Before Departing USA, Pope Francis Offers His Strongest Words for New Approaches to Old Issues

In his final two days in the United States, Pope Francis provided his most explicit focus on the highly contested social topics of marriage and religious liberty, and he did so by avoiding full support to either the U.S. bishops or the LGBT community on both topics. And in his final public appearance, at the Philadelphia Mass, he made, in the words of a National Catholic Reporter  news story “a strong exhortation to American Catholics to be unafraid of trying new things, even if they seem to threaten long-practiced traditions or existing church structures.”


Pope Francis greets seminarians before addressing the bishops.

On the morning of September 27th, the pontiff addressed bishops attending the World Meeting of Families, and made his most direct remark about the growing acceptance of marriage equality around the globe:

“Until recently, we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive. This is no longer the case.”

[Editor’s note:  Although the pope delivered the speech in Spanish, the quotes in this blog post are taken from the Vatican’s official English translation of the talk, which can be read in full by clicking here.]

Francis introduced this observation with a call to the bishops to recognize that social changes in marriage take place over the course of history:

“Needless to say, our understanding, shaped by the interplay of ecclesial faith and the conjugal experience of sacramental grace, must not lead us to disregard the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds. These changes affect all of us, believers and non-believers alike. Christians are not ‘immune’ to the changes of their times. This concrete world, with all its many problems and possibilities, is where we must live, believe and proclaim”

Most remarkable about this comment is the absence of a condemnation of the marriage equality movement, which has become a hallmark of Francis’ discussions on marriage.  Equally important though is the implicit acceptance of the fact that civil marriage and church marriage are two distinct realities.

It is this latter point which is the critique of the approach of U.S. bishops who have continuously tried to argue that a change in civil marriage negatively impacts the church’s understanding of marriage.  The bishops have tried to argue that the institution of marriage–even civil marriage–is a divinely ordained institution which cannot be changed by civil authorities.  Francis’ comment acknowledges that governments and the Catholic Church can peacefully co-exist without sharing the same views on marriage.

At the same time, however, Francis clearly did not endorse marriage equality, civil or sacramental, and, as we’ve reported from talks earlier in the week, his position is clearly that marriage should be kept a heterosexuals-only institution.

David Gibson of Religion News Service observed that the pope made his point “without mentioning gay marriage,” and instead:

“. . .made a brief reference to the legalization of same-sex marriage that the American bishops have made a centerpiece of their public ministry and policy battles, with many of them casting the acceptance of gay relationships as the beginning of an era of exclusion and even persecution for Christians.”

It is the fact that he did not explicitly support the U.S. bishops’ campaigns which is particularly important in his remarks.

In a separate article about the pope’s impromptu speech at a Saturday night celebration for participants in the World Meeting of Families, Gibson made a similar observation about Francis’ discourse:

“. . . [I]n this address, Francis also conspicuously avoided the culture war rhetoric often associated with Catholic leaders and instead stressed the economic challenges that hurt families. . . .

“Notably missing was any condemnation of gay marriage or an exaltation of the ideal nuclear family headed by a mother and father. Nor did the pontiff bemoan the growth of divorce or cohabitation or point to rampant secularization or slackening sexual mores as the reasons that traditional family life is facing difficulties.”

Religious Liberty

In his remarks on religious liberty at Independence Hall, the pope also took a direction which did not fully satisfy either side of the controversial issue.    Perhaps the most salient quote from his speech which embodies the pope’s dual critique of both sides of the religious liberty discussion is the following:

Pope Francis at Independence Hall

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or, as I said earlier, to try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religious traditions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others.”

The conservative side of the debate, which seeks to advocate for the rights of religious institutions and leaders, the pope’s reference to silencing religious voices in civil debates would seem to satisfy them.  Yet, his reference to those who use religious freedom for hatred and brutality would seem to satisfy those on the progressive side who see religious institutions using their faith as a means to discriminate against groups they oppose–too often LGBT groups and individuals.

In an Associated Press news story published in US News and World Report, Rachel Zoll quoted a theologian who observed a deft political move by Francis:

Vince Miller, professor of theology at University of Dayton in Ohio, said Francis, employed “exquisite political skill,” in his speech, which Miller saw as the pope’s attempt to balance conflicting worldviews that prioritize one issue over another.

“He’s very clearly stitching these sides together,” Miller said. “He’s challenging people get out of the defensive ruts they’re stuck in.”

In the same article, papal biographer Paul Vallely noted that the religious liberty speech should be viewed in Francis’ overall theme of the U.S. visit:  the promotion of the common good.  Vallely stated:

“That speech is not what they would have been expecting in a talk about religious liberty. The pope is saying these rights have to call you to conversation and reconciliation. It’s about balancing.”

