Are Francis and Parolin playing good cop-bad cop on same-sex marriage?

Those under the impression that the Vatican is softening its stance on same-sex marriage may have been taken aback by Cardinal Pietro Parolin's comments during a press conference in Vatican City on Tuesday night.

When asked to respond to Ireland's popular vote to legalize same-sex marriage, Parolin said:

"I was deeply saddened by the result. The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelization. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity."

Parolin is the Vatican's secretary of state and is widely considered Pope Francis' top aide.

In fact, when Francis appointed Parolin to this position in August 2013, John L. Allen Jr. wrote in the pages of NCR: "Nothing says more about where a pope wants to go than the people he chooses to help get him there, and pride of place in that mix generally goes to the Secretary of State, by tradition a pope's 'Prime Minister.' "

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While Francis himself has not spoken directly about the vote, the morning after Parolin's press conference, the pope offered poetic exhortations on the divine beauty of marriage between one man and one woman.

At his weekly general audience Wednesday, Francis focused on the relationship between engagement and marriage.

According to a Catholic News Service article (which was cross-posted by NCR), Francis said:

"The covenant of love between a man and a woman, a covenant for life, cannot be improvised; it cannot be done from one day to the next," he said. ...

While it is "beautiful" that people today can choose whom to marry, the "freedom of this bond" cannot be based simply on physical attraction or feelings, he said.

In keeping with traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality, the pope also urged young heterosexual couples to refrain from sexual intimacy before marriage. Catholic News Service reports:

In an oblique reference to the physical intimacy some couples share before marriage, the pope said the "powerful symbols of the body hold the keys to the soul."

"We cannot treat the bonds of the flesh lightly, without opening some lasting wound in the spirit," he said, noting the current culture is indifferent to this teaching in Scripture.

These statements are only the latest in Francis' recent string of exultations on heterosexual marriage. Just three weeks ago, he called men and women God's "masterwork," adding that Jesus "begins his miracles with this masterwork, in a marriage, in a wedding feast: a man and a woman."

"Like this, Jesus teaches us that the masterwork of society is the family: the man and woman that love each other," Francis added. "This is the masterwork!"

Why is this comparison between Parolin's and Francis' words important? Because it gives insight into the Vatican's new approach to the evangelization of marginalized Catholics.

Francis clearly agrees with Parolin's "defeat for humanity" opinion on the outcome of Ireland's same-sex marriage vote. Remember that, back in January, the pope famously likened "gender theory" (which provides the intellectual basis for same-sex marriage and a host of other progressive ideas related to sexuality) to "ideological colonization" and even "Hitler Youth." Why? Because, Francis explained, gender theory "does not recognize the order of creation."

But rather than respond directly to Ireland himself, this time, Pope Francis is putting the harsher, condemnatory language in the mouth of his secretary of state while he does the work of evangelizing the youth about the truth and beauty of the church's teachings on marriage.

Parolin is taking on the old-fashioned role of Vatican scold while Francis takes the new, more merciful, catechetical approach. But ultimately, both men agree with the institutional church's opposition to marriage equality. Both men believe same-sex relationships violate the traditional understanding of natural law and gender complimentary.

Most importantly, both men believe these church teachings on marriage are correct and should not change. The problem, they believe, is that the institutional church hasn't done a good job of communicating the church's truths effectively and pastorally. As Parolin himself said in his statement on Ireland, the church "must strengthen its commitment to evangelization." Francis attempted to do just that in his audience the following day.

If the vote in Ireland proves anything, it is that both Francis, the good cop, and Parolin, the bad cop, will fail in their efforts. Ireland demonstrates that the pope's understanding of acting mercifully toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will not be adequate to bring them into the pews.

Sure, Pope Francis believes the church should minister warmly to LGBT people, but he also believes they should never be given the impression that their relationships have the same potential for goodness and holiness as heterosexual relationships. The pope's brand of mercy suggests that LGBT Catholics should be tolerated by the church, but not embraced with genuine justice.

The vote in Ireland shows that LGBT people are seeking to live in communities where they are not merely welcomed and tolerated, but treated with equality. As long as our church leaders continue to say, in effect, "you can come in our doors, and you can even be fed, but you cannot marry here," neither the bad cop nor the good cop will convince many estranged LGBT Catholics to cross their church's threshold.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.


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