Is the Pope Catholic?

Three thoughts on what the pope said the other day about gay people.

Everyone is agog about the gay-friendly sentiment Pope Francis expressed on his flight home from Brazil. "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will,” the pontiff said, “who am I to judge? They should not be marginalized. They are our brothers."


Three thoughts.

One: Believe the hype. This is a big deal. Cardinal Timothy Dolan can jump on “CBS This Morning” and insist that Pope Francis’s words represent no switch in Church doctrine that says homosexuals are to be tolerated while homosexual conduct is not. The pope’s message, says Dolan,

may be something people find new and refreshing. I for one don't think it is.

But Andrew Sullivan is on the money with his analysis of why Pope Francis’s line is both new and refreshing:

The Church does not teach that homosexuality is a choice, and so, to sustain the stigmatization of homosexuality in the face of new research and data, Benedict had to opine that gay people are intrinsically outside “the direction of creation” and our very nature is “somehow distorted.” Dolan can spin this any way he wants. But the proof of the malice was the blunt discrimination against gay priests regardless of their conduct in 2005, the absurdly brutal attacks on gay parents and gay people in the debate over civil marriage equality, and the obsessive-compulsive insistence on never hiring lay people who might conceivably be married to someone of the same gender (something never done with, say, re-married or divorced heterosexuals).

Dolan and Benedict have never, ever spoken of gay people the way Francis did.

Two: This is genuine. The “who am I to judge?” line appears to have come from Pope Francis in a sincere spirit of toleration for gays and lesbians. The message was delivered off the cuff. It was not a prepared speech. It was not vetted by advisers. Its language was not fussed over and tweaked to prevent misunderstanding. It was an in-the-moment expression of a moral principle: people who are good-faith followers of God are welcome in the Church. Catholic doctrine should not be interpreted to shun gays and lesbians.

Three: This is not postmodernism. It is not an expression of “anything goes.” It is not an abrogation of papal power. It is not an indication that the pope is uninterested in moral absolutes. Notice the two conditionals that precede the pope’s humble “who am I to judge?” He said this is true if the person “seeks God,” first of all, and if he “has good will,” second. Gay atheists are still hellbound, presumably (along with straight atheists), as are lapsed Catholics who are gay but refuse to follow other Church teachings. And Pope Francis will judge you, or reserves the right to judge you, for character flaws and malicious acts. But just being gay does not, by itself, trigger papal condemnation. You are our brothers, gays (and lesbians). You will not be marginalized.

One wonders how Pope Francis is feeling after his impromptu press conference heard ‘round the world. Does he regret stirring the pot with this, to some, heterodox message? Is he proud to have done so? Did he secretly plan to drop the toleration bomb from 35,000 feet when he shuffled back to the journalists’ cabin?

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