Pope Francis has done it again. As first reported here at NCR by my colleague Josh McElwee, on the plane ride back from Armenia to Rome yesterday, the Holy Father was asked about comments made by Cardinal Reinhard Marx to the effect that the church should apologize to gay people because it has marginalized them so. Here is McElwee's report on the pope's reply:
The church must say it's sorry for not having comported itself well many times, many times.
I believe that the church not only must say it's sorry ... to this person that is gay that it has offended," said the pope. 'But it must say it's sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work.'
'When I say the church: Christians,' Francis clarified. 'The church is holy. We are the sinners.'
When we say that Pope Francis did it again, what precisely is the "it"? Pope Francis did nothing more than express a decent and honest sentiment, one that in no way contradicts the teaching of the church. Indeed, as Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich pointed out last week in an interview posted at America, responding to those who criticized his statements of solidarity with the LGBT community after the killings in Orlando:
'You know,' he continued, '30 years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter describing as deplorable the fact that some homosexual persons, as they put it, have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action, and at that time ... they said that such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors whenever it occurs, so I believe it was important to raise my voice in this moment because this is what the church is asking us to do and has asked to do for over 30 years now.'
Pope Francis' comments, then, really are not that remarkable, or shouldn't be. He said the church should apologize for marginalizing gay people and others over the centuries, a marginalization in which the church was not alone, to be sure, but by which the church fell short of the higher standards to which it is called by the Lord Jesus. Why then such a fuss? The fuss comes about in large part because of the fact that while the pope's words should not be remarkable, they are.
Pope Francis' comments stand in stark contrast with those who place all sorts of qualifications on their affirmation of the dignity, even the humanity, of gay people. Few clergy, at least Catholic clergy in this country, are willing to affirm the dignity of gay people, full stop. Later, there is time to discuss the church's teaching on the ends proper to the sexual act. Usually, even those who understand that the church needs to develop it thoroughly inadequate theology on homosexuality, and even those who steer clear of the culture wars, tie themselves in knots with "buts" and "on the other hands" and "nonethelesses." Pope Francis almost never utters such words.
Second, the pope's comments stand in contrast with the reluctance of many bishops, again even of some good bishops, to even utter the words "gay" or "lesbian" as if saying the words make them complicit in some fancied "gay agenda" to promote gender ideology. They prefer the clunky phrase "people who experience same-sex attraction." They fret that calling someone gay reduces that person to their sexuality, although it does no such thing, anymore than referring to Cardinal O'Malley as Irish reduces his personality to his ethnic background. The pope, not for the first time, said "gay people" and "gay person." He was not struck dead by a thunderbolt. No one suspects he is secretly becoming a devotee of gender ideology on the side. Referring to people as they refer to themselves is itself a mark of respect and, in this case, avoiding the words "gay" and "lesbian" only call attention to the fact that the hierarchs doing the avoiding are awkward beyond belief when discussing these issues ... and these fellow children of God.
Third, of course, the pope's comments distinguish him from those who really are hateful when speaking about gays and lesbians. Let's be clear about this: Some commentators were struck by the forceful language coming from some bishops in the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision invalidating the DAPA program for immigrants. But, their language was nothing compared to the histrionics surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage legal. And, to be clear, the DAPA case holds out the prospect of real harm to real Catholic marriages, as an undocumented husband could be sent back while his documented wife is permitted to stay. The reason the response to the same-sex marriage case was so overwhelming was ... ? And, I fear that whatever fear and hatred some hierarchs feel towards the gay community, like the killer in Orlando, it is fortified by an element of self-hatred for many of the most vocal opponents of anything approaching decency towards the gay community. Perhaps, perhaps it is a coincidence that the loudest voices opposing the gay community come from those prelates most inclined to dress up in as much lace and watered silk as the traditional Latin Mass permits. Perhaps not.
Conservative Catholics have been in a state of frenzy since Pope Francis said a couple of weeks back that many marriages are not valid because the people contracting them do not understand, as the church understands, that the bond is for eternity. Anyone who thinks most 20-somethings understand what the church means by "forever" needs to spend more time with the 20-somethings. There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are exceptions.
In the last couple of years, the anti-LGBT crowd within the church has been especially filled with agita because their religious liberty campaign has dovetailed with their sexual anxieties: I wrote about this recently when the USCCB caved to outside pressure to fire the universally respected editor of Catholic News Service, Tony Spence, because he had sent out tweets on his private Twitter feed questioning the value of a North Carolina law that pretended to be about religious liberty but was in fact about permitting anti-LGBT discrimination. You may recall some years ago, when Archbishop Charles Chaput, then in Denver, barred the children of gay parents from attending a Catholic school. How does one justify baptizing a child and then denying that child a Catholic education? You can't. Yet, it was done, and part of the reason has to have been this inordinate obsession with, and fears of, gay and lesbian Catholics.
It is almost impossible to overstate the degree to which the Jansenistic obsession with sexual matters has distorted the preaching of the Gospel, especially here in the U.S. You can exploit workers, you can degrade the environment, and you can climb into an ideological bed with the Koch Brothers, but so long as you oppose "those who experience same-sex attraction," you are tagged as orthodox. Pope Francis will have none of this. As I have noted before, the pope is an old Jesuit, and old Jesuits challenge Jansenists. May God bless and keep the Holy Father so that the fullness of the Gospel, in all its true freedom, may be preached.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]