Pope’s words create confusion for Catholics on same-sex relationships


Michael Templeton
Michael Templeton

An ideological tug of war over the firing of a Rhode Island church music director for marrying his same-sex partner illustrates the confusion that permeates some U.S. Roman Catholic parishes over Pope Francis’s words on homosexuality.

Francis’s famous declaration “Who am I to judge?” in 2013 energized Catholics who had pushed the church to accept gays and lesbians. Now, some gay Catholics and supporters who hoped for rapid acceptance find themselves stymied by many bishops and pastors.

Francis is being cited by both the music director, Michael Templeton, and by Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, known for taking a hard line on church teaching about marriage and abortion. Tobin has criticized Francis, writing after the pope’s summit on the family two years ago that “Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.”

The pope has upheld Catholic teaching on homosexuality, reiterating the church’s opposition to same-sex relationships. But his shift in tone and broad statements about mercy have left a trail of comments that amount to a Rorschach test open to interpretation, say those who have closely followed Francis.

“Pope Francis has not said, ‘Here’s what you should do in a parish where you have a music director who has married his partner of the same sex,’ ” said Rev. James T. Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College. “Pope Francis is articulating general principles: forgiveness and mercy and not harsh judgment. But how you handle a particular case like this, he has been very reluctant to weigh in on it.”

That means a gay Catholic’s fate depends on his diocese or individual pastor. Templeton, 38, says he was called in last month and fired from the job he held for five years at the Church of St. Mary. The pastor, appointed in July, told him someone had sent him a 2015 Associated Press article that included details about Templeton’s wedding. A representative from the Providence Diocese also attended. At the end of the meeting, disappointed and hurt, Templeton cited Francis.

Thomas Tobin“This seems truly inconsistent with the teachings of Pope Francis,” Templeton said he told them.

The firing caused an outcry in the parish. A fellow employee resigned minutes after Templeton’s firing. Several lay leaders also resigned and dozens of parishioners have left, including most of the church’s 20 to 30 gay members, according to people interviewed by the Associated Press.

Many cited Francis’s example, saying the firing was in conflict with his declaration that 2016 be a “Year of Mercy.”

The pastor, Rev. Francesco Francese, referred comment to Tobin’s office, and Tobin declined a request for an interview.

Tobin issued a statement to The Providence Journal saying church employees and volunteers are “expected to live in a way that is fully consistent” with church teachings. If a person engages in activity that contradicts those teachings, “that individual leaves the Church no choice but to respond,” Tobin said.

In a later Facebook posting, Tobin defended his approach, citing Francis.

“When church leaders have to respond to situations involving persons living an openly ‘gay lifestyle’ these days, we’re often scolded and told that we should be ‘more like Pope Francis,’ presumably the ‘Who-am-I-to judge’ Pope Francis,” Tobin wrote.

He listed several examples that “critics should also remember,” including that Francis fired a priest who was working in the Vatican upon learning the priest was gay and in a relationship.

In the past few months alone, Francis has made statements or taken actions that give fuel to both sides.

Francis underscored his emphasis on mercy over defending orthodoxy with his first U.S. picks for cardinals, announced Sunday, choosing bishops who have taken a more welcoming approach to gays and others who have felt alienated from the church.

Asked this month about how he would minister to transgender Catholics, Francis responded: “When someone who has this condition comes before Jesus, Jesus would surely never say, ‘Go away because you’re gay.’ ” At the same time, he recently supported Mexican bishops working against a push to legalize same-sex marriage. New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay Catholics, has documented around four dozen cases during Francis’s tenure where people have been forced from positions in Catholic institutions or faced other negative consequences for reasons such as being in gay relationships or advocating for gay rights.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, said gay Catholics continue to see problems in places with conservative bishops, such as Providence. Tobin, he said, was interpreting Francis too narrowly.

Before Francis, “people were afraid to even say the words gay or lesbian,” DeBernardo said. “I do think he’s taken an important step that could lead to further steps. I’m not certain, I don’t think he will make a change in church doctrine, but I think he is laying the groundwork for future changes.”

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High stakes for Canada’s Bishops in euthanasia row

by Michael Higgins


While having dinner recently with my former producer, Bernie Lucht, the Montreal Jewish intellectual and onetime head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship intellectual affairs programme, Ideas, he looked across the table at me and asked plaintively why the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was being so callous with the dying.

Bernie had confused the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories with the national episcopal conference. Easy enough to do. What bothered him was the seeming disjunction between Pope Francis’ call for mercy and non-judgmental attitudes toward the marginalised and the position taken by the bishops.

In their 34-page document, Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons and Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia, the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops made it clear that their clergy should not engage in the “truly scandalous” behaviour of granting a request for funeral rites or the sacraments by people who have, for whatever reason, chosen to die by physician-assisted protocols.

Nervous public
Physician-assisted dying is now a legal right in Canada following the passage of Bill C-14 in June of this year. As I have outlined in an article in New York’s Commonweal magazine following Royal Assent for the Bill: “Although benign euphemisms were deployed regularly in an effort to make the legislation more palatable to a nervous public, Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, was refreshingly blunt in its editorial position when it observed prior to the bill’s convoluted passing through both chambers that ‘once the new law is adopted, we will be a country whose legislation allows the state to kill its citizens, pure and simple.

People often warn against slippery slopes, but this is no slope. This is a precipice from which there is no return.’”

To be clear, The Globe and Mail was not opposed to the legislation per se as it recognised that Parliament was responding to polls that indicated that the Canadian public was in favour of some form of doctor-induced death with rigorous constraints put in place.

But, not unreasonably and predictably, the Catholic bishops were opposed to the legislation as they considered it “an affront to human dignity, an erosion of human solidarity, and a danger to all vulnerable persons”.

But once the bill was passed and became the law of the land, the Canadian episcopate moved to ensure that Catholic health care facilities were protected from providing services that contradicted their mandate.

To date, they have been successful in achieving that but the Alberta bishops document may have ignited unnecessary controversy, prompting the considerable lobby opposed to exemptions for religiously-affiliated and publicly-funded health care institutions to move toward litigation seeking to revoke that exemption and could well end up in the Supreme Court.

Senior Quebec prelates, like the country’s Primate, Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec City, and Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, have dissociated themselves from their Western brothers by insisting that their priests will provide funerals for those who choose the now legal medically-assisted dying option and will “accompany people in every step of their life”. By electing a pastoral over a canonical approach, the Quebec clerics have aligned more closely with the Franciscan papacy.

The last time the national episcopate was in very public disagreement was in the early 1980s when a social justice document highly critical of Canada’s fiscal policies and commitment to ‘trickle down economics’ was, in turn, repudiated by then Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto, Gerald Emmett Carter, a close friend of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and several of his Cabinet.

This time the stakes are higher.

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