The media have scented a shift under Pope Francis, and are trying to work out what is going on. Some say things are changing: ‘People’s Pope brings winds of change‘ (Sydney Morning Herald), ‘the end of fortress Catholicism?’ (Washington Post), ‘Pope Francis and gay priests:a sea change is at hand‘ (HuffPo). Others are less sure.
Francis’s World Youth Day in Rio was far more newsworthy than Benedict XVI’s in Madrid two years ago, because it was the first major roll-out of what is seen as a new style or approach to the papacy — one founded on the enduring drama of an ‘outsider’ being elected to the Vatican and refusing to be imprisoned by it or the role.
But though there was more coverage of Rio than of Madrid, it was Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks on the plane back from Brazil regarding gay people that really made the news — generating far more headlines than the 3.7m on Copacabana beach, the dramatic speech in a favela, or even the papal Fiat getting stuck in traffic — confirming that, once again, it is contemporary society’s fascination with Catholic neuralgic issues which is sure to put the Church on the front page.
In one sense, the now famous ‘Who am I to judge?’ remark made by Pope Francis is the mirror opposite of Pope Benedict’s notorious observation about condoms making Aids worse. Then it was 2009, and the Pope was also on a papal plane — on his way to Cameroon. Buried under an avalanche of indignation, the visit to Africa itself barely registered in news terms.
This time, the coverage was not indignant but fascinated; and rather than eclipse Francis’ time in Brazil, it managed almost magically to extend it.
But in other ways, the two headline-grabbing remarks are similar: in both, a vital part of the story got lost. What got lost in the reporting of Benedict XVI’s remarks was that the scientific evidence he was citing indeed showed that a condom-based response to Aids had increased the spread of the virus. What got lost in the reporting of Francis’s remarks was that the Catechism itself — which he explicitly based his remarks on – says firmly that gay people should never be marginalised or discriminated against. (“The Catechism of the Church expresses this beautifully,” he said, before turning to ask his press spokesman, Fr Lombardi, for the right word in Italian, before adding: “They should not be marginalised.”)
In both cases what was said was not, technically, news. But it became news because of the deeply-embedded yet mythical perception of the Church’s position on sexuality in a society permeated by the ethic of autonomy.
In Benedict’s case, the perception was that (a) condoms cure Aids but that (b) the Church rejects that obvious solution because of its dogmatic opposition to contraception even in the case of extra-marital sex. (The first, as the facts showed, is not true — at least in terms of global policy; the second was finally clarified by the CDF following Pope Benedict’s remarks in Light of the World: namely, that the Church’s teaching on contraception relates to marriage.)
In Francis’ case, the perception is that (a) the Church shuns gay people and endorses legal discrimination against them in order to discourage what it considers sinful; (b) the Church’s teaching on sexuality singles out gay people for express disapproval.
Just how false is (a) can be seen in any Catholic church or organisation, where gay people work and worship every day of the week. And as for (b), the facts tell the opposite story: in common with the Church’s policy in most western nations, in England and Wales the bishops favoured the decriminalisation of homosexual acts as far back as 1957; while the Vatican’s international policy is to reject any attempt by any government to marginalise or discriminate against gay people or to criminalise homosexual acts.
But what of its teaching on sexuality? The Church’s teaching is relevant to gay people in so far as it teaches that sex is for marriage, and that marriage is a conjugal union of a man and a woman. To claim that this teaching singles out gay people as a group requires first believing that what defines a gay person is the homosexual act, rather than the orientation. But this is obviously not true: many gay people are chaste, yet retain a same-sex attraction. Being ‘gay’, like being ‘straight’, does not require a sexual act. As Pope Francis said, “Being gay is not the problem.”
In other words, the Church’s teaching on sexuality no more marginalises or discriminates against gay people than straight people. Gay people may face particular challenges or difficulties in accepting that teaching or living up to it — marriage, after all, is not an option for those incapable of conjugality — but that is true of many straight people too, who may face all kinds of obstacles (mostly of a psychological nature) to marrying.
In large part, then, the chorus of commentary which greeted his remarks does not reflect any shift on the Pope’s part but rather the gap between popular perception of the Church’s view of homosexuality and the reality.
But that doesn’t mean that there was nothing new. In the Washington Post, Fr James Martin SJ points out five ways in which what Francis said was a departure:
First, throughout the exchange on the plane, Pope Francis, speaking in fluent Italian, used the English word “gay.” Previous popes and the majority of church leaders have been more likely to use words like “homosexual,” “homosexually oriented” and even “persons suffering from same-sex attraction.” I cannot remember a pope ever using the term preferred by much of the world’s gay community.
Second, the pope’s response to a question concerning gay priests was not along the lines that some might have expected, especially given a Vatican document issued in 2005 that barred men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood. Rather than saying, “There can be no gay priests,” the pope declined to judge them. He also emphasized that it was lobbies — “any type of lobby, business lobbies, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies” — that were cattivo (evil).
Third, the pope moved rather quickly from a question about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican to a comment about gay people in general. That is, he did not say, “If a gay priest is searching for God,” but “If a gay person is searching for God.” Then his remarkably compassionate comment: “Who am I to judge them?”
Fourth, he did not use words from the Catechism that many gays and lesbian Catholics say frustrate them, like “intrinsically disordered.” Nor, after saying that gays should not be “marginalized,” did he warn against homosexual activity, as might be expected.
Finally, the pope’s tone was eminently pastoral. When you watch the video of his remarks, you hear the voice of a kind pastor. Several of my gay and lesbian friends say the video moved them to tears.
Fr Martin goes on to say that Francis “has not changed church teaching” but rather “turned to a portion of the old teaching that often goes overlooked” — namely, compassion.
The tension within Christianity that is hardest to grasp — and for non-Christians as well as Christians to understand — is not between sin and forgiveness, but between sin and acceptance.
Jesus bewildered the righteous men of his time by refusing to condone sin, yet at the same time reaching out to embrace and include people who — whether or not they actually had done anything wrong — had been shunned as sinners.
This embracing and inclusion of the shunned was not conditional on their sinfulness or otherwise. Jesus reached out to them all. Those that were sinning he told to sin no more, and that their sins were healed.
The marginalisation — often expressed in violent hostility — of gay people across the world remains a social scourge and a source of shame.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio was known for his reaching out to gay people in Argentina; some of them have told one of his biographers, Evangelina Himitian, how he would listen to their stories of being rejected or beaten up by their families, and became their advocate.
Yet Cardinal Bergoglio was also, famously, a vigorous opponent of attempts to redefine marriage.
To refuse to condemn people, to refuse to judge them, and to reject any attempt by society to shun them, indeed to stand at their side, in defence of their God-given dignity — this is the way modelled by Christ, which Pope Francis is emulating.
The Christian way is not to endorse sinful behaviour. It is not to try and rewrite bad as good, immoral as moral. Rather, it is to refuse to add to sinful behaviour by condemning and marginalising people — which is also, and perhaps especially, sinful.
Judgement is reserved to God, who alone can see into the human heart. For the rest of us — and that includes the Church, and the Pope — the call is not to judge, but to have mercy and compassion, while at the same time defending and promoting life-giving morality.
Francis’ emphasis on mercy is the signature of his papacy — just as courage was that of John Paul II, and faith and reason that of Benedict XVI (see John Allen). It is a new emphasis. It is a new papal charism. It is new, because it has been often ignored or neglected or downplayed, or got lost in the Church’s anxiety to defend the truth of its teaching.
But in a truer, deeper sense, it is not new at all; and that is why it is so compelling.
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