POPE’S PREMISE: GAY PEOPLE ARE NOT THAT BAD (provided they behave themselves)

By Paul

I guess it’s better than being told that we are “intrinsically disordered,” or that being gay is an “intrinsic moral evil,” as Benedict XVI used to say.   And no one is arguing that Pope Francis I isn’t a much humbler man, and a more human and humane individual than the previous pontiff, who was as stiff and as formal and as rigid as the crosier he carried.  Still, the hullabaloo made over the new Pope’s recent comments about gay people seems a little overblown to me.

First of all, he did not say, “who am I to judge gay people?”  That seems to be the way that it has too often been portrayed by many news sources.  In fact, what he did say was that, if there are gay priests, and so long as they remain completely celibate (as all priests are supposed to, at least in theory), then in that case he would not judge them.  And, yes, that is something.  As mentioned above, it’s better that this be his first statement about gays as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, than to condemn all gay people as evil and disordered.  But it’s not as earth shattering as it is being made out to be.

Let us remember, first of all, that the Catholic Church still preaches that any sexual expression on the part of gay people is a mortal sin, which, if unconfessed  (and if you believe such things), means that your “soul” will be condemned to hell for all eternity, should you die in that state.  So, the message, as much as it may currently be couched in a slightly more palatable package, remains exactly the same.   The most that a believing, practicing gay Catholic can hope for is to live a life of enforced celibacy (more or less like Catholic priests, again, at least in theory), and never experience the joy of sharing him or herself intimately with another man or woman.  To put it, in fact, more bluntly, the message basically is: keep your mouth shut and your pants on and don’t touch anybody, and then we won’t judge you.

Well, thanks but no thanks, Your Holiness.

The mark of the papacy of Francis I so far, there is not doubt, has been one of social justice.  The Pope scolded the elites of Brazil, clerical and secular alike, in his recent visit to that country, and he seems truly to relish being a man of the people, among the people.  He said he wished he could knock on every door of every person in the country, ask for a glass of cold water or a cup of coffee, and sit and talk with families.  We have no reason to doubt the sincerity and the compassion that is clearly behind such an extraordinary statement, especially inasmuch as what Francis does and says as Pope flows naturally from what he did as a simple priest, and then later on as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Whether this scolding of the rich and powerful will do much good in the long run remains to be seen.  A great deal will depend on whether he can ultimately convince his brother bishops in Latin America and around the world to take on his own love of the poor and the dispossessed, a thing that has not been seen for a long time among many Catholic prelates.

His simplicity of manner, and his preference for living a normal life, has shown itself in many ways.  Not the least of these has been his eschewing of the lavish papal apartments in the Vatican in favor of living in the nearby guesthouse.  As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment, and took public transportation to work every day, a path not followed by the great majority of cardinal archbishops of the world, who live in elaborate mansions and travel about in chauffeur-driven cars.

All of this, we understand, he does and has done not only because it seems to be his own personal preference, but out of solidarity with the poor of the world, who know pretty much by definition, and by force of circumstances, know how to live simply.  All these are good things, and bring to mind some of the better qualities so admired in the late Pope John XXIII.  And no doubt, as with Pope John, they cause a certain amount of consternation not only among the current pope’s security people, but more to the point among the conservative elite of the church, who believe that the Supreme Pontiff ought to be more admired from afar than accessible to the many.

But would it, in fact, be too much to hope that Francis I might show as much love and compassion to the gay people of the world, as he does to the poor?   I think we have to admit that there is virtually no chance whatsoever that the Pope will change his mind on the idea of gay marriage.  That is a bridge too far, to be sure, for this, or for any pope in the foreseeable future.  The Catholic Church is too locked into a literal reading of the bible for that to happen, even if it has no problem dismissing the notions of slavery, or some of the more stringent dietary regulations the bible teaches, as no longer being applicable or appropriate for the modern world.  This picking and choosing of what is essential, and of what is really God’s immutable word, is a hallmark of most Christian faiths.  The same bridge too far, or at least a parallel one, could be cited in regard to the marriage of priests, or to the Church’s ever allowing women to become priests.  Still, even so, the Pope has said that it will be one of the important tasks of his papacy to make the voices of women, and their role in the governance of the Church, much more prominent than they every have been before, and that too is a good thing.

