At the recent World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis encouraged Catholic youths to “Go out into the whole world and make a mess!” He said he wants to shake up the Church, “to stir things up.” Of course, he wants to make this mess by proclaiming an unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ. The revolution the pope is calling for is a spiritual revolution, a countercultural movement to combat contemporary materialism and secularism.
Unfortunately, this vibrant papacy is already running into problems. So I want to make a little mess by suggesting that it might not be the most fruitful approach to the world for the pope to constantly have these off-the-cuff interviews with the media. In fact, he might borrow a strategy from Benedict. More on that below.
For instance, on his trip home the pope had an extended conversation with reporters in which he stated very briefly his position regarding the problem of homosexuality and homosexual priests.
Nothing the pope said was new or different from what his predecessors have said on this issue. He distinguished clearly between orientation and homosexual acts, he spoke of confession and repentance, and he repeated the Church’s teaching that homosexuals not be marginalized because of their sexual orientation. None of this is revolutionary.
But the press picked up and focused on a single sentence, “Who am I to judge them?” Taken in the context of everything else the pope said in that interview or elsewhere many times, there is absolutely nothing new or surprising.
The press, however, in large part, especially in the United States, chose to interpret that statement not in the context of the pope’s broader comments but in the context of the “non-judgmentalism” and relativistic morality in our society.
In the contemporary world, not judging people translates as not judging their actions, and the press took this as an opening for the Church to reconsider its moral condemnation of homosexual relationships and activity. It doesn’t matter what the pope said before or after this statement; the press chose to portray him as opening the door to a new moral attitude.
This is the danger in off-the-cuff interviews today. What the press is interested in are simply sound bites and controversy. Complex issues like homosexuality and homosexuals in the priesthood cannot be discussed with the media “swine” in this manner without constantly having to correct their misinterpretations and reportorial sensationalism.
By and large the press is not interested in the Church or her true mission, but only in the scandals and controversies surrounding the hot issues of contemporary culture and how the Church fits into these issues.
No one who has followed this pope and understands his deep faith and the weight of Church teaching and tradition in his approach to any of these hot issues could really think that he is going to make any substantial changes.
But most media types couldn’t care less about the Church and know even less about the binding character of her moral teaching on sexual matters and the definitiveness of her teaching on things like the ordination of women. When the pope stated in this interview that the ordination of women had been “definitively” excluded, he meant absolutely.
But they do not understand the meaning of definitive or absolute in anything. They will not stop pressing for any hint of change.
When the pope spoke of homosexuals seeking forgiveness from sin, it meant he definitively holds that homosexual acts are seriously sinful, but I doubt reporters understand that. They focused on his words that he would not be their (ultimate?) judge, which can mean a lot of things, but it does not mean that he does not judge their acts to be sinful and seriously disordered.
It also tells us nothing concerning his position on homosexuals in the priesthood. Does he differ from his immediate predecessor as to whether homosexuals should be admitted to seminaries, or is he simply speaking about homosexuals already in the priesthood?
I don’t believe Pope Benedict ever called for such priests to be removed when they were not practicing homosexuals or dissenting from Church teaching on homosexual actions. Pope Francis was speaking along this line about the so-called gay lobby. If a priest begins to lobby for change to justify his own behavior, I doubt that the pope would be nonjudgmental about that.
Likewise I am fairly certain that the pope, a prelate who has lived out in the world could be naïve about the problem of such individuals in seminaries. A chaste homosexual would not likely be a man who comes out and asserts his homosexuality as a badge of honor. Such men have an agenda, and when seminaries tolerated this kind of conduct in the last century, they soon became havens for homosexual activists.
I suspect the pope knows this and would not differ from Benedict on this matter. Neither pope would want that situation again. So when he said who was he to judge, he was talking about the closeness of any man to God who is trying to live a life of chastity. He would not judge that this was impossible for a man with a homosexual tendency, but that would hardly carry over to a homosexual activist.
In today’s over-sexed, relativistic culture, it is certainly a lot harder for any man to embrace a chaste life, but even harder for a homosexual man living among other men all the time, as in a seminary or rectory.
These kinds of complex issues are surely not the proper subjects for impromptu news interviews. Let’s hope the pope will reformulate his natural generosity and openness to dialogue. And here’s a positive alternative: he could follow Benedict’s example in the lengthy interviews he granted an educated and intelligent interviewer and then published in book form.
It would help avoid misunderstandings – just a suggestion from an old mess maker.