Michael Brendan Dougherty: Did pope soften teaching on homosexuality?

07/31/2013 5:19 PM

07/31/2013 5:19 PM

It’s refreshing when a man whose job titles include supreme pontiff and vicar of Christ says, “Well, who am I to judge?”

The news wires have been buzzing since Pope Francis gave an informal interview to journalists on his airplane Monday and said: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” He went on to say that homosexuals are “our brothers and sisters” who “should not be marginalized.”

Did the pope just soften the church’s teaching on homosexuality? Not really. And even if he was somehow trying to do that, stray papal remarks don’t unwind the dogma of a church.

But his words do mean something. And, unfortunately, the debate over what Francis meant will obscure some of the more interesting questions about his papacy.

Conservative and traditionalist Catholics have been eager to point out that there’s no substantive change – no dogmatic evolution – signaled in Pope Francis’ remarks at all. They have a point.

When Francis said that gays should not be marginalized, he was gently paraphrasing paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has been in place since 1994: “They (homosexuals) must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

But what people are really responding to in this “Who am I?” quote is its “no big deal, man” spirit. The popular image of the church is that its fustian prelates are just plain uncomfortable even acknowledging homosexuality. Francis projects serene confidence.

Intentionally or not, his holiness has called into question the official (and mostly ignored) policy of the church set by Pope John XXIII, who barred gays from the priesthood in 1961: “Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with the evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious danger.”

But while conservatives bleat “it’s not news” and liberals cheer “Good! More now, please,” a lot of other interesting things from this interview and from Francis’ pontificate have been overlooked.

For one thing, Pope Francis not only touted the impending canonizations of Pope John XIII and Pope John Paul II, but also the “causes” of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Are we seriously to believe that every recent pope was a saint, even when the church has experienced unbelievable contraction and criminal scandal under their pontificates?

Reports are also coming out that Francis has, in principle, reversed the one major effort of his still-breathing predecessor, which was to give liberty to all priests to say the traditional Latin Mass, which had been practically suppressed after 1970. Is the policy restricting the traditional Mass returning? Was Benedict wrong?

According to reports at the conclave, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope because he promised to reform the Curia, the group of clerical bureaucrats who run the Vatican. While generating a million headlines about gay priests, he admitted that on the reform front, “It’s true that I haven’t done a lot yet.” That’s putting it lightly.

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