If he shows some movement in regard to women, then, is it too much to wonder if he will do so when it comes to gay people?  My prediction is that we will see little change in this regard more than the slight shifting of tone that we have already witnessed, and beyond that, there will be little if any substantive difference.  Francis I may be a man of the people, he may honestly express and truly feel compassion for and solidarity with the poor of the world, but doctrinally he is as conservative as all of the other modern popes who have been his immediate predecessors.

The message is, and will remain, that gay people are not in and of themselves sinful, but that any actual expression of who they are, any attempt at living a normal life of love and of companionship will be condemned by the Church as an offense against the law of God.

And no slight modification in tone, no simple adjustment in verbiage can, in the end, make up for the intrinsic evil done by this rigid, unbending, and ultimately un-Christ-like doctrine, and its vilification of gay people, or of how they live and love in the world.

HOW HUMBLE AND HOW LOVING A PAPACY?

By Paul

Much has been made of late regarding the loving humility and the Christian charity of the new pope.  He has been compared to John Paul II in terms of both warmth and personal charisma, and that comparison may be accurate.

Each of these prelates seems to have, or to have had, a special place in his heart for the poor of the world.  And the poor, let it be said, are surely in need of a strong advocate, inasmuch as they represent the very definition of powerlessness in society.  By contrast, those with money are those with influence, and can for the most part do and get what they want.  The poor get what is left over, if indeed anything at all is left.  So, I applaud the pope in this regard.  It is surely a very good thing for the poor to have friends in high places, and it is difficult to think of a higher position in society than that of Pontifex Maximus, at least in religious circles.  To note just how high an office this is let us just remember for a moment that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, was the first hereditary Pontifex Maximus (of the old religion).  It is often said that this title, Pontifex, comes from a combination of the Latin words “pons” and “facere,” and that they translate to mean “builder of bridges.” More probably, however, it relates to an old Etruscan term, and refers instead to a preparer of the roads.  It was the job of the Pontifex Maximus to keep the “pax deorum,” or peace with the gods.  This meant being a sort of highly valued go-between, mediating the way and conjoining gods and men, and helping people stay on the path that took them to the gods.

Given this regal background, to say nothing of the later trappings of the Imperial Papacy accrued over the centuries, the question suggests itself whether a person today can for long remain humble and lowly while occupying such a lofty place in life.  Let us hope that it is possible.  Let us give our best wishes to Francis I, who apparently took his name from that of Francis of Assisi, a saint made famous by his humility.

So far, at least, it would seem that the new pope is determined to maintain this simple demeanor, that same ability and willingness to reach out to ordinary people, and not to hide behind the truly formidable trappings of the Roman Pontiff.  His immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, was by contrast less successful at this, if it was a goal of his at all.  And so Catholics are rejoicing, and feeling relieved that they may have a more human leader at the helm these days.  In his recent installation ceremony, the new pope even spoke of the need to protect the environment, which must be something of a first for the head of a major religion.

Still, not everyone rejoices in quite the same way, and that is where we will have to wait and see just how inclusive the new pope’s love and humility turns out to be.  That’s because the truth of the matter is that not everyone is impartially and uniformly equal within the Catholic Church.  Let us take as an example first of all the role of women in the Church.  It goes without saying that we saw not a single representative of exactly half of all humanity within the conclave that elected the humble Francis I.  Nor were there any women in red occupying any of the balconies flanking the loggia from which Francis I gave his first “urbi et orbi” blessing (to the city and to the world), at which he asked for all to pray for him.   Nor will any Catholic see a woman on the altar celebrating mass on any Sunday, or any other day of the week, anywhere in the world, because women are shockingly banned from the priesthood, even though the reasons for this are entirely historically based and not at all rooted in any of the Christian scriptures.

