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A story broke in the mainstream media yesterday which, although it pertains to the Catholic Church, actually extends far beyond it. It has already generated a lot of heat but a little less light. It concerns the comments atrributed to Pope Francis regarding civil unions for gay people.

It seems that the Pope had been interviewed for a film, in the course of which he is supposed to have made comments which have been widely reported in the media both last night and again today. They have also been entirely misrepresented in some quarters – one newspaper, for example, proclaimed this morning that “Pope blesses gay weddings”. Needless to say, this is nonsense.

I have not seen the film in question, I have not read a transcript of the comments and so I cannot place what he is supposed to have said in any type of meaningful context; I don’t know if there are others comments, as yet unreported, which qualify or clarify the remarks attributed to him, for example. I can only go on what is reported in the media and I think it is important to note that very clearly.

Two quotes were given out to the media. This first was this one –

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

And the second was this –

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.. I stood up for that.”

The former is straight forward and clear and it seems to echo views the Holy Father has reportedly had for many years, in trying to develop a pastoral approach for gay people. And he is right. There is a need for such a pastoral approach, for this is an area where the Church fails gay people badly and where many Catholics seem to lack any semblance of compassion, charity or decency – and this, despite what the Catechism teaches quite unequivocally on the matter.

It is the second quotation which has provoked a reaction similar to a small nuclear warhead detonating within Vatican City.

“Do not suppose that everything you read on the internet is necessarily true or even accurate” – King Henry VIII

This may come as a shock to some, but the Pope has not changed Catholic doctrine. He has not uttered an infallible statement, regardless of what some might believe. And I don’t think this is part of his ordinaray magisterium, either. The reason I say this is because I doubt he considered himself to be speaking as Pope, but as a man offering his own thoughts on the matter. On many previous occasions, he has spoken as Pope and has consistently repeated the teaching of the Church.

I think it is important to make a distinction here about what the Pope was asking for, and why he felt it was important.

Heterosexual couples have the luxury of being regarded under the law as ‘one’. They share legal rights in relation to finance, property, inheritance and other things. Now, imagine a gay couple who have lived together and built a life together over many years. One partner dies, and that man’s family lay a claim to property or inheritance; as there is no legal recognition of the relationship, the remaining partner may very well lose everything, depite having paid equally into it over all those years. Regardless of whether or not you agree with two men or two women living together as a couple, this is simply unjust. And I think it is precisely this point which the Holy Father was trying to make. Of course, I could be completely wrong and I may have misread the comments attributed to him altogether. Time will tell.

I think it is also crucially important to make one other distinction here. Being gay, or even being gay and having a partner, is not necessarily the same as being sexually active within that relationship. Many people seem to conflate the two things and appear unable to differentiate between them, but the distinction is a very important one

Reading some of the nuclear fallout that was blowing across the internet yesterday evening, I came upon a blog post on the website of the Archdiocese of New York. To say it stunned me would be something of an understatement.

Now it is only right to note here that there was a note at the bottom of the post stating that “Comments in this blog are my personal opinion and do not represent official statements of the Archdiocese”. To further clarify, an additional note was placed at the top of the post today, which reads – “Some people have described this blog post as an official statement of the Archdiocese. That is incorrect.. For better or worse, I alone am responsible for the opinions expressed here“. This is a disingenuous statement to make – the author is not responsible alone. This post appears quite prominently on the offical Archdiocesan website – that alone offers it some authority and respectability, as does the fact that there is clearly an acceptance of it’s content, or else it would have been removed already and an apology put in it’s place. That has not happened. It can be taken, then, that it expresses the views of the Archdiocese of New York. And that is where the problem really begins.

For anyone who has not read the post – feel free to do so, I have given the link above – it is entitled ‘Dealing With Papal Mistakes’. That gives a clue about what comes next. The author – who is the Director of Public Policy and of the Safe Environment Program for the Archdiocese – begins by explaining to his readers that “sometimes we have to deal with and explain papal mistakes”. He doesn’t elaborate on who he is referring to by ‘we’. It may have been the papal prerogative or the royal one, I’m not sure, but I am fairly certain the last Pope to do was St Paul VI.

The author goes on to express that “I want to make clear that I deeply love Pope Francis, and am making these comments with great respect for my brother and father in Christ”. Unfortunately, the very speedy and very public correction of the Pope by an Archdiocesan official, suggests otherwise. To say “this is a serious mistake by the Holy Father” is, not to put too fine a point on it, going just too far. In a spirit of faux humility, he adds that “It’s not my place to counsel the Holy Father what to do about this” – and this is true. But again, there is a problem – as surely as it is not his place to counsel the Pope, neither is it his place to publicly correct him. It is disturbing to me that this public ‘correction’ of the Pope, appearing publicly on an Archdiocesan website, was posted by an employee and not by the leader of that Archdiocese – I can’t help thinking that is disingenuous. We need to have the courage of our convictions, even if we are wrong.

More than anything else, what strikes me about this entire episode is the lack of trust in the Holy Father and the willingness to see the worst in what he says; yet again, the usual suspects are exceptionally quick to ‘correct’ him and to demand clarifications – perhaps out of a genuine sense of confusion on some occasions, certainly; but on many others, it is a sign of something deeper and altogether unChristian. It is not for any lay person, Priest, Bishop, Archbishop or Cardinal to ‘correct’ the Pope.

When we as Christians act in this way, we do nothing for the unity of the Church; instead, we contribute to disunity, division, anger and a distinct lack of simple Christian charity. There is no joy, no peace, no grace in this. Perhaps a better path to take is to keep silence and to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt.

This battle – and it is a battle, clearly – is terribly divisive within the Church, and it sends out the most unChristian message to all looking in from outside of the Church.

UPDATE

After posting the above piece, I read the following article, which I recommend as potentially throwing some much-needed light on the entire matter – “Those Pope Francis Quotes: Video Editing and Media Controversy”.

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