In 1986, as the extent of the AIDS crisis in the West became apparent, Pope Benedict was still Cardinal Ratzinger and headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
As the go-to guy on the Church’s theology, he wrote that homosexuality was a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil”.
That has been the official position of the Church towards gay people ever since, something that is heartbreaking for devout Catholics who are gay, or have gay family members and friends. In 2005, the then Pope Benedict said men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not be priests, despite studies showing there were plenty of gay men in the priesthood already.
The reasoning behind this doctrine is the Church’s teaching that all sexual activity is purely for procreation, something that most Catholics, certainly in the Western world, now believe is outdated and particularly hurtful for those who cannot have children. With the vast majority of Catholics in the increasingly secular Western world taking an a la carte view of some of the Church’s stricter teachings on sexual morality and contraception, the official view on homosexuality is one that is no longer acceptable.
In Pope Francis, the Catholic Church seems to have found a cleric who embraces both the message of Jesus and the modern world more thoroughly than those we have been used to, and it’s a refreshing change.
The Pontiff hit the headlines yesterday when, in an unscripted, impromptu conversation with members of the press on a flight from Brazil, his response to a question about gay people was “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He had been asked a question about a supposed ‘gay lobby’ within the Vatican, and, laughing, responded that nobody introduces themselves at the Vatican with an identity card labelled ‘gay’.
One of the inherent contradictions in the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality is active gay scene among priests in Rome, as exposed by Italy’s Panorama magazine in 2010. A study on the American clergy a number of years ago estimated that between 25 and 50% of them were gay. So, while it’s not apparent whether the gay priests in the Vatican are actively lobbying – if so, they’re not very good at it – their existence is undeniable. And denying the existence of up to 50% of your priests in an increasingly secular Europe is probably not a good idea with vocations falling every year.
Since day one, Francis has seemed far more in touch with reality than either of his predecessors. Having lived a relatively normal life among the people in Argentina, he is far more equipped to understand the realities of modern life, and the diversity it embraces than the ivory tower academic Pope Benedict or war hero Pope John Paul II, who grew up in another era entirely.
Of course, he’s still the Pope, and it must be remembered that while his comments represent a shift in attitude towards more a compassionate view, the Church’s teachings on homosexuality themselves haven’t changed. It’s not for me to judge someone who is gay, he says, but God will; that teaching about intrinsic evil hasn’t gone away.
Pope Francis is tightly bound within the limits set by his predecessors and by the organisation he heads up. The ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican might be a fiction, but there are certainly plenty of other interest groups and, in a Church where the largely conservative cardinals of Africa, Asia and South America will soon dominate, few high ranking clerics are of his progressive mindset.
Where the limitations of Pope Francis’s discussion can be seen is in what he said about women; Pope John Paul II closed the door to women priests, and that is final. That’s a crushing blow, both for women who believe they have vocations, and for many lapsed Catholic women, who would return to the Church if they believed it had any respect for them.
While the Pope is meant to be infallible, it’s impossible for Francis to turn around and contradict entirely what came before him. But he seems, at least, to be trying. Centuries of institutionalised repression aren’t going to change with one comment, but, as he might say himself, God didn’t build the world in a day.
The Herald, 1 August 2013.