Wednesday, July 31, 2013
What the Pope Said, and What He Didn't Say
The Protestant fascination with the Pope is not unlike the American fascination with the British Royal Family. We separated for good reasons, and we have no desire to go back, but we love to watch from a distance.
With the Pope, it is more than a celebrity fixation. Though he does not lead the whole church, he does lead a substantial part of it. We are part of the same family, and his leadership makes a difference in how the world experiences Christianity.
Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in so many wonderful ways. He has re-focused Roman Catholicism on critical issues of economic and social justice and away from a fixation on sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.
Earlier this week he held an informal press conference on the papal plane as he flew from Rio de Janiero back to Rome. And he made a remarkable statement. Speaking of the possibility of having gay men in the priesthood, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” . . . . “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … They’re our brothers.”
The statement itself did not really break new ground. He was talking about celibate priests, and he was separating homosexual tendencies from homosexual acts. Being gay is not the problem; the problem is homosexual acts.
Those of us in the United Methodist Church are painfully aware of this line of reasoning in which we are supposed to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” In our denomination, there is no prohibition against gays and lesbians becoming pastors as long as they are celibate. If you agree with our Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and you believe that homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful, then this makes perfect sense. If you are in favor of the inclusion of gays and lesbians as whole persons, then that position is deeply offensive.
If the entirety of his position on homosexuality were really caught in the statement, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” it would have been an astonishing break with previous Roman Catholic teaching. Sadly, that was not the case.
But the most important thing was not what he said, it was the way that he said it. After delivering his conciliatory and inclusive remarks regarding the possibility of gay men in the priesthood, he did not immediately qualify those remarks so that no one could think he was making a broader statement. He spoke with openness and candor. He made a positive statement without adding a negative qualifier. And he did clearly and intentionally differentiate homosexuality and pedophilia. That is no small thing.