Pope Francis pulled a surprise on reporters when he walked back to the press section of his Alitalia papal flight from Brazil and entered into an open press conference that lasted more than an hour. The Pope gave the press what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton offered as presidents — a casual question and answer session that was on the record.
The biggest headline from the Pope’s remarks was not what he had to say about the scandals at the Vatican Bank, but what he said about homosexuality and, in particular, homosexuals in the priesthood. The key sentence in the Pope’s remarks is this: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
The papal remarks put the international press into a frenzy. Headlines across the world announced a revolution in Roman Catholic moral teaching, a changed position on homosexuality, or at least an historic “new openness” on the issue of homosexuality.
Predictably, a closer look reveals a more complicated and far less revolutionary reality. Pope Francis did not change or modify one sentence of Catholic moral teaching. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexuality is “objectively disordered.” The Catholic Church and this Catholic Pope are not reluctant to offer a moral judgment when it comes to homosexual behaviors. The Catholic Church offers a long tradition of consistent moral judgment on the issue of homosexual acts, and the church declares them to be “objectively disordered” and sinful. That did not change.
So, what did the Pope say? In the context of his larger remarks on homosexuality and the priesthood, Francis was attempting to explain that a homosexual “lobby” within his church is entirely unacceptable. The Vatican has been reeling from a report issued under Pope Benedict XVI that identified a “gay lobby” with inordinate power and influence within the church. Francis told the reporters that he saw gay individuals as distinct from a gay lobby. “I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad.”
Only then did the Pope offer his most-quoted sentence: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
The meaning of the Pope’s comments is essentially this: Homosexual acts, and even the homosexual “inclination,” are sinful and “objectively disordered.” Nevertheless, as the Catechism also states, homosexual persons are to be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” The Catechism explains that to live with a sexual inclination that is objectively disordered is “a trial.” The official Catholic moral judgment on this sexual sin is that a Catholic who struggles with homosexual inclinations is to remain chaste and celibate, looking to the Lord for help.
Within that context, Pope Francis’s remarks are not revolutionary in substance — not even close. But the Pope was clearly signaling a new mode of engagement on the issue. Benedict XVI had warned that the church should not ordain to the priesthood men who have “deep seated” homosexual inclinations. Does Francis’s new statement change that policy? Catholic officials doubt that any change is indicated. But Francis, like just about everyone else in the public eye, is trying to find a way to speak of homosexuality and homosexuals that reflects both the moral reality of homosexuality and the respect that all human beings are due.
Those who have no moral issue with homosexuality have no real problem in this situation. They just declare that homosexuality is perfectly normal and a moral non-issue. In that case, the only “sin” in view is the sin of believing that there is anything sinful about homosexuality. Thus, secular leaders and those who belong to liberal religious groups have no real problem. They can join the moral revolution and normalize homosexuality and they need not hold press conferences to explain their position.
The Pope is in a very different predicament, and so are evangelical Christians. The Pope did not signal in any way a revolution in Catholic moral teaching. The judgment on homosexuality within the Catholic tradition is consistent and very clear. At the same time, the Pope was trying to differentiate between homosexuality and persons struggling with homosexual inclinations. When the Pope spoke of a gay Catholic who “seeks the Lord” he was speaking of a gay person who is seeking to live in faithfulness to Catholic moral teaching.
In other words, the Pope was not talking about those who are involved in homosexual acts or homosexual relationships. He was seeking to speak with compassion about people made in the image of God who are struggling with faithfulness against a homosexual inclination. This explains his criticism of a “gay lobby” within his church. He acknowledged the fact that persons struggling with a homosexual inclination are in his church and in the priesthood. So long as they obey Catholic teaching and live in faithfulness, “who am I to judge that person?” he asked.
Evangelical Christians may be rightly impressed by the depth and consistency of Roman Catholic moral teachings on sexuality, but our authority is the Bible. And the Bible’s clear declaration of the sinfulness of homosexuality and the inviolate nature of marriage as a union of a man and a woman puts evangelicals in the same public predicament. We also must respect the humanity of those who struggle with homosexuality and accept them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” At the same time, we must remain faithful to the clear teachings of Scripture on the nature of sin. Nothing less than the Gospel is at stake.
The Pope made a statement, the press announced a revolution, but even a day later it is clear that the predicament remains. Tim Padgett of TIME pointed to the essence of the predicament when he complained that the Pope “wasn’t exactly going out on a theological limb.” Padgett asserted, rightly enough, that the Pope’s position comes down to this: “The church may love the sinner, but it still hates the sin.”
That isn’t good enough for the new moral regime. Padgett says that the Pope still “demonizes” gays by believing and teaching that homosexual acts are sinful. No religious leader who holds to what Padgett calls the “love-the-sinner-but-hate-the-sin trope” is now to be taken seriously, he insists.
The Pope now finds himself locked in a particular predicament. We know what he wants to say, and we can hear him say it. He, in his own way, is trying to love the sinner as he hates the sin. That is now, we are told, still “demonizing.” Nothing but the moral normalization of homosexuality will do. The Pope was speaking of Catholics who endure what the Catechism calls a “trial” of faithfulness. The new moral regime decries any moral struggle as “demonization.” The Pope must go on to renounce Catholic moral teaching, or, in Padgett’s words, he should no longer be taken seriously. The Pope must lead “by reforming the doctrine that attacks gay people,” Padgett insists.
Evangelical Christians, passionate about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faithful to the authority of the Bible, and eager to show love and respect for all those made in the image of God are in the same predicament. The global conversation about the Pope’s comments makes this very clear. Most of us have heard the same by now.
And yet, we have no choice but to be faithful to all that the Lord has commanded and taught, all that the Scripture teaches, and all that the Gospel demands.
Tim Padgett asserts that “the Pope’s remarks point up a dilemma for his and many other religious institutions today.” That, Mr. Padgett, is an understatement.
Publication date: July 31, 2013