians should respect those people in central Italy as any other victims of violence rather than hurling “unfortunate words that do more harm than stones.”
In response, Fr. Cavalcoli said church leaders critical of him should “read their catechism.” Sadly, his thoughts are not isolated. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register provided less than critical coverage of this incident, and featured an op-ed from church historian Robert de Mattei who said of the Cavalcoli incident:
“If there is a scandal there, it is caused by the position of the Vatican prelate who displays ignorance of Catholic theology and the teachings of the pope. . .This law [for civil unions] is a moral earthquake because it breaks down the natural walls of divine law. . .How can one imagine that this wretched law won’t have consequences?’
” ‘[The law] does not destroy houses, but the institution of the family, producing moral and social devastation no less serious than that of a physical earthquake. Who can deny us the right to think that the disorder of nature is allowed by God as a result of the denial of the natural order implemented by the ruling classes of the West?’ “
The Guardian reported another incident in Italy where a priest made troubling and homophobic remarks. Fr. Gino Flaim, pastor of San Giuseppe and Pio X Church in the Archdiocese of Trent, told a local television statement that he “understands paedophilia” because “children often seek affection.” Like all sins, Fr. Flaim said pedophilia “has to be accepted.” But homosexuality is “a disease” which he was not sure he could understand. The Archdiocese rejected his statements and suspended the priest immediately.
Statements like those of Fr. Cavalcoli, Fr. Flaim, and other voices in the church are indefensible. They could be easily dismissed if they were not so damaging. I will not respond directly to their statements here though because there is deeper issue present on which I want to focus.
The ecclesial atmosphere cultivated since Pope John Paul II allowed, and in some ways encouraged, violent and harmful rhetoric to be voiced by ministers of the church on LGBT issues. While it is great that a Vatican official condemned hate speech against LGBT people , we still need Pope Francis to use his powerful voice to make such a condemnation. Only that kind of message will help turn the tide of the negative atmosphere left over by the previous two popes.
Yes, these priests are extremists and represent a minority of Catholics (though this minority can be quite vocal). Yes, multiple bishops condemned the statements unequivocally, and, yes, the priests were sanctioned. But harmful statements from church leaders, and actions like the denial of Communion to LGBT people and their loved ones are not anomalies. They still happen too regularly, and while some make headlines, many go unreported.
Last week, I said a United Nations report detailing anti-LGBT violence in the world would be a prime opportunity for the Vatican to defend the human rights of sexual and gender diverse persons. These incidents in Italy, representative of many other queerphobic incidents, are a prime opportunity for Pope Francis himself to defend the human dignity of LGBT people.
Pope Francis could and should explicitly reject every word and every act that denigrates these communities, naming specific examples like the criminalization of homosexuality, the discrimination of LGBT church workers, or the denial of Sacraments. To continue remaining silent when the church is so ill is to make a very strong statement that aside from non-judgement, the lives of LGBT people may not mean much to this pope.
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 6, 2016