Is the pope really moving the church on LGBTQ+ issues?
February 01, 2023
What are we to make of what Pope Francis said in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press released on Jan. 25, as reported in this National Catholic Reporter story? (And here is the original AP story.)
"Being homosexual is not a crime," he said. "It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. Fine, but first let's distinguish between a sin and a crime."
The important -- but sad -- thing to notice first is that in terms of Catholic moral teaching -- much of which is beautiful and well worth knowing and following -- this statement, as weirdly conflicted as it may seem, actually represents a tiny (very tiny) step in the right direction.
Direction from where? Well, from this June 3, 2003, statement and teaching from the Vatican that declares this:
"Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts 'as a serious depravity...(cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered'. (5) This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries(6) and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.
"Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided'. (7) They are called, like other Christians, to live the virtue of chastity. (8) The homosexual inclination is however 'objectively disordered' (9) and homosexual practices are 'sins gravely contrary to chastity'.(10)"
This kind of thinking -- even if expressed in different language -- was common in Christianity for a long, long time, even though the word "homosexuality" didn't even enter the English language until the 1800s. But eventually scholars began to explore where such condemnatory thinking came from. And many of them decided that, in the end, the Bible has almost nothing to say about same-sex relations as we're beginning to understand them today. You can read my essay about that here and see some additional details about the change in thinking that's happened.
And even though the 2003 Vatican statement quoted above says the church's "moral judgment" about homosexuality being "intrinsically disordered" is "unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition," the reality is that there are some priests and women religious who no longer buy that and who have engaged in helpful ministry to the LGBTQ+ community.
But change in almost all religious traditions happens slowly. For instance, it took my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), until 1956 to ordain its first woman as a pastor. The Episcopal Church followed suit, but not until more than 20 years later.
There are both societal and institutional reasons for this slowness, and sometimes it's actually a good thing because it can keep faith communities from changing doctrine whimsically whenever a fresh breeze blows in society.
But homosexuality and how to understand it is no fresh breeze -- and hasn't been for quite a long time. What science and sociologists are learning about issues of human sexuality should at least make religious leaders want to understand those lessons and see if they reveal distorted thinking behind certain expressions of doctrine. That's one of the things that happened to the Catholic Church after it recognized that its condemnation of Galileo for suggesting that Earth revolves around the sun -- and not the other way around -- was flawed. The church changed its teaching.
Will that kind of change happen in my lifetime with the Catholic condemnation of homosexuality as "objectively disordered"? Almost certainly not. And maybe never.
But if I had to bet, I would wager that such a change eventually will happen in Catholicism -- and maybe even in other faith traditions that similarly condemn same-sex unions and actions. The pope's teeny-tiny step of noting that homosexuality shouldn't be illegal (a position out of sync with some African nations as the pope now is visiting Africa) may have moved the camel's nose just a bit closer to the inside of the tent. At least I hope so.
And my hope is heightened a bit by recent remarks from an openly gay advisor to the Vatican. As this NPR story reports, "Juan Carlos Cruz, an internationally known Chilean advocate and survivor of clerical sexual abuse," says "that anti-sodomy laws in dozens of countries, including some that impose the death penalty, are 'horrifying,' but the pope's moral leadership will help civil authorities, bishops and cardinals to 'change their heart' and join the pontiff in speaking out." I hope he's right.
(Here, by the way, is an article from The New Yorker that offers an interesting perspective about the LGBTQ+ remarks of Pope Francis in light of the recent death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.)
* * *
TURNING AWAY FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS?
As this article from The Conversation notes, "White conservative evangelicals, who make up most of the religious right movement, largely oppose government regulation to protect the environmental initiatives, including efforts to curb human-caused climate change." But that didn't use to be the case. In fact, environmental protection, often presented in faith-based words about being good stewards of God's creation, used to be emphasized frequently by people who identified as evangelicals, including "popular conservative evangelical author Francis Schaeffer." Government regulation, as we all know, can get burdensome and nit-picky. But environmental degradation leading to climate change is -- or should be -- a major focus of all people of faith. And it's going to take more than individuals recycling material or using more efficient light bulbs. The future for our children and grandchildren is at stake.