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Pope Francis's Indictment of the American Hierarchy
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 09/19/13
Last updated on: 09/19/13
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Pope Francis.

In a remarkable interview published on September 19, 2013 in Jesuit newspapers around the world, including America, Pope Francis, in his characteristically gentle way, indicted the misplaced priorities of the American Church. In declaring that "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent" and "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," the pontiff not only enacted a change of tone in the Church and its intersection with the world, but he also pointedly criticized the style and obsessions of the American hierarchy.

In a blog published on July 30 about Pope Francis's refreshing comments aboard the Papal jet on his return from Brazil from World Youth Day, I noted both that he made history by using the term "gay" to refer to homosexuals and that he also seemed to be charting a starkly different approach to gay people from that of his predecessors, John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, who lost no opportunity to demonize homosexuality and homosexuals. He said then, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

I added, however, that it was unclear whether his apparent new approach is a significant turning point or merely a public relations ploy.

In neither the Pope's comments then nor in the interview published today does he announce any change in the official teaching of the Church regarding homosexuality. Nevertheless, his comments may have far-reaching implications for the Church's political stance toward gay people. At the end of July, he said that gay people "shouldn't be marginalized" and that the Church should regard them as brothers and sisters. In the interview published today, he emphasized the preeminence of love over dogma.

He said, "In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are 'socially wounded' because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. . . . Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."

He continued, "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing."

The Pope's new approach is not only compassionate, but it also strongly-- though implicitly--criticizes the Catholic hierarchy of the United States, which has indeed been obsessed with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

Although American Catholics have been strong supporters of gay rights, the hierarchy of the American Church has not been. It has not only opposed same-sex marriage, it has opposed every legislative and social attempt to improve the lives of glbtq people, from repealing laws that criminalize same-sex sexual behavior to laws that forbid discrimination in employment and accommodations.

Moreover, the bishops routinely practice discrimination themselves. Scarcely a week goes by without a news story about a Catholic diocese or college firing an employee when their sexual orientation or same-sex marriage comes to light. The employees have ranged from janitors to choir directors to teachers. The hierarchy has been able to convince themselves that their discrimination against their own employees is somehow "just."

In addition, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States has repeatedly and baldfacedly lied about the effect of same-sex marriage on religious freedom and has supported extreme homophobic rhetoric as articulated by the National Organization for Marriage, which is little more than a Roman Catholic-front organization.

Given the disgraceful history of the Catholic hierarchy, it is difficult not to see Pope Francis's comments aimed especially at the American bishops. "It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he said, adding "We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

"The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives," the Pope declared.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to serve as pontiff. Thus, it was not surprising that his wide-ranging interview today was offered for publication around the world in Jesuit magazines.

It may or may not be coincidental that American Jesuit news network has recently launched an outreach to gay Catholics, attempting to reassure gay people that the Church is not anti-gay.

When I first watched the videos issued by the Jesuit ignatius News Network in this outreach program, I was deeply skeptical. The contrast between the message of the videos and recent homophobic statements by the Archbishops of Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Denver, among others, was too stark to accept the message of the videos. However, in light of Pope Francis's interview, I now will at least entertain the possibility that a change is coming to the institution that has historically been hostile to gay rights.

Moreover, we should be able to gauge quickly the extent to which the bishops react to the Pope's admonition. If there is no change in their rhetoric about gay people, then the Pope, however sincere he may be personally, is unable to enforce his vision of a Church that is open and welcoming.

The first video on this topic from the IgnatianNewsNetwork is below.

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