It has been widely reported that Pope Francis on the plane going back to Rome after his successful trip to Rio de Janeiro departed from the traditional Catholic script regarding gay people.
What did he actually say? And what does it mean?
We’ve had a few days to consider this occasion, if you can call it an occasion, so I would like to offer some analysis for what it’s worth.
Some backgroundThe Vatican was rocked on Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation after it was made public that he had left the as then unelected new Pope a dossier. I understand that the dossier contained reports inter alia about the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The dossier also contained suggestions that there was a ‘gay lobby’ of several priests working in the Vatican who were regularly in violation of their celibacy vows and who protected one another. It was about this so-called gay lobby that the Pope was specifically asked on the plane.
The sceneI think it is worth noting that Pope Francis’ over one hour interview with extemporaneous responses to any questions whatsoever has probably never happened before in the history of the papacy. That this man was prepared to just stand there leaning on an airline seat while the reporters in front of him all sat while answering their questions honestly and forthrightly is not to be undervalued.
Popes do not do this kind of thing. It is the equivalent of Queen Elizabeth II doing an impromptu interview with the world’s media for over an hour where they could ask her anything they wanted to, no holds barred. And as you probably know, the Queen does not do interviews. Neither do Popes, or at least not outside carefully stage-managed audiences in the vast audience hall of the Vatican where questions are vetted and the Pope knows ahead of time what he is going to be asked. So this is more than just a change of style. This is a message.
It’s about how Francis wants his pontificate to be and how he wants it to look. For me, it is like opening a window and just letting the fresh air flow and yes, it does remind me of the commentary about Pope John XXIII calling the Second Vatican Council because he wanted to ‘open the windows’ of the church. There is something here akin to that spirit.
Francis seems to want a more proximal church, less distant, a more brotherly church, less monarchical, a more humble church, less pompous. The fact that he obviously gave the reporters permission to ask anything they wanted to is also something quite extraordinary. There would be no censorship here, at least in the questioning. There would be true and healthy freedom of the press doing what it does best, asking the important questions. And Francis to his credit, was cool with that.
So for me, I think this a huge step in the right direction for a calcified, ossified, secretive, snail-paced, frightened church.
The gay questionOne of the reporters asked the Pope directly about the gay lobby, so Francis in his answer was talking specifically about a group of gay priests working within the Vatican.
He said, "When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem. They're our brothers."
Now I do think it is important here to understand that he was talking about gay priests, not just gay people in general. What he says about them though is radically different from what BXVI had to say, not only in those horrendous documents that he wrote while he was Prefect of the CDF which I treat in some detail in the book, but also in Benedict’s ruling in the mid 2000s that all seminaries should be cleaned out of young gay men and that gay people should not be permitted to join the priesthood. By any objective test, Francis’ words here are a departure from that ethos.
1. I am prepared in my own mind to distinguish or think differently between a gay priest and a gay activist lobby;
2. He asks quite humbly I would suggest, “Who am I to judge that man?”
3. He shouldn’t be marginalised, ie., cut off, ostracised, punished, impeded;
4. His orientation - Francis uses the official church word “tendency” – to gay sexuality is not the problem;
5. He is our brother
This is something different from the Ratzinger/BXVI pronouncements. You may not think it much, but for the Catholic Church and a reigning Pope, this is a lot, especially given his immediate predecessor from whom he is departing, at least in focus, is still alive and living next door. What he says here does give me some small hope that a degree of change might be in the air. I think it will not be a change of teaching any time soon. I think it will start off as a change of focus and manner. It’s not much, but it’s a start, which means we are better off than where we were this time last year.
This is a conciliatory statement. It lacks the harsh pomposity of the ‘we are right you are wrong and no discussion will be entered into’ declarations of the preceding two pontificates. There is a softness here that I have not heard from the Catholic Church on matters gay, not just in my lifetime, but ever.
Francis does not seem to be concerned too much that the hypothetical priest is gay. His sexuality is not the problem. He is more worried about gay activism within the Vatican. Now while I have no problem with gay activism within the Vatican, I can understand that the Roman curia might be scared out of their minds that such a thing might exist. Whether it does or not, I have no idea. Rather, Francis appears to be accepting of the idea that this priest is gay and he is not bothered by that fact alone at all.
Friends, no matter how much I think the Catholic Church has caused harm over LGBT issues, I am prepared to say that this is a positive step, just one little one, but a step nonetheless.
Francis' questionIn his question, “who am I to judge?”, the Pope seems to me to be adhering to what many of us have called for over the years in asking other Christians to stop judging us and finding us wanting. Francis phrases it more gently, but that is the intent that I take from his words.
However, at another level, I do want him to judge. I want him and the whole Catholic Church to judge that we are all God’s children and that gay people are part of God’s vast creative act and that we are valued and esteemed by God as much as any straight person. I want that judgment. I want that evaluation to be made and to be taught. I want the Church to take a lead here to shine a light for the whole world, to lead by example in this issue and to show the love and compassion of our God here in this world to gay people. On that singular flight back to Rome, Francis also made it clear that there is no place for homophobia either generally in the world or in the Church. But I also want the Church to judge itself over its traditional teachings on gay sexuality and to find a mechanism by which it can re-visit the teachings and change them. I want those judgments to be made too.
Pope Francis is still in the earliest days of his pontificate. I hope that he will continue to speak differently to the words of his predecessors. As an interesting point and probably another message to those around him, he is the first Pope to use the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual.’ He has accepted the cultural change and has eschewed the medico-legal term, another important departure. This departure concept is vitally important in understanding Catholic theology because the Church prides itself on continuity from the words of Jesus right down to the present day; so any departure is actually a really big deal. The reactionary Cardinal Dolan in the United sates has already come out and said that Francis was not departing from the doctrines of the Church and that homosexuality is still a sin etc etc etc, but I think he is wrong; a first step has been taken.
I do not know whether Pope Francis wants to or can manage to re-visit the Church’s teachings but I hope that somewhere over the next few years he does. I will continue to speak out against the Church’s teachings as they are now as I think all gay Christians should do if they are able, but I also want to have a good conversation with the Church because I know there are so many within it who think and feel as we do, both straight and gay. Pope Francis’ recent words give me pause for hope.