Many people have commented on Pope Francis’ gay-positive statements on his flight home from World Youth Day last week. One group that has not received as much attention for their commentary, however, are the U.S. bishops themselves. Only statements made on two morning news shows by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, made any kind of national headlines.
But in local newspapers around the country bishops and/or diocesan officials did make statements commenting on the pope’s remarks. These comments deserve some examination because they reveal not only these bishops’ approach to gay and lesbian issues, but also how they view the magisterium of the church and perhaps even the new pope. A variety of themes emerge from looking at the bishops’ statements.
Today’s post will examine the responses which tended to downplay the pope’s comments, and tomorrow’s post will look the responses which saw some change in the pope’s message.
(Before I start the examination of these comments, I must make a note that in many cases the local bishop was not available for comment, often because he was out of town. In those instances, I will be relying on the responses of a diocesan official.)
Despite the fact that the pope’s comments made headlines around the world in every form of news media imaginable, one dominant theme that the bishops expressed was surprise that people were interested in what the pope had to say about gay people. They tried to emphasize that the pope had not made any serious change in church teaching.
One good example of this theme came from Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Diocese, California. The Press Democrat newspaper in his city had the following message from him:
“. . . . Bishop Vasa said these comments were anything but ‘groundbreaking’ and echoed certain paragraphs from the catechism of the Catholic Church.
” ‘I don’t know that I would see them as any more conciliatory than the church documents have always been,’ he said. . . .
“In several news reports, Pope Francis’ statements Monday were contrasted with former Pope Benedict XVI’s signing of a document in 2005 that said men with gay tendencies should not be allowed to become priests.
“Bishop Vasa said the pope made no statements contradicting his predecessor.
” ‘I don’t know that those are necessarily two different statements,’ he said. . . .
“Bishop Vasa said the candid nature of the pope’s press conference, where the pontiff was not afraid to answer questions, was a reflection of the church’s new leader.
” ‘He is his own man. He is not afraid to engage with discussion of matters in secular society that may be controversial,’ Vasa said.
” ‘But at the same time, he holds true to the clear teachings of the church. Nothing in what he said suggested acceptance of gay priests or otherwise engaging in homosexual acts.’ “
In the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, a diocesan official followed along the line of the “continuity” theme, but made a point of adding some comments about celibacy, in an interview with The Providence Journal:
“ ‘In a sense, the Holy Father has said nothing new, and his comments only echo the Catholic Church’s consistent position that priests are still called to a life of celibate chastity and that homosexuals are welcome in the church,’ the Diocese of Providence’s chancellor, the Rev. Timothy Reilly said Monday night.”
Other bishops and dioceses that only discussed continuity with church teaching in the pope’s comments include Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana; the Diocese of Portland, Maine, and the Diocese of Sacramento, California; the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska. (You can read their statements if you follow the links to the news stories which carried them.)
The spokesperson for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, argued for continuity, too, but he also chose to stress that church teaching is really about “sin” in his comments to The Tampa Tribune:
“The comment doesn’t bode any shift in Catholic policy on the topic, said John Morris, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. He acknowledged a lot of people around the world will hear and read the statement and interpret it in different ways.
” ‘I don’t think this signals any kind of change in what the church is doing,” Morris said Monday. ‘It’s just going at it from different angle.’
“The Catholic Church traditionally has called homosexuality a sin and opposed gay marriage, and the pope’s statement Monday does not change that, Morris said.
” ‘I don’t know if this nudges (the church) in a different direction,’ he said. ‘The church always has had its stance on sins. The church accepts everyone. The sin is the issue.’ “
While many commentators viewed the pope’s comments as stressing the human dignity aspect of church teaching on homosexuality over the sexual ethics teaching, Chicago’s Cardinal George, in a National Catholic Reporter article seems to think that the sexual ethics teaching was prominent in the papal remarks:
“Chicago Cardinal Francis George said in a statement Monday that the pope ‘reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic faith and other religions that homosexual genital relations are morally wrong. The pope also reaffirmed the church’s teaching that every man and woman should be accepted with love, including those with same-sex orientation.’ “
The Archdiocese of St. Louis, in a statement quoted on FirstCoastNews.com, also viewed the pope’s comments primarily in terms of sexual behavior:
“The Archdiocese of St. Louis supports the remarks by Pope Francis which reiterate church teaching that homosexuals are welcome in the church but homosexual activity is forbidden. The Catholic Church teaches that all people are called to responsibility when it comes to sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual, priest or lay person. She believes that all sexual activity belongs within a marriage between a man and a woman.
“The Catholic Church does not condemn people for having same-sex attraction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states quite clearly that homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with compassion, respect and sensitivity.’ The Catechism adds that ‘Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided.’
“While the Catholic Church objects to homosexual activity, she does not object to homosexuals.”
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit had what was probably the harshest interpretation of the pope’s comments. The city’s Free Press recorded his response:
“But for Archbishop Allen Vigneron, spiritual head of metro Detroit’s 1.3 million Catholics, the pope “didn’t say anything different.”
“ ‘There’s no change’ on the Catholic Church’s view on homosexuality, Vigneron told the Free Press this week. ‘He may have had his own Pope Francis way of putting it, different from maybe the way Pope Benedict would put it, but they’re saying the same things.’ ”
“While some have said Pope Francis struck a new tone with regard to gay people, Vigneron said the worldwide leader of Catholics reiterated what is already in Catholic doctrine, which opposes homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Vigneron said the pope made it clear that gays must try to ‘repent and put their lives in order.’
“ ‘The pope presented the church’s Catholic teaching … endorsed it, and then called us to live up to it, especially to live up to assisting those who have challenges to keep the commandments, and to embrace them when they repent and put their lives in order,’ Vigneron explained.
“ ‘We will do what we can to sustain the definition of marriage as traditional marriage in our Michigan life,’ Vigneron said.
I label Vigneron’s statement the “harshest” because he managed to include references to repentance and marriage law into his comments, while Pope Francis did not even allude to either of these.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post which features bishops’ comments that are a bit more positive in their outlook.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry