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.