Pope Francis’ July comments about gay priests–“Who am I to judge?”–continue to spark commentary from Catholic observers. The amount of “ink” already spend on this topic attests to the importance and power of this seemingly simple statement.
The latest commentary comes from Santa Clara University Religious Studies Professor William Dohar, in a Religion Dispatches essay, “The Pope’s Gay Priests.”
Dohar notes that many of the U.S. bishops tried to “contain” the pope’s statement, but that the power of the papal message is in the fact that a major shift has taken place between Francis and his predecessor:
“Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and later as pope did see being homosexual—for priests and anyone else—as a problem. To be more precise. . . , the only sins the pope referred to when discussing gay priests were the machinations of the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby’ and not because these priests, bishops and cardinals are gay, but because they’re a lobby. Lobbies are by nature self-promoting and factious and Francis, whose early work as pope has been to unify and evangelize, has no time for self-seeking lobbyists, gay or otherwise. “
Dohar also notes that bishops’ reactions focused on homosexuality generally, but avoided the topic of gay priests, which was the focus of Pope Francis’ comments:
“Every bishop knows he has gay priests in the ranks—pretending otherwise is surely as much of a moral issue as, say, same-sex marriage. Gay priests work in dioceses and religious orders as pastors, teachers, administrators, right-hand men, chaplains, liturgists and preachers. Many bishops are gay as well. Precise statistics are hard to come by because the vast majority of gay priests are closeted, but in light of the work done by Donald Cozzens (The Changing Face of the Priesthood, 2000) and others, estimates at around half are confident, with even higher numbers among younger clergy.
“The bishops know this and yet few are able to speak with the kind of candor the pope manages on a daily basis.”
Perhaps Dohar’s most challenging claim is that no bishop has yet echoed Francis’ comments:
“No bishop or church leader stood by Francis and in so many words said publicly, ‘You know, the pope’s right. Who are we to judge?’ ”
“I’m not sure why so few, if any, took this opportunity. It may be that even though they hear the change in tone from Francis, it’s a tenor so different from what has sounded from Rome for decades that it’s still hard to hear, much less imitate. Judgment of gay people—and here again, I’ll even limit this to gay, celibate priests—has been categorical and negative ever since ‘homosexual’ made its way into the Vatican lexicon fifty years ago. “
While I believe that Dohar is generally accurate, there have been some bishops who were praiseworthy of the pope’s new direction. I mentioned some of them in my blog post last month on bishops’ reactions to the pope. Here’s a quotation from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bishop David Walkowiak:
“The church has not said much about homosexuality and when it has it’s reiterated the teachings.That is helpful. It’s true. But the tone is usually one which is not a source of encouragement or a source of support.
”We’re hoping that the pope’s tone sets a hope and an attitude that if you come to the church you will be respected, you will be welcomed, you will receive the support of the sacraments. My hope would be that people with same-sex attraction would feel more encouraged to walk into a Catholic church.”
Dohar’s conclusion is worth re-printing in total here, because it offers such a positive outlook for gay priests and lesbian/gay Catholics:
“Until gay priests—and gay people in general—are encouraged to realize their innate goodness and see the prospects of a love-relationship with God as gay people, they will be burdened with a hard judgment from their church.
“The pope’s implicit refusal to judge the heart of a gay person who’s on a journey with the Divine is an acknowledgment that God may be up to some good in that person’s life, not by way of self-repulsion or a shameful silence but through the core reality of same-sex longing. It becomes very problematic for some theologians to associate gay with good; after all, one cannot be out-of-the-closet proud of an objective disorder.
“What Pope Francis offered in a manner which has been too facilely described as ‘off-the-cuff’—he’s obviously given this topic a lot of thought—is an openness and trust which may encourage more gay priests to step out of the dark. Bishops may well need to brace themselves or welcome with open arms a greater honesty in this matter.
“Meanwhile, for the gay priest who suffers under the church’s disparagement of his God-given sexuality and is urged to negate an essential part of who he is, the pope’s stated preference not to judge is balm in Gilead.”
In closing, I want to add to what Dohar said about Francis’ remarks not being “off the cuff,” as has been widely stated. The week after the Pope’s statement, I attended a meeting of U.S. heads of men’s religious communities. In chatting about the pope’s statement with a Jesuit in attendance at the meeting, he remarked about what should be obvious to all: a man doesn’t get to be pope because he speaks off the cuff. The pope has to know that all of his words are heavily scrutinized, and so everything that he says, especially on such a known-controversial topic as gay priests, is carefully pondered before expressed. Because of this dynamic, I believe that Francis was very aware of what he was saying and the import and value it would have.
The fact that over a month later we are still examining these words of the pope’s is further evidence that he knew exactly what he was saying, and that what he said has possibility for great change.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry