Sunday, January 25, 2015


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.

The audience:  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 Jesus do?”

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. 


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