Zoll noted as significant Francis’ total omission of any reference to marriage equality, which is the U.S. bishops’ top concern in regard to religious liberty.

Similarly, Religion News Service’s David Gibson offered the following analysis on the pope’s religious liberty talk

Francis kept his remarks on religious freedom philosophical and historical, and he notably did not cite the U.S. bishops’ battles against gay rights or the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

Both of those campaigns have been a prime focus of the hierarchy’s public policy efforts in recent years, and the religious freedom argument is central to each of them.

With just one more day before he flies back to Rome, the pope used his time defending immigrants and promoting social justice, eschewing cultural-warrior language and encouraging dialogue and engagement.


What is even more significant is that the pope made these comments in Philadelphia, where Archbishop Chaput, leader of the local Church, has been one of the U.S. bishops’ most vocal and strident mouthpieces on “culture war” issues.

Closing Homily

At the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families on Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis gave what was perhaps his most passionate and eloquent speech of his trip, in which he urged the U.S. church to be more courageous in trying new things and in reaching out to those who are different.   I cannot help but hear in this homily a strong rebuke by Pope Francis of the way that many U.S. bishops have been leading the Catholic Church here.

Pope Francis delivering his closing homily at the Philadelphia Mass.

According to a National Catholic Reporter account:

“In a homily to hundreds of thousands at an outdoor Mass packing Philadelphia’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Francis said that Jesus’ disciples were also afraid of new things — but that Jesus broke down all barriers to allow the Spirit to do its work.

” ‘Jesus encountered hostility from people who did not accept what he said and did,’ the pope told the crowds, many of whom had waited for long hours to participate in the last of his three public Masses while in the U.S.

” ‘For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable,’ said the pontiff.

” ‘The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith,’ he said. ‘But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.’

” ‘For Jesus, the truly “intolerable'” scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!’ said Francis. . . .

” ‘To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group,” who are not “like us,” is a dangerous temptation.’

” ‘Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!’ he said.

For the past four decades, many U.S. bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to rein in any new ministries or alternative and creative ways of being pastoral.  They have often tried to create strong distinction between what they considered authentic Catholicism and dissenting Catholicism.

Throughout his trip here, Francis has offered his most pointed advice to bishops–a special concern he has had throughout his papacy–directing them to give up this divisive mentality.  In his Sunday homily, Francis is offering U.S. Catholics, and particularly U.S. bishops, a new paradigm for a more open and pastoral church. This paradigm, if applied to LGBT issues, could open up a whole new world of possibility and liberation in our church.

Pope Francis did not directly address LGBT people or issues at all in his U.S. visit.  Yet, the messages he gave on other issues could have an impact on advancing the inclusion and equality of LGBT people in both society and the Catholic Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

dotCommonweal: “Pope Francis to Bishops: Celebrate the Family, Don’t Complain about It”

11 replies
  1. Carolyn Shalhoub
    Carolyn Shalhoub says:

    I was disappointed but then I realized all the damaging things that were not said – and am anxious to see what happens at the Synod. I too thought the Bishops took some hits. Exciting times we live in. Thanks for going and showing your happy face to the WMF participants and providing alternative programming and support to those who needed it. Take today off?

  2. winterhavenlarry
    winterhavenlarry says:

    I get a feeling of hope from the Pope’s final words. But when he says that the American Church should not be afraid to try new things, does that mean that if Bishop “X” wants to implement aa new policy of full acceptance of LGBT persons he can do that without censure from the Vatican?

  3. winterhavenlarry
    winterhavenlarry says:

    Once again, this Pope gives me hope. When he says that the Church should not be afraid to try new things, is that permission for any LGBT-friendly Bishop to implement new policies of full inclusion in his own diocese without Vatican censure?

  4. Bishop Carlos Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos Florido, osf says:

    It seems to me that Pope Francis clearly defined family as essentially a man, a woman and children. I was disappointed that no mention was made of other family possibilities. This does not bother me personally but I feel sad for my LGBT friends. I wish that there had been clear pronouncements about LGBT relationships. Some of his statements are obscure in meaning …

  5. disgracedfury
    disgracedfury says:

    I’m not gay myself but I’m a Catholic who supports gay marriage.I think the Pope isn’t gonna allow gay marriage yet but he isn’t condemning or judging anyone. He left the door open and isn’t gonna go threw it but seeing a Pope loosen up is a step in the right direction.

    Hopefully he meets more gay couples with kids and shows them it can and will work<3

  6. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Reblogged this on Reading, Drinking and Dancing with a Chaser of Snark and commented:
    As someone who was raised in the Catholic Church, but left when it became a closed, judgmental place. I was further alienated when the Church refused to admit, apologize and provide reparations to children who were the victims of abuse at the hands of priests. Finally, the unrealistic expectations with regards to contraception in modern relationships left me wondering if I would ever feel as part of flock ever again.

