Pope Francis has given us a beautiful message as to how a pastor should serve those in his care. It represents Francis at his best. In a rather extensive airplane interview on his return trip from Azerbaijan, Francis spoke of the need to focus on morality as it applies to case-by-case situations. He spoke of his own work with a transgender individual and with homosexuals. He noted that there is no way Jesus would have turned these individuals away. "Jesus will surely not say: 'Go away because you're homosexual.' "
Francis tells the story of a transgender individual who is condemned by his new pastor. Publicly the pastor tells him that he will go to hell. Yet the old retired pastor continues to work with the individual and encourage him to confess and receive the Eucharist. Francis insists that, "Life is life and you must take things as they come. ... This is what Jesus would do today."
Pope Francis understands that rules are one thing, but morality can not be determined by a set of rules. Morality is determined on a case-by-case basis as one explores the realities in an individual's life. Thomas Aquinas understood this fact as circumstantial ethics.
Although this insight of Francis moves the discussion forward considerably, I'm still not convinced that it actually goes far enough.
The other day I was listening to an old 1950s rock-and-roll song. Some of the lyrics were, "Now we're together nearly every single day, singing doo wa diddy, diddy dum diddy do." (They don't write songs like they used to.) The song went on to say something like, "She looked fine, wedding bells are going to chime."
I can remember so many of my classmates falling in love in high school and getting married shortly thereafter. A few are still happily married. One couple with whom I still communicate, had several children, and they have been together for more than 50 years. By the way, they are not Catholic.
The point is, you don't hear any popular music about high school kids getting married today. They still fall in love, but it is seen as a first love, an experience to help them on their way. It is essentially seen as practice for future sexual relationships and eventual marriage.
I know there are still Christian evangelicals who abstain from sex before marriage. Maybe there are even a few good Catholic kids who do so as well. But clearly this is not the norm. The sexual mores have changed, and I don't know anyone who is seriously suggesting that we go back to marriage out of high school. It should also be noted that many of these earlier high school marriages were what we called "shot-gun marriages," and many ended up destroying futures and were predictable failures.
There is no evidence, however, that the church has any recognition that times have changed. Even in the recent synod on the family and Pope Francis' response to the synod, all the old categories are used and other than a few words about conscience nothing has changed.
Sexual and cultural mores do matter. The pope is right to say we must all make our moral decisions as they come to us, but we should not have to make them all in the face of rigid and out-of-date principles that are not applicable today.
The Apostle Paul had no problem modifying the teachings of Jesus on divorce in the face of new circumstances. It is time for the church to develop a more thoughtful morality based on the world we live in.
I have provided just one example (contraception and divorce would be others), but the church has remained out of tune with the world we live in on so many issues. It always reverts to natural law arguments that are persuasive only to those who have been indoctrinated into that philosophical outlook over many years. It is time to think outside the box.
The notion that the church cannot change is simply untenable, and it is harmful to the faithful. The church has changed its position on usury, slavery, its attitude toward the Jews, and even extra Ecclesiam nulla salus no salvation outside the church. It has changed its position on the earth being the center of the universe. It is way past time for the church to develop a new sexual morality that takes into account the lives of real people who are trying to live the Gospel day to day.