Pope Francis is making headlines again, once more following an in-flight press conference on his return from a papal visit abroad, in this case to Armenia. The headlines generally follow one format: “Pope asks forgiveness from gays” or some variation thereof. While this is essentialy correct, the Holy Father’s complete answer is more nuanced and different from what more than a few readers will conclude from the headlines.
From the translation provided by the National Catholic Register comes the relevant part of the answer to a question about how the Church is said to have marginalised homosexual people in the past:
“I will repeat what I said on my first trip. I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally. One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior … Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? … But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well … this is what the catechism says, a clear catechism. Then there are traditions in some countries, in some cultures that have a different mentality on this problem. I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness — like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) — must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! — Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families …”
It is clear that Pope Francis said a whole lot more than that the Church must ask forgiveness. He starts from what the Catechisms says, and so places his comments within the larger doctrine of the Church: this is not something new that he is saying, but the Church has consistently taught that people should nto be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, that they must be respected as human beings and that the Church has an obligation to accompany them pastorally. In short, she is to treat them as she treats all human beings, starting from their innate dignity.
The Church has failed in this in the past, and sometimes still does, just like she did and does in regard to women and children who are exploited, or the victims of war and nationalism. For this, Pope Francis, says, the Church, meaning all Christians, must ask forgiveness, for it is contrary to what she is tasked with.
While the Church must always be open to accept all people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, occupation or whatever other characteristic, the story does not end there. The Church is more than just people and has a message to convey, a teaching, a relationship with a Person. And everything she does must stand in the light of the encounter with this Person, who is God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This includes how she relates to the people she welcomes.
A second interesting part of the Pope’s answer is that he says “one can condemn”. And what one can condemn is not people, but “political behaviour”, since “certain manifestations are a bit too offensive”. One can wonder what exactly is meant here, but I have seen some commenters see this as a condemnation of pride manifestations and similar. That may be so, but it could also be more general and refer to various sorts of behaviour stemming from one’s sexual orientation which could be offensive to others. The problem is then not so much about homosexuality, but consideration of the other’s thoughts and feelings. As Pope Francis says, this has little to do with the problem of marginalisation. One can disagree, even be offended, without pushing away the person one disagrees with or is offended by. Sure, it is hard, but, to mention a cliché, it is what Jesus would do. He did not shun his opponents. He entered into dialogue, challenged them to change their thoughts and behaviour, but never because he did not respect their human dignity (on the contrary even).
And then he repeats that earlier line, which caused so much debate: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is important to not make the same mistake as many people do with that line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:1), which is not simply a commandment not to judge, but rather a warning to remember that judgement goes two ways. Pope Francis describes a rather specific situation in which we should be careful not to judge: a person in some situation that is either objectively sinful or disordered, in this case someone who is homosexual, but who has the desire to do what is right and is seeking the Lord. The second part is important. Of course we should not refrain from judging actions committed by a similar person which are directed against his own or others’ wellbeing or his relationship with God, especially not when that person has no desire to do what is right or to find God. These latter conditions, good wil and seeking God, are frequently overlooked, and people are content with claiming that Pope Francis has said that we are not to judge homosexual people. Like he suggested before, the Church is not in the business of judging people, but actions. But, the Pope has insisted time and again, the Church, and therefore all Christians, are to accompany people who are of good will and seek God, not condemn and marginalise them. For, as Pope Francis also reminds us, we are all sinners, we all have our obstacles that sometimes make it hard to live according to the ideals the Church holds up.
In closing, Pope Francis’ answer is not revolutionary in that it contains any new teaching. It does, however, emphasise a different approach, a recognition of where we run the risk of failing to follow the example of Christ. Only then can ways be mended, and that, in the end, is what a Christian life is about.
Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool photo via AP