    Pope Francis has done so much to bring lapsed-Catholics, like me, who are politically left-of-center, but still identify as Catholics, spiritually. His words and actions are congruent and his emphasis on creating a place where dialog may take place is gratifying to see.

    His visit to the US, was joyful, thoughtful, evocative and unifying. It displayed everything that made the Catholic Church the place of community I remember, from my childhood.

    Pope Francis is shaking things up in a “Jesuit” way, and I pray for him to travel safely and enjoy great health for many years. We need his voice on the world stage, his leadership in the Catholic Church to continue to investigate the banking practices of the Vatican, and as a true representative of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ on Earth.

    God bless you, Papa Francisco!

  7. Chris Chris Wolfe
    Chris Chris Wolfe says:

    Well…I didn’t expect much and that’s about what I got.. Not much. These soundbyte comments the Pope makes that seems to give some gay Catholics hope, in my opinion, are almost cruel. I have a few friends from Argentina that have warned me about Pope Francis repeatedly. According to them THIS is the man that they had to fight for decades in their country over LGBT rights. At one time he called gay marriage an act of the devil and, yes, I do understand that people may say things and later change their position on an issue… I’ve not seen anything that inclines me to believe that the Pope feels differently about this issue.
    The way I see it is this: We aren’t going to see any serious changes in policy about LGBT people for a long time. When I was a kid the church was far less hostile to gay people than it is today and MAYBE we might go back to that place (it’s sin like any other sin and leave it at that). Maybe we’ll even get to receive Last Rites again .. one day (Update for those unaware: LGBT are being refused Last Rites all over the country these days) … BUT… as for now, we have been turned into a weapon by the conservative crew at the Vatican to be used to scare “traditional” Catholics to death.
    I might remind folks that in the last Popes (Pope Benedict) previous incarnation as Cardinal Ratzinger.. He penned a little missive called “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” It is STAGGERING in it’s hatefulness. You can feel the loathing seeping through each and every sentence. The line that always comes to mind when I think of “my future in the Catholic church” is this one: “the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”
    Yes children.. We should NOT be surprised when people beat us, bash us or, even murder us .. Apparently, the good Cardinal feels, violence is the natural response of morally sound heterosexual Catholics to LGBT people…AND ESPECIALLY LGBT people who wish to have their civil rights respected.
    So long as this kind of weird crap is on the books and used as one of the basic teachings of the RCC on LGBT issues… I’m not sure we have any place at all in the church.
    I hate to repeat myself and I know that many people have heard this story before BUT…
    I was present when the “Rat Letter” was first read to a congregation of, predominately, LGBT parishioners in San Francisco back in 1986. There we were, in the midst of the worst of the AIDS crisis, with pews filled with sick and dying men (predominately LGBT)…And Cardinal Ratzinger had his letter (“On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”) delivered and read to any and all congregations who held “Dignity masses.” (Dignity masses = masses that are open to LGBT people)
    If you had been there to hear this hateful venom sent to us from the Vatican…if you had been there and seen the reaction of the dying men in the church .. You wouldn’t go back, I can promise you that.
    What’s more – you would be DEMANDING, not just tolerance and acceptance.. You would be DEMANDING an apology!
    LGBT people’s lives have been RUINED .. DESTROYED due to the hate preached by a Church who claims a direct lineage to Jesus Christ! I, personally, know of broken families, broken hearts and minds as well as suicides and VIOLENCE done to us because of the HATE preached by the RCC.
    And here we sit hanging on Francis’ every word .. Hoping to GOD that he GETS IT.
    Looking for tidbits of kindness from God’s vicar…
    (shake my head) It’s pathetic….What we are willing to do to try to gain some amount of respect and decency from these people. We cater. We beg. We get on our knees and cry …
    And, thus far, the best we can get is one guy who will say, “who am I to judge.”
    I cry to think of how sick with sadness we have become just trying to get even a minuscule amount of mercy from our Church…
    I mean come on! We can’t even get Last Rites or communion!
    No.. i don’t expect much from this Pope or any other. They are far too invested in making us the scapegoat for their troubles and, I swear, there are those in the Vatican who actually enjoy keeping us desperate…
    And there we are, constant as the northern star …
    “PLEEEASE love us .. pleeeease don’t hold God’s grace from us… pleease….”
    Thirty years after hearing that horrible letter read to all those dying men in Saint Boniface church in San Francisco .. I really would have thought that by now things would have lightened up…
    I cannot tell you how sad I am and disappointment? Beyond … so far beyond that…


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