But let us simply take for granted that it is unlikely, if not unthinkable, that Francis I, or any future pope in our lifetime, will ever change this policy, even though it is essentially merely a habit (and a bad one at that), a tradition, a custom, an historical norm.  We are told, let us not reach too high, let us not attempt to overreach, lest the men in charge of the church be made to feel uncomfortable to the point of becoming apoplectic.  All right, who wants to be responsible for giving an old man a heart attack?

Are there, however, other ways in which the new pope could reach out to and make women feel more valued, more included, more truly part of the church many of them love?  In my view there is.  In what could be both a simple and a highly dramatic gesture, why not consider allowing women to become deacons?  Yes, it is true that the diaconate has long been considered a step in becoming a priest, and when I was a young man and still considering myself Catholic, deacons were by definition priests-in-training only.  However, much has changed since that time, and today there are deacons aplenty in many Catholic churches.  They are so-called lay people, who never have any intention of going on to become priests.  Nor are such lay-deacons required to remain celibate.  It seems to me, therefore, not such a stretch, not so much an unthinkable step for the pope to cast the mantle of inclusion over women in this regard and to allow them to take on this important role.  It would be a wonderfully welcomed step, one that would help many Catholic women feel a deep sense of hope, of joy, and of empowerment within the church that has for too long regarded them as second-class citizens.

There is in addition another whole swath of humanity, which also appears to exist outside of the humility and love preached by Francis I, namely, gay people.  Then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is on record as having said that gay marriage is “destructive of God’s plan,” and he claimed that the adoption of orphans on the part of loving same-sex parents is tantamount to child endangerment.  Are these the words of a loving and humble man, it has to be asked?  In fact, it could well be said that it is especially incumbent on the Catholic Church these days to tread carefully when it comes to matters of sex and love, as its own history is a clouded one in this regard.  Even in Argentina, the new pontiff’s home country, only some 25% of Catholics actually attend church on Sunday, and virtually no one follows the church’s teaching on contraception and birth control.  The sordid and depressing details of child abuse on the part of Catholic clergy in virtually every country where there are Catholics is so well known that it hardly bears repetition here.  And divorce, too, is as common among Catholics as it is in the general population.

Love is a great goal toward which we all ought to constantly strive.  It is what makes this sometimes cold and lonely world a place where all of us can find solace and a degree of happiness.  Is it, therefore, a good thing for the head of an organization that professes to live by the love of God and by the teachings of Jesus Christ, that great Avatar of Love, to preach exclusion and separation?

When I was still a monk, I well remember one of the great hymns of the church, sung in the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant.  It began: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”  In translation, this means: “Where (there is) charity and love, there God is (too).”  There are several words in Latin depicting the idea of love, and although some authors have used them interchangeably, it is generally believed that “caritas” refers to the greater love of all humankind, beyond the purely personal, while “amor” applies to the love we feel toward those who are closest to us.  Note that the hymn, whose author is unknown but which has been in existence for close to a thousand years, speaks of both.

So, let us hope – and those who pray, let them pray – that Francis I will open his heart to all people.  We all ought to rejoice that he is so keenly attuned to the needs of the poor, and that is a good thing.  May he continue this crucial mission throughout his papacy.  But again, is it truly commensurate with Christian love (and charity), is it part of God’s plan to willingly shut out whole other segments of humanity in the process?  If the Catholic Church has a role to play in the world of the 21st century, its leader must embrace all people, no matter what their race, color, creed, social or economic standing, sex, or sexual orientation might be.  Otherwise, he may be an affable and avuncular old man, but he is also one who lives by the code of a creed no longer relevant in today’s world.