After a World Youth Day in which Pope Francis made headlines for his message to millions of young people about Christ’s love for them, the importance of staying close to the Church and the need to live a Gospel-centered life, the pope was making news again on his flight back home — this time, for what he had to say on a number of hot-button topics, including homosexuality, divorce and the role of women in the Church.
If you read the headlines about his remarks in the secular media, you might think Pope Francis was ready to change the Church’s teaching on a number of issues related to faith and morals: “Pope signals major reversal on gay priests,” (Huffington Post); “Behind the pope’s surprising shift,” (The New York Times); “Pope’s comments stir hope for change among Minn. Catholics,” (StarTribune).
Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. What is apparent after reading what the pope actually said is that many media outlets, whose understanding of Catholicism is often superficial at best, are simply getting it wrong or failing to provide the full context of Church teaching on which Pope Francis is basing his remarks.
The transcript of the pope’s comments regarding homosexuality show that, while he was responding to a question about a “gay lobby” that some have alleged exists at the Vatican, his answer did not specifically reference gay priests. These were the pope’s words: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully but says, wait a moment, how does it say, it says, these persons must never be marginalized and they must be integrated into society.”
This is not new, nor does it signal changes on the horizon. While the catechism states that homosexual acts are immoral and calls those with homosexual inclinations to chastity, it also states that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
What this means, and what the pope was reiterating in a less formal way, is that gay and lesbian people are our brothers and sisters in Christ to whom we must show the same love and mercy we would show anyone else. Ultimate judgment about the state of their souls — and our souls, for that matter — is left to God alone. None of what the pope said, however, amounts to a reassessment or revision of what has been long-standing Church teaching.
While on the plane, Pope Francis also fielded questions about divorce and the role of women in the Church. There weren’t any bombshells there either.
On a question regarding divorced Catholics and the sacraments, the pope made it clear that divorced Catholics can receive the sacraments, but that problems begin when they remarry civilly without having their first union annulled, according to a report about the exchange from Catholic News Service. At the same time, he spoke about the need to reform the annulment process and develop a comprehensive pastoral program for the family.
Addressing the role of women, the pope repeated the Church’s teaching that it is not able to ordain women. But he also said it needs to do a better job of explaining the importance of women in the life of the Church.
All are invited
Some say that, at the very least, Pope Francis is choosing to emphasize a different pastoral approach on certain issues. What’s certain is that every pope must respond to the particular circumstances that exist in the Church and the world during his ministry.
Clearly, Pope Francis is a missionary pope with a heart for the new evangelization who wants to invite everyone into a deeper friendship with Christ and his Church — particularly those who feel they are on the margins of society.
To do that, he has since the beginning of his pontificate in March stressed themes of hospitality, simplicity, care for the poor, mercy and forgiveness at a time when many people are turning away from religion and casting their lot with the false idols of modern society, including wealth, power, pleasure and unhealthy individualism.
His invitation, similar to the invitation extended by the archdiocese’s Rediscover: initiative, is to “come and see” how a deeper relationship