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Pope Francis’s Remarks About Gay People Are Bigger Than You Think

Jim Burroway

September 20th, 2013

The Jesuit magazine America, in a joint project with its Italian counterpart La Civiltà Cattolica, published an interview yesterday with Pope Francis which has the potential of representing a new starting point with regards to the Church’s fractured relationship with gay Catholics in particular and with social issues in general.

The entire interview reveals a humble man who takes his time to think before speaking, and to just simply jump to the particular paragraphs which we care about as LGBT people, I think, would miss the broader mark. So I’m not going to do that, not just yet. I strongly encourage you to read the entire interview.

He begins by discussing how he identifies as Matthew in Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” which is essential to understand how he sees himself first, before all other identities and roles that he has taken on. I don’t think it’s possible to understand him without seeing how he sees himself. I also think it’s important to read the interview as it progresses to where Pope Francis describes his leadership style when he first became a superior in the Jesuits:

“In my experience as superior in the Society, to be honest, I have not always behaved in that way—that is, I did not always do the necessary consultation. And this was not a good thing. My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. Yes, but I must add one thing: when I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person. But despite this, eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.

It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”

I’m tempted to perhaps read more than is warranted into the fact that the only predecessor he mentions (aside from his immediate predecessor while discussing some of the church’s current problems) is Pope John XXIII and the only Vatican document he cites is one from the Second Vatican Council. But this line, in particular, leapt out:

“The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. …”

Let me interrupt here, because it’s impossible not to read what he has said so far without recalling the many, many ways in which the “people of God” are in tension (at the very least) with many of the teachings that have emanated from the Church’s hierarchy over the past several decades. This tension has been most visible in the laity’s overwhelming rejection of the Church’s teaching on birth control, masturbation, and other social and sexual issues, including marriage equality. This Public Religion Research Poll from just two years ago found that nearly three quarters of American Catholics support civil recognition of marriage or civil unions, an opinion that is endorsed by nearly two-thirds of Catholics who attend Mass weekly. Keep that in mind as Francis continues the paragraph that I so rudely interrupted:

“…. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.”

This idea then ties pretty directly to what follows, the section that has us all excited:

“The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

“…We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … e have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

It’s important not to get too carried away. Just as under Benedict XVI, the entire Church was not the Pope and hierarchy, but the laity as well; so, too, today the entire Church is not the Pope and laity, but the hierarchy as well. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George will continue to call same-sex marriage “irrational,” Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt will not backtrack from his comments saying that Satan is behind gay marriage, and Cardinal Dolan will continue his fight against civil marriage equality — although he is fervorously trying to find his footing in the shifting ground underneath him. And if it’s hard to see how the Pope’s opinions will quickly filter down through the American hierarchy, imagine the difficult road those ideas will have to take in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and other more socially-conservative parts of the world.

And, more critically, nothing in Church doctrine has changed. The Catechism still refers to natural law arguments to describe our relationships as “objectively disordered.” I still don’t see any moves to suggest that paragraphs 2357 through 2359 will substantially change in my lifetime.

But what is clear is that this pope pointedly rebuked those Cardinals, Bishops, priests, and laity (I’m thinking here of Maggie Gallagher and others at National Organization for Marriage) who have abused the church’s teachings to further their own narrow political agendas. Not only that, but he accuses them rather specifically of “lock[ing] (themselves) up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

But what’s most encouraging to me is that if you were to see this only in political terms, you would miss most of the story. This is not just a potentially momentous shift in politics (it will only become truly momentous if Bishops take heed), but is is also a landmark shift in the spiritual life of the Church. It took the Second Vatican Council three years, two thousand bishops and nearly a thousand constituting sessions to bring the church out of its legalistic middle ages. Much of that work was threatened under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who served as JBII’s right hand man and chief enforcer at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Francis, in one bold move, has once again called for throwing open the windows of the church, as John XXIII did fifty-one years ago next month. While it’s important not to get too carried away, I think getting rather excited about this is certainly in order.

Comments

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TomTallis
September 20th, 2013 | LINK

Pope John the 33rd? You might want to fix that.

Jim Burroway
September 20th, 2013 | LINK

I actually did, once. Thanks to my crappy CenturyLink connection, it didn’t take. So frustrating.

Steve
September 20th, 2013 | LINK

Woulnt and coulnt give the catholic church any weight or merit–except it is (irritatingly so) the bell-weather of so many of its following.
They are considering a change? I welcome it. And, perhaps as much as I might detest its influence, more broadly its a read that gay folks should welcome.

Timothy Kincaid
September 20th, 2013 | LINK

Thank you, Jim. There’s no way I could have done justice to this story and your commentary was superb!

And I think that you are correct in that while this will have immediate political impact (consider the Catholic legislator who now can ignore the Bishop, knowing that the Pope is more fair minded), the greater impact will be spiritual. Perhaps Francis is one of the few Cardinals who could have saved the Church from complete irrelevancy in North America.

And, of course, there will be further political impact in years to come from a Church whose leader does not dedicate himself and the culture of his church to political manipulations and power plays.

Hunter
September 21st, 2013 | LINK

My only question is “How did this man get elected pope in today’s Church?”

Jay
September 21st, 2013 | LINK

Thanks for this commentary, Jim. Even though the Church is authoritarian, it is nevertheless difficult to steer from the top. All the current bishops have been appointed by JPII or Benedict XVI, primarily for their ideological purity. So they may be counted upon to resist, at least passively, the call for a new direction. I suspect that is why the Pope chose to issue this interview worldwide through Jesuit publications. It is interesting that the Jesuit publication in the US, America, has been sitting on the interview for several weeks. Moreover, they built the entire September issue around the interview and included an editorial in which a Jesuit wrote about the contributions of gay priests. In addition, a couple of weeks ago, the US Jesuit news service launched a set of videos encouraging gay people to come back to the church. I don’t believe that this is a coincidence. I suspect that the Jesuits will take the lead in pushing for the vision articulated by Pope Francis.

Whether the bishops follow will be interesting to observe. At least, the next time we hear of a diocese money-laundering donations to oppose same-sex marriage or a bishop denouncing same-sex marriage in the terms used by certain bishops, we can cite the words of the pope and call them out on their obsessions. Similarly, the next time a Catholic school teacher is fired because he or she is discovered to be gay or to be in a same-sex marriage, the laity can protest that the school or diocese is not following the orders of the Popel

Rob
September 21st, 2013 | LINK

I think that this Pope is attempting to make the Church relevant again as a whole. Religiosity has plummeted lately, and those left at the center of Organized Religion are the harpy like voices we’ve been hearing, Dolan, Maggie and the like. This Pope knows that if that doesn’t change, the Church is doomed to irrelevancy in the near to immediate future. I do foresee an acceptance of Gay People in the Church, relatively soon.

I never thought I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime, and I didn’t expect to see something like NALTn my lifetime, and I certainly never thought I’d see a Pope in my lifetime that told people to stop beating up the gays. Inclusion no longer seems a lifetime away?

Gene in L.A.
September 21st, 2013 | LINK

With all due respect to the believers among us. This is only important insofar as one considers the Church to be of any importance at all. What I saw first in the speech was, “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner.” I would not like to see the Church become more like its evangelical counterparts among Protestant sects.

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