Last week began with positive news from Pope Francis. In a conversation with a sex abuse survivor who is gay, the pope reportedly said “God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.”
Just a few days later came an entirely different message. Speaking about recruits to the priesthood, Pope Francis told priests to root out any gay men.
“Keep an eye on the admissions to seminaries, keep your eyes open,” the pope said according to the newspaper La Stampa’s Vatican Insider service. “If in doubt, better not let them enter.”
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In two statements, the pope managed to signal his pastoral support for LGBTQ people and uphold the Church’s staunch opposition to them. As a result, the argument within the Catholic Church about LGBTQ people is only getting louder and more fractious.
On one side are the liberals, who are hopeful that Francis is nudging the Church to accept the modern world.
“It sets a new foundation for Catholic teaching about sexual orientation that is very different than what has been traditionally stated,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA.
On the other side are the conservatives, who are frantic to deny that his kind words mean a change in policy.
“Jesus would have said that, and so would I,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ rights. “That’s conservative, traditional, Catholic, orthodox teaching. The ‘Catechism’ insists on that.”
So do Dolan and even more militant conservatives in the Church. Any wavering from the hard line set by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict is heresy. Literally.
“This is a hinge moment in the history of Catholicism,” writes Ross Douthat, The New York Times columnist, in his book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Douthat slams Francis for his failure of orthodoxy on a range of issues, include LGBTQ ones, arguing that the pope is putting the future of the Church at risk by caving into temporal pressures.
It’s not just laypeople who are up in arms. When a papal synod on the family floated the idea of saying something kind about same-sex families, conservative bishops blew a gasket. (The language was ultimately not used.)
Led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a group of cardinals has been directly challenging the pope’s leadership. Burke has gone so far as to say that there are times when a “Pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed”.
Of course, the conservatives had the upper hand for decades, and Francis is diminishing their power. (He removed Burke from his position at the Vatican, a pointed demotion.) But from his perspective, the pope is only changing tone, not substance.
Francis has placed a much greater emphasis on pastoral care compared to his predecessors. He wants to the Church to meet people where they are, not to force them to pass an admission test first. Early in his papacy, Francis compared the Church to “a field hospital after a battle.”
“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!,” he said. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
But it’s that last sentence that should give the liberals pause–and conservatives hope. By expressing a willingness to accept gay people for who they are, Francis is trying to heal the wounds that the Church has caused. But that means when the wounds are healed, the lectures on your spiritual health can begin.
The problem is that the orthodoxy is what caused the wounds in the first place. And no amount of verbal acceptance will ever overcome the policy of condemnation that Francis shows no signs of ever wanting to change.