Statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry, on Pope Francis’ latest comments on LGBT issues.
Like so many times before, an interview with Pope Francis is once again making headlines around the world, not least because of comments he made concerning lesbian and gay people. While positive and welcoming, as his previous statements have been, the pope’s latest comments do not offer an “smoking gun” as to where he stands on the morality of same-gender relationships, the role of conscience in the lives of LGBT people, or pastoral guidelines for LGBT ministry. Still, these comments are important in moving the discussion of lesbian and gay people in a more positive direction
In his latest comments, made public in a new book by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the pontiff attempts to explain his famous “Who am I to judge?” statement, which was his answer to a question about gay priests, and which has been widely interpreted to be his comment on all LGBT people.
According to The National Catholic Reporter, which received an advance English language version of the book entitled The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis offered this explanation:
“On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person? I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.
“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”
“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
While the pope’s comments don’t fully clarify his approach to LGBT people, these new remarks do highlight some important points about his thinking on lesbian and gay issues:
- He sees his welcoming approach as totally consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and not a departure from it.
- He sees that the critical focus on LGBT issues is on individual persons, not on categories. In this, he makes a radical departure from his two previous predecessors who favored framing the discussion of homosexuality in terms of sexual acts, not in terms of persons.
- He talks about God loving people, not about condemnation. The emphasis on God’s love has not been a major point of church leaders’ discourse on LGBT issues.
- He talks about “encounter,” “accompaniment,” and “praying together,” not about alienating and distancing the Church from LGBT people.
- Perhaps most important is what is NOT mentioned by the pope. He does not speak about condemnation or moral evaluations. Clearly, this pope is not as obsessed with sexual activity as his previous predecessors have been.
His comment about confession can raise a red flag for some. I don’t think we should read too much into it, though. I don’t think he was calling for gay and lesbian people to confess sexual “sins” based on their orientations and commitments. From other things he has said, especially in speaking about the Year of Mercy, I think Pope Francis sees confession as a good thing for all people to experience and celebrate God’s mercy. I think he sees confession as an important step in developing a relationship with God. The ambiguity of his raising the topic of confession shows how important it is for him to speak more clearly and less cryptically.
Pope Francis’ latest comments on lesbian and gay people reflect his broader project of building a church that propagates mercy, not doctrines. In the book, he offers description about the distinction between mercy and doctrine:
“I will say this: mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God.
“Theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow, but let us not forget that mercy is doctrine. Even so, I love saying: mercy is true.”
Again, this description is something that was not heard of in John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s comments about doctrine which always emphasized truth, but rarely, if ever, mentioned mercy in relationship to it.
Pope Francis still has some work to do with LGBT issues. We still need to see his ideas further developed, and, more importantly, incarnated into the pastoral life of the church. We await his report on the marriage and family synods of the last two years, and we hope that his ideas about welcome and acceptance are given more concrete details in that document.
These latest statements, however, are a welcome next step in his evolution, and they move the discussion of LGBT issues in the Catholic Church into a much friendlier space than they have ever been.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry