The Complex and Layered Meanings in Pope Francis’ New Document
As more people begin to scrutinize Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), new details emerge which show that in regards to LGBT issues, the new document shows a complex picture.
The New York Times reports that buried in a footnote to the document is a reference to the U.S. bishops’ 2006 document, Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, which promoted the traditional definition of a homosexual orientation as an objective disorder. The Times reports:
“Nowhere in the document did Francis speak explicitly of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. However, he said the church should not give in to ‘moral relativism,’ and cited with approval a document written by the bishops of the United States on ministering to people with ‘homosexual inclination.’ The pope said the American bishops are right that the church must insist on ‘objective moral norms which are valid for everyone’ — even when the church is perceived by supporters of gay rights as promoting prejudice and interfering with individual freedom.”
This detail is a clearer indication that Pope Francis does not seem inclined to change the teaching on homosexuality. That notion had been clear since he first started speaking about gay and lesbian issues back in July with his “Who am I to judge?” interview, in which he also did uphold the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality. I’ve noted before that it looks like Pope Francis’s road to change in the church won’t be a straight one.
But while in content Pope Francis remains traditional, many people, including myself, perceive he is opening up a process that will eventually lead to positive developments in church teaching. For example, Martin Pendergast, a long-time Catholic advocate for LGBT equality in the United Kingdom, offered what he saw as two important selections from the document which point to the possibility of change in the Church, which I had overlooked in yesterday’s post on this topic.
In the first selection, the pope is calling for decentralization of authority in the church:
“Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study. Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’ ” (Introduction, section 16)
In the second selection, the pope acknowledges that not all Church teachings hold the same weight:
“All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.” (chapter 1, section 36)
What gives me hope from this document, despite the fact that it does not challenge the traditional teaching on homosexuality, is that there is an openness and humility that seem to get at the core of the Christian message. Having a pope who is interested in the opinions of the laity, who stresses dialogue and the possibility of change, who stresses diversity and decentralization, who acknowledges the role of science, who seeks to update old traditions can only mean that the road ahead is filled with possibilities. (All of the items mentioned in the previous sentence were included in yesterday’s blog post on excerpts from the papal document.)
John Allen, writing in The National Catholic Reporter, summarizes what he sees as Pope Francis’ outline for reform, which includes many of the items mentioned above. Allen writes:
- He calls for a “conversion of the papacy,” saying he wants to promote “a sound decentralization” and candidly admitting that in recent years “we have made little progress” on that front.
- He suggests that bishops’ conferences ought to be given “a juridical status … including genuine doctrinal authority.” In effect, that would amount to a reversal of a 1998 Vatican ruling under John Paul II that only individual bishops in concert with the pope, and not episcopal conferences, have such authority.
- Francis says the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” insisting that “the doors of the sacraments” must not “be closed for simply any reason.” His language could have implications not only for divorced and remarried Catholics, but also calls for refusing the Eucharist to politicians or others who do not uphold church teaching on some matters.
- He calls for collaborative leadership, saying bishops and pastors must use “the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.”
- Francis criticizes forces within the church who seem to lust for “veritable witch hunts,” asking rhetorically, “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”
- He cautions against “ostentatious preoccupation” for liturgy and doctrine as opposed to ensuring that the Gospel has “a real impact” on people and engages “the concrete needs of the present time.”
Pope Francis may not be the radical reformer that many have hoped for. But for those who trust that the Holy Spirit is moving among the laity of the church and who have longed for the possibility of discussion of diversity of opinions, Pope Francis’ project seems to open up a new possibility of hope.
Clearly, this is not the kind of pope that we had gotten used to over the last four decades. And clearly, this new document is complex and layered. Bondings 2.0 will continue to provide analysis and commentary of this document, especially as it relates to LGBT issues, as we become aware of them.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Indeed, layers and layers of meaning, which need to be studied, chewed over, and digested carefully.
It’s true that buried in a footnote is a reference to the US Bishops’ 2006 document, which could be read as an indirect endorsement of traditional teaching on homosexuality. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the same footnote: a commenter at the Daily Telegraph has complained that he did a full digital search of the entire text for the word “sex” – and the only reference that came up was the one word “homosexual” in the title of the bishops’ document, appearing as a footnote.
In a discussion that otherwise ranges widely over many issues of pressing concern, only one single word out of some 50 000 on anything to do directly with SEX, and that in a footnote, demonstrates clearly the importance of the subject in Francis’ thinking: right at the bottom of the list. Here, as in so much more, his thinking is in complete accord with that of one Jesus Christ!
Excellent point, Terry!
Amen! I see this as a manifestation of the Pope’s prioritizing, that “hierarchy of truths”, of action for faithful Catholics. Sexuality as a far less important aspect of the Church’s teachings is a GOOD thing.