Sunday, August 04, 2013
A Papal Surprise: Humility
By JOHN CORVINO
DETROIT — When I was a kid and someone said anything judgmental, my Brooklyn Italian relatives would retort: “Oh, yeah? Who died and made you pope?” So I was astonished to learn that Pope Francis, during his flight back to Rome from Brazil on Monday, told reporters: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
“Um, you’re the pope!” is the expected refrain from traditionalist Catholics, who have recently complained about everything from the new pope’s fashion choices (“What? No brocade? Not even the red shoes?”) to his relative silence on conservative political causes. And who can blame them for feeling disoriented? Judgment — especially in matters of sexuality — has for many centuries seemed to be part of the papal job description.
To be clear, the pope’s remarks do not signal a change in doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sex outside marriage is wrong, and that marriage means one man, one woman. Before he became pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, called same-sex marriage a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” He has not rescinded those remarks, and no one expects him to.
Yet it has also been reported that Cardinal Bergoglio quietly favored a compromise that would have permitted civil unions in Argentina (which, over the church’s vehement opposition, legalized same-sex marriage, in 2010). And it’s hard to know how much of his public stance was a function of his being a company man — no longer a factor now that the man heads the company.
Pope Francis’s surprising remarks came in response to a question about an alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican. His response: “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem.” He added: “They’re our brothers.”
These comments leave plenty of room for parsing. Progressives will emphasize his claim that homosexual orientation is “not the problem,” a far cry from the approach of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who in response to the church sex-abuse scandal said that those with “strong homosexual inclinations,” even if celibate, were unfit to be priests.
When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s doctrinal enforcer, Benedict, who resigned in February, called homosexuality an “objective disorder” that tends toward “an intrinsic moral evil.” With his retired predecessor living a short walk away in Vatican City, Francis is unlikely to formally repudiate that doctrine.
As for “who am I to judge,” surely the pope is not relinquishing the church’s assertion of authority in matters of faith and morals. But he was adopting a tone of humility. And tone matters.
It matters because it signals that the Vatican might stop scapegoating gays for its problems of personnel and governance. And it matters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, especially those raised Catholic, who grow up thinking that their desires are not just a sin but a perversion, a moral stain of the highest order.
Not long after Francis assumed the papacy, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, made similarly conciliatory remarks. Asked how he would respond to a loving same-sex couple, he replied: “Well, the first thing I’d say to them is, ‘I love you, too. And God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness.’ ”
While being careful to say only that gays were “entitled to friendship,” he went on to observe that the church must “do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a gay Catholic group, called Cardinal Dolan’s remarks “nothing short of an Easter miracle.”
Rising from the dead would be an Easter miracle. Not attacking gays is just simple human decency — not to mention good politics, since most American Catholics support marriage rights for same-sex couples. Surely the church’s leaders, in America and in Rome, recognize that, in much of the Western world, homophobia is a losing long-term strategy.
Many will see Pope Francis’s remarks, like Cardinals Dolan’s, as simply a retooled version of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” When applied to homosexuality, that paradigm has always been unstable: the “sin” in question is not some isolated misstep, like lying on a tax return or tweeting a picture of your crotch. It’s about the fundamental relationships around which people organize their lives.
Still, when the pope asks “who am I to judge?” and calls gays “our brothers,” he brings the “love” part of “love the sinner” front and center. That’s rare, refreshing and welcome.