Pope Francis not the progressive Pontiff many see
If you were watching the news this summer, you might have noticed the popularity of the new Roman pontiff, Francis. In a stark contrast to his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis has made noises that, to many, have indicated a change in direction for the church with regards to social issues like abortion and gay rights. He famously said "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" to a cascade of liberal and progressive fanfare leading many, like The Week magazine and The Huffington Post, to question whether Francis might be, in the words of a piece in the former, "The Most Progressive Pope Ever".
I've had several long talks with some Catholic friends of mine about this supposed new direction and I have to say, I'm not convinced. The fact is the notion of a progressive Pope is (or maybe I should say "would be") a paradox. The implication that we're at the dawning of a new age of Church tolerance and official approval of homosexuality and female liberation is, gently-put, nonsense.
Take a closer look at what Francis actually said and you'll see both what has stoked these hopes and why they are unfounded. Francis mentions in the same breath "someone who is gay" and someone who "searches for the Lord" as being acceptable which, actually, has been the official Vatican stance for many years. Indeed, the Church holds that homosexuals can lead perfectly moral lives so long as they don't act on their inclinations.
But the Church also considers homosexual desires to be "of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,'" and because of this, it underlines, "Under no circumstances can they [homosexual acts] be approved." Remember, that's not my interpretation; that is the Church's official teaching. They read it to children in Sunday school.
Francis's statements are not in any way different from the position of his predecessor. Benedict, after all, is the one that said in his 1986 letter to the Church's bishops that intolerance and discrimination against homosexuals was wrong and should be confronted by Church leaders at all times. Of course, in the same letter, Benedict noted that "[homosexuality] is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." But who's counting?
That is really the thrust of Francis's comment and I'm afraid that we, in our desire to see the moral leader of over a billion Catholics come into line with modern morality, have given a pass to the hateful undertones of the Church's message. Yes, Francis thinks it is okay to be gay, but can we really call a man progressive when he thinks that homosexual sex is itself an expression of a moral evil? I should think not.
In a way it's not surprising. It is worth noting that Francis was elected to lead one of the most conservative institutions in world history by members at the highest level of the institution. A radical might not make it out of the conclave with the backing of the cardinals. Yet, we have even more fundamental reasons to know that Francis could never set the Church on the path towards true acceptance of homosexuality, even if he wanted to.
The sacrament of marriage is one of the Church's bedrock principles and good Catholics believe it was authored by God himself. The teaching of what is and is not marriage is thereby one of the Church's infallible teachings and according to the Church, it is impossible for them to err when teaching it. So can we really expect the bishops of the Church to stop campaigning against marriage equality and the evils of homosexuality? To stop ruining countless young lives by forcing people of all ages to choose between their own sexuality or their faith and family? Probably not. After all, to do that, they'd have to admit they were wrong when they said they were infallible and wouldn't that make them look a bit ridiculous?
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