What does Pope Francis really think about homosexuality?
That question has been raised in recent days by two seemingly contradictory news reports.
Earlier this month, Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse in Chile who was a guest of the Vatican’s in late April, says he and Pope Francis discussed more than the scandal that has roiled the church in Chile. They also discussed Cruz’s sexuality. He is gay.
According to Cruz, the Pope told him, “It doesn’t matter. God made you like this. God loves you like this.”
The Vatican neither confirmed nor denied the Pope’s words, saying they “do not normally comment on the Pope’s private conversations.”
On Thursday, quite different remarks, also attributed to the Pope, were reported.
The Italian news magazine Vatican Insider, as well as other Italian media outlets, reported that Francis spoke about gay men in the seminary to the Italian Bishops’ Conference during a closed-door session.
According to one bishop present at the meeting, the Pope said, “If in doubt, better not let them enter.” Meaning that, if someone is gay, they shouldn’t study for the priesthood.
That stance puts Francis in line with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who issued a document in 2005 stating that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t be allowed to study for the priesthood.
Cardinal Bassetti, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, confirmed to Italian media the Pope’s comments.
The Vatican, once again, refused to comment on the Pope’s private remarks.
OK to be gay?
The Pope’s public comments on gay men and women provide at least some hints of what he really thinks.
That is, for Francis, being gay and the teaching of the Catholic Church is an “and/and” proposition.
The two realities seem to be contradictory if we consider that Francis has expressed publicly and shown in his meetings with gays and transgender persons an openness to who they are and how they live.
Yet, the official teaching of the Catholic Church on being gay is that “the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered” and same-sex couples cannot marry in the Catholic Church.
So while Francis’ words and gestures sometimes seem to give the message, “It’s OK that you’re gay,” that messages seem to be contradicted by the rules of the church he governs.
So what gives?
One interpretation is that Francis would like to change those rules but cannot, because conservative resistance is too strong.
However, we have seen Francis change rules regarding Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics despite conservative resistance. He is the Pope, and a determined one at that. He can change rules if he wants.
The fact is that Francis has given no indication that he wants to change Catholic Church teaching or rules on being gay or gay relationships.
What the catechism says
To be clear – because this is often a confused point – the Catholic Church distinguishes between being gay and acting on same-sex attraction. (This is sometimes called “love the sinner/hate the sin.”)
About sexual activity, the Catholic catechism says: “They are contrary to the natural law … under no circumstances can they be approved.”
Even being gay, which the Catholic Church calls an “inclination,” is “objectively disordered,” according to the church.
Included in the catechism’s teaching about gay men and women is that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
Finally, the Catholic Church does not come down firmly on the “nature or nurture” question; whether one is born gay or it is a choice. The catechism says, “Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
So how to reconcile Francis’ radical openness to gay people with his church’s firm position that being gay or lesbian is “disordered” and its disapproval of gay relationships?
A ‘vaccine against the faith’
One answer to that question may be found in Francis’ address to Catholic leaders in 2013, the year he was elected Pope. Referring to a daughter of a lesbian woman, he said, “I remember the story of a young girl who confided to her teacher that, ‘my mother’s girlfriend doesn’t love me.’”
“The situations we find ourselves in today pose therefore new challenges that at times are difficult even for us to understand,” he said.
“How do we announce Christ to a generation which changes?” the Pope asked. “We need to be careful not to administer to them a vaccine against the faith,” Francis said.
This example, and there are others in his public statements, points to the “end-game” for Francis: bringing people closer to Jesus Christ.
His approach is radically pastoral, not doctrinal; it is one of “accompaniment” as he often says.
“I have accompanied people with homosexual tendencies and also with homosexual practices,” Francis said during an in-flight press conference returning from Azerbaijan in October, 2016.
“People must be accompanied, as Jesus accompanied,” he continued. “When a person in this situation comes before Jesus, Jesus will surely not say, ‘Go away because you are homosexual.’”
An ‘and/and’ proposition
The Pope’s approach has been criticized by both the right and the left.
Conservatives say that accompanying gay men and women should include a correction of their lifestyle; progressives say Francis’ accompaniment should include a change in doctrine.
The Pope, it seems, is happy to hold the two in tension.
His words and the teaching of his Church are an “and/and” proposition: God loves you, the Church welcomes you AND we think this is the best way to live.
For some, this is a contradiction and creates confusion about church policies.
But for Francis, it seems increasingly clear that the person comes before the policy. And keeping hearts open to Jesus comes before all else.