While returning to Rome after the World Youth Day celebrations in Rio, aboard the Papal aircraft, on Tuesday, Pope Francis made a startling statement to reporters that accompanied him by noting, “who am I to judge” when it came to the sexual orientation of priests.
The ensuing reaction from those, worldwide, ranged from the euphoria to shock, with many people feeling, hoping, and even praying that the Roman Catholic Church had turned a corner in its attitudes towards gay and lesbian people.
The Catholic Church in its catechism of belief says that sexual acts between same-sex partners are sinful, and that they should leave chaste lives, abstaining from sex.
And, in 1986, the then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger issued a document as head of the office that manages matters of faith, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, saying that gays and lesbians were “intrinsically evil,” and since then worldwide gay and lesbian community has been at loggerheads with the church, and its prelates.
The Pontiffs remarks, then, were that more remarkable; he also said, ‘We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.” The latter in reference to long-held rumors of a “gay lobby” that is present in the Vatican.
Seizing the opportunity to be expansive the Pope also said,” If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who I am to judge him.”
Cardinal George weighs in
The catechism does also note that gay people should be treated with love, and respect, a point that Francis Cardinal George, noted in his statement to the press on the archdiocesan website.
Stating the party line on this was not unique for a subordinate to a superior, says longtime Chicago activist, Catholic, now with the Civil Rights Agenda, who told the Chicago Phoenix, “If the Pope said jump off a bridge, Cardinal George would say, ‘What bridge and what should I wear?’”
George has never made a secret of his feelings toward the gay community and in a headline grabbing statement during Christmas of 2011, compared LGBT leaders to the Ku Klux Klan, and has led the battle against same-sex marriage in Illinois.
But, many see Francis’s remarks as a way to counter this type of behavior, says Garcia, “This absolutely changes the conversation, when Cardinal George sends his henchmen to Springfield to fight against us, we can look at them and say, ‘Who are you to judge? The Holy Father doesn’t judge.”
Pope sets a new style
The tone that Francis has set, does indeed set him apart from his predecessors, even noting in response to the question of a gay lobby, that he had not seen any identification cards with the word “gay” stamped on them, has an engaging style. And, one that has won him admiration and devotion while traversing the often sticky path of encyclicals, statements, documents and comments, that have emanated from the Vatican over the last several decades.
Ralph Keen, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair in Catholic Studies, said in an emailed response that “Pope Francis has given another example of the pastoral character of his pontificate, withholding judgment in favor of recognizing the good in others. Most persons would expect a pope to assert the right to judge, yet Francis has indicated that charity rather than judgment is the tone of his pontificate. “
Critics, however, note that style is not substance, and that time will prove whether there will be real change in attitude towards gays and lesbians; they also note that the Catholic Church took centuries to reverse its position on Galileo who had been brought before the inquisition when he stated that the earth was not the center of the universe with all of the planets revolving around it.
But, in a church who changes its doctrine, dogma and pronouncements, centuries later, there may be more heat than light; but the Pontiff has proved himself to be his own best public relations manager, and chief of staff, knowing how and when to take the press by surprise, as he did on Tuesday.
Chris Pett, spokesperson for Dignity Chicago, a Roman Catholic organization, not officially recognized by the Church, that offers support and weekly Mass for LGBT Catholics in Chicago, said in an emailed statement:
“What everyone recognizes is this pope’s shift in tone on the subject of LGBT people, stepping back from the doctrinal pronouncements, and recognizing LGBT as persons deserving respect, characterizing us as persons of faith and good who should not be marginalized. While he said nothing to change church teaching on LGBT issues, and the role of women as co-equals in the governance and ministry of the church — which was very disappointing to us – he offered a glimmer of pastoral spirit and the possibility of future dialog.”
Pett also offered the following distinction on gay priests versus all gay people, when he said, “I think he was responding to a barrage of questions in the area of homosexuality so I don’t think he was intentionally drawing a distinction here. He definitely shifted the perspective held by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, stating that men with “deep homosexual tendencies” were not fitting candidates for priesthood (which would severely limit the population of interested men and if enforced today would likely decimate the current population of priests globally). Again he went back to a pastoral response recognizing that individuals of good will and faith could serve the church. That’s a pretty significant shift here.”
The political divide widens
But, George, despite his fealty to the Pope, seems to have crossed a divide, rather than a paradigmatic shift, one that Pett sees more as a move to the right, rather than one that is pastoral, and notes, “He has not acted as a shepherd or pastor much at all lately. I think he, like a lot of the other bishops, has adopted the stance of the far right in this country, trying to stop the unstoppable wave of change happening in our society and the minds of the faithful, and digging in on teachings and pronouncements that are not connected to reality and are generally not accepted by Catholics in the pew. We all know that recent surveys show that a large majority of Catholics support LGBT issues. That has set up a very reactionary stance on the part of the Cardinal and many other church leaders.”
George also knows the power of money, and when he learned that immigrant-rights groups that supported same-sex marriage, his staff contacted these groups, and threatened to withdraw funding; a move that brought an open letter from Chicago Cook County commissioners John Fritchey, Larry Suffredin along with aldermen James Cappleman, Patrick O’Connor, Joe “Proco” Moreno, City clerk Susan Mendoza, and others.
George accuses the groups of using the poor, and the supporters of the groups say virtually the same thing.
In this battle of words, George using the Facebook page of the Church’s own lobbying organization, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, and said, “It is intellectually and morally dishonest to use the witness of the Church’s concern for the poor as an excuse to attack the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage.”
The signers in return, said that they would ask Chicago’s philanthropic community to fill the gap should George turn off the tap to the money.
Amidst the clang and clash of discord, Pett says of Dignity, “our mission stays the same: offer safe space where LGBT Catholics (and actually anyone is welcome to join our community) can integrate their sexuality and spirituality, and where their relationships and families are recognized as life-giving and life-affirming. Our stance continues to be: if the institutional church refuses to be the church Jesus intends for us, then we’ll be that church. No letter or pronouncement from the Vatican can stop our voices being heard and our truth being shared.”
Of course, time will prove to be the ultimate test of whether Francis can, or can’t, change the hearts and minds of those who support the gay community, and, whether his pontificate will be the game change for a church that is notoriously hidebound in its attitudes towards human sexuality.