The words from one of Pope Francis’ homilies during
his pontifical visit to the Philippines quickly went viral with a variety of headlines
to the effect of “Pope blames demise of family on same-sex marriage” and a
range of comments to the effect of “The honeymoon is over.” It was not easy to quell reactions especially
in the light of the fact it was confirmed by the Vatican spokesman that
although the Pope had not referenced “same-sex marriage” he was indeed
referring to it. Still I couldn’t
believe it, I didn’t want to believe it, I would not believe it until I had
completely reviewed the remarks in their full context.
So I held my own public discussion on and reactions to
the comments at bay until I had the chance the see his actual words, place them
in context, and understand what indeed he was communicating. Interestingly usually I look to context to
make meaning of excerpts, but in this case once context was provided then I
looked to the precise language of the excerpt to make meaning of it more fully
and extrapolate the message.
Families gathered for the Encounters with Family. The context:
The Holy Father is delivering an address focused on the nuclear
family. The words: “The family is also threatened by growing
efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by
relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life”
(Catholic News Agency). So the reporters
followed up with the Vatican spokesman:
“Was the Holy Father referring to [marriage for same-sex couples]?” The spokesman replied” “Yes.” But there’s a part of the answer that
was not spoken and need to be said: The
Holy Father was not singling out marriage equality for same-sex couples nor was
he speaking exclusively to that issue.
The Holy Father clearly and equally was speaking a message that equally
applies to other efforts to redefine marriage and “values” such as relativism,
ephemerism, and a lack of openness to life.
Certainly and without a doubt he is wise enough to know the depth and
breadth of threats to the family.
Pope Francis, the former Jorge Bergoglio, SJ, is a
very learned man who possesses an uncommon balanced blend of deep and complex
theological understanding with authentically Gospel-based pastorality. Because of this unique blend that is Francis
I, sometimes it will seem that there is a stark contradiction in views and
expressions while, if one is willing to go beyond the apparent significance of
words to grasp their complex meaning by, for example, analyzing context, word
choice, structure, one will come to identify the consistent message within the
words. Bergoglio’s priesthood, his episcopacy, and his Papacy thus far reflect
a very tangible reflection of the answer to the simple question, “What would
So has Francis’ message taken a shift? No, not at all. It’s clearly and consistently been his views
that marriage by tradition and nature because it is the context of procreation
through sexual intimacy between one man and one woman is not to be
redefined. He has been formed and
informed by his theological training in sacramental theology and the works and
writings of his predecessors, in particular Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae,” an
encyclical that is all about the unique sacramental dimensions of marriage,
family, and procreation. In fact, Paul
VI’s well-known work provided the conceptual frame for this homily as well as
for answers in a post-trip press briefing on the flight back to the Vatican in
which he addressed contraception and responsible parenting. Jorge Bergoglio is formed by his formation
and clearly Paul VI’s works have made a major impact. Yet he is not a stalebeing so it is
reasonable to expect he will continue to reflect John XXIII”s openness to the
breath and movement of the Spirit.
Still, the Catholic Church is not a democracy. Teachings are based on the combination of
tradition, Scripture, teaching, and as Vatican II underscored the affirmation
of the People of God. Even if Pope
Francis were to become an ardent proponent of opening sacramental marriage
through the Church to same-sex couples, it would not happen overnight or even
necessarily in this lifetime. The Holy
Father does not act by Executive Order.
Still there is no reason for LGBT people or LGBT-affirming people to
give up on the direction in which Francis I is taking the Church. The work of recognizing and implementing the
breadth of the Church’s teaching as it relates to people who are LGBT must
continue. Every effort must be made to
ensure that the soundbytes of this homily do not become roadblocks to
Gospel-driven social justice, a truly inclusive Catholic Church, and the full
realization of the dignity of the human person, another fundamental element of
Paul VI’s teachings and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Further, Francis equates his references to
“marriage” as synonymous to the “Matrimony,” one of the seven sacraments of the
Church. But he knows well that
“marriage” under civil law, in light of the Church’s teachings on Matrimony,
are only civil unions and from that view lesbian and gay couples having
achieved equality under civil law with more than 35 jurisdictions in the U.S.
formally recognizing marriages involving same-sex couples are on equal par with
their non-LGBT [heterosexual] counterparts. So the matter that remains is
actually one of Church practice, not the practice of civil society.
For people in the United States in particular the
reference to “re-defining the institution of marriage” is for both sides of the
debate over equality under civil law a phrase that acts like a sword in the
sand and people react accordingly. But
it’s important to bear in mind that in the global context, the re-definition of
marriage is about much more than whether same-sex couples have equal rights
under civil law: it is about a range of
social initiatives but also about the character and spirit of the debates
themselves. The threat is about efforts
shaped by relativism, and that relativism is not only on the part of lesbian
and gay people and allies who seek more inclusive Family Law statutes and
constitutional protections: Relativism is also about people who oppose civil
equality on the basis of their own beliefs and mis-positioning of the Church’s
teaching within the broader discourse.
Francis I is the first Pope to have, while serving as
Bishop of Buenos Aires, publicly promoted the adoption of civil unions for
same-sex couples while also adhering to the Church’s social position that
marriage is between one man and one woman.
He is the first Pope to have convened a Synod on the Family that
included express recognition of the LGBT people as members of the Church worthy
of direct consideration in the context of the Synod. He is the first Pope to have generated a
synod environment in which the participants spoke openly and freely about the
realities of LGBT people, LGBT families, divorced and remarried Catholics. He
is the Pope who has instructed that the preparatory questions for the second
part of the Synod on the Family not be changed.
He is the Pope who re-assigned (some might argue functionally demoted)
cardinals [like Raymond Burke] who cannot reflect the full breadth of the
teaching of the Church when it comes to human sexuality and who propagate
exclusionary limited perspectives on what it means to be Church, what it means
to be a servant leader, and what the role of
bishop is in the Church and world today.
So he said what he said, he didn’t say what he didn’t
say, and the message that we (should) take from it is this: The leader of the Catholic Church is a man
who promotes the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the Church and in
society yet makes a distinction when it comes to the Sacrament of Matrimony.
The moment remains pregnant with hope for a Catholic Church in this time that will
become more genuinely inclusive, less deliberately exclusionary, and more
genuine and consistent in promoting and accepting the full participation of all
the God’s children including people who are lesbian or gay.
He said what he said, he didn’t say what he didn’t
say, and this is the message that I take from it.