Jorge Bergoglio, now better known as Pope Francis, holds an impromptu press conference as he flies from Brazil to Rome and, in response to a question about gays in the priesthood, disarmingly asks, “Who am I to judge?”
In some quarters, that latest remark is greeted with a rolling of eyes and a deepening concern, especially about this particular man (one who would dare wash the feet of women), a concern that brings to mind the old line: Is the Pope Catholic? In other quarters, especially those of the more liberal, cafeteria bent (which, in Massachusetts, one of the most Catholic states in the nation, means — let’s face it — most adherents), there is near euphoria. Holy Pope John XXIII! The windows are open and the wind is blowing. Vatican III, here we come!
The former worry too much; the latter are overly optimistic. Granted, there’s a difference in tone from Pope Benedict to Francis, and that shouldn’t be surprising: They are quite different men. Reticent and solitary, Benedict was awkward when it came to the political side of his job. Francis is outgoing, a glad-hander who connects readily with people. He’s easier to like but still, church doctrine hasn’t changed. Homosexuality remains “intrinsically disordered.” Homosexual relations are grave sins. And, the arguments of some theologians notwithstanding, the prospects of priests officiating at same-sex weddings are decidedly dim.
Yet differences of tone matter, and there is a chance here that gay Catholics may at least no longer feel like pariahs in their own faith.
The church draws a bright line between what you are and what you do, which was the point Francis was making on his plane ride. It’s not someone’s fault if he or she feels a sexual attraction to the same sex. But acting on that impulse is a problem. The church’s position on sexual relations is quite clear: “The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage;” it is intended to be “procreative and unitive.” Hence, no masturbation, no non-marital sex, no living together, no birth control, and no same-sex relationships.
For a lot of heterosexual Catholics, there’s a way around the dilemma created by these rules. Ignore them. And so they do. A 2012 Gallup survey found that 82 percent of Catholics think birth control is OK. Only 14 percent of Catholics regard non-marital sex as wrong, according to a 2008 report from the General Social Survey. Yet even while disagreeing with it, these people remain part of the church: attending Mass, receiving communion, and going to confession.
Perhaps they stay because, while the church may disapprove of what they do, the disapproval isn’t loudly voiced. Everyone knows — do you think the priests at weddings believe the couple before them are virgins? — but the ceremony proceeds nonetheless. Sinners, perhaps, but of the more venial variety.
Gay Catholics haven’t been so lucky. Particularly under Benedict, the attitude toward them felt deeply hostile. There are some, treating religion as a club, who say good riddance: If you can’t abide by the rules, then you shouldn’t be a member. But most religions, including Catholicism, are about saving souls. Driving away an entire category of humans — those who feel same-sex attractions — is contrary to their mission.
Which is why, even though doctrine hasn’t changed, Francis’ words matter. Perhaps, one hopes, the pope’s language signals that the denunciations won’t be as strong, that, somewhat like the attitude toward birth control and pre-marital relations, there will be disapproval, but of a mild variety. If so, that would mirror the attitudes of the faithful in the United States. A June 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Catholics thought homosexual relations acceptable; only 33 percent felt them a sin.
Yet there remains a critical difference. Heterosexual Catholics know that, whatever sins they may commit along the way, the ultimate expression of their relationship, marriage, is welcomed by the church. Not so gay Americans. Even as civil society moves toward recognizing their relationships — today, 13 states and Washington, D.C., permit same-sex marriage — the church does not and gives no signal it will change. Catholic doctrine speaks of homosexuality as a “trial.” For many gays, that trial is imposed on them by the faith they otherwise love.