Pope Francis is full of surprises. He stays away from formal changes in Catholic Church doctrine but is not shy about altering the Church’s priorities. He regularly moves the conversation from judgment to mercy, and from condemnation to encounter.
That’s what he was up to last week when he became the first pope in history to call for the repeal of all laws, everywhere, against homosexuality. “Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
He specifically called on Catholic bishops who support statutes that punish or discriminate against the LGBTQ community to change their ways. “These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit writer who has championed a shift in the Church’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, called the pope’s statement “a huge step forward” on “what is essentially a life-and-death issue,” since homosexuality is a capital offense in some nations.
The pope was widely cited as describing homosexual acts as sinful, in keeping with Church teaching, but Martin said that the Spanish transcript of his remarks suggested he was ascribing this view to others by way of responding to their arguments. “Yes, but it’s a sin,” the pope said, mimicking what those opposed to his view might assert. “Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.” Francis added: “It is also a sin to lack charity with one another.”
Francis knows about the lack of charity. A great many conservative bishops, especially in the United States, have been highly critical of his pontificate and his insistence that addressing poverty, social justice and global inequalities should take priority over abortion and issues related to sexuality. Close students of the hierarchy see at least a third of American bishops as hostile to Francis’s anti-culture-war approach and a majority as being, well, less than enthusiastic.
But the pope’s latest salvo is likely to be popular in the pews. Despite the views of conservatives in the hierarchy, U.S. Catholics are somewhat more supportive of LGBTQ rights than Americans overall. A Gallup study of polls taken from 2016 to 2020, for example, found that on average 69 percent of Catholics, including 56 percent of weekly church attendees, favored legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
The pope appeared to go a step further toward liberalizing the Church’s position in response to questions from Martin after the AP interview aimed at clarifying whether he regarded homosexual behavior as a sin. Francis reiterated that Catholic teaching held that “every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin,” but added that “one must also consider the circumstances, which may decrease or eliminate fault.” This was classic Francis: He reiterated old doctrine but then distanced its meaning from earlier formulations far more hostile to homosexuality.
“It’s a move away from seeing all sexual sins as separating us from God’s grace,” Cathleen Kaveny, a theologian and law professor at Boston College, told me, “and instead seeing them more like other sins, which can be serious or not, depending on circumstances.”
The pope’s intervention comes amid ferment created by his call in October 2021 for a process of dialogue and consultation at all levels of the Church under the rubric of the much-debated word “synodality.” It’s not democracy but does imply listening and sharing insights.
It is also an occasion for pro-Francis bishops to speak out. In a timely essay last week in America magazine, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, criticized “cultures of exclusion that alienate all too many from the church or make their journey in the Catholic faith tremendously burdensome.”
He challenged those who center “the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity,” and argued that “the distinction between orientation and activity cannot be the principal focus” of Church thinking about homosexuality.
“It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities,” McElroy wrote. “We must enlarge our tent. And we must do so now.”
His essay invited instant backlash from conservative Catholics. The Rev. Raymond J. de Souza charged in the National Catholic Register that McElroy’s approach to sexuality amounted to “the abolition of chastity.” The headline called it “a pastoral disaster.”
McElroy, a strong Francis ally, is accustomed to being a lightning rod for censure that is really aimed at the pope. But the response underscores how trying to diminish the power of culture-war issues is itself a spark for more cultural warfare.
Francis seems calm about the brickbats that come his way. “Criticism helps you to grow and improve things,” he told the AP, providing protection against “a dictatorship of distance … where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything.”
Those of us who sympathize with Francis wish his internal detractors felt the same way.
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