As my loyal readers know, I’ve been covering the tenure of the new Pope Francis with interest since his election. I’ve found myself impressed with him more and more as his papacy has gone on. Pope Francis has cast himself as a man of the people, eschewing the traditional gaudy excesses of his office and returning to the church’s roots, which call upon its followers to speak up for the poor and marginalized in society. After Pope Benedict XVI’s elitist and backward thinking, it has been refreshing to see a Pope who seems committed to carrying out Jesus’s message as best he can.
After carrying his own bags onto the papal plane, Pope Francis continued this trend of humility with recent comments he made in a Vatican press conference. When asked a question about the suspected “gay lobby” at the Vatican, Francis responded in part by saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” This marks a stark shift in tone from Pope Benedict, under whose watch the Vatican issued a statement banning men from the priesthood “who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.”
However, to progressive thinkers within the Church who are excited over this, I would channel Lee Corso and say, “Not so fast!” While the Pope’s comments are admirable, nothing has changed in terms of the substance of the church’s teaching. Cardinal Timothy Dolan clarified this in an interview on the TODAY Show, reaffirming that the church believes that any sexual acts outside of marriage are immoral. In addition, he said, “What the pope is saying is, ‘Don’t forget there’s another element to God’s teaching, namely that we treat everybody with dignity and respect, that we don’t judge their heart, that we love and respect them.’” So while Pope Francis is choosing to emphasize a different aspect of the church’s teaching on sexual matters, he hasn’t changed any rules. I’ve often found the church’s teaching on homosexuality, which essentially states that being gay is not a sin but acting on it in any way is, to be incredibly inconsistent and illogical, but that’s a discussion for another post.
Pope Francis also expressed some more outdated opinions on other church matters during the same press conference, which sort of got lost in the exuberance over his comments on homosexuality. While saying that women must take a deeper role in the church, when asked about possibly ordaining women as priests, he insisted that “The church says no. That door is closed.” Francis has also remained mum on other issues where he could have broken new ground, such as the church’s stance on contraception. He did remark that he would assemble a group of eight cardinals to explore the issue of whether divorcees can receive Communion, which is currently not allowed.
So, to summarize, I think that the excitement over the pontiff’s comments needs to be a little more tempered, and we need to focus more on the big picture. He’s got a long way to go before he’s on the level of John XXIII (who, in an unrelated development, is slated to be canonized despite lacking sufficient miracles, which thrills me). However, if this Pope’s goal is to seek to reform the church little by little, and slowly push it over to a more inclusive and merciful attitude, then I think he made progress toward that goal with his statement. It just shouldn’t be treated like a revolutionary step forward for the church, because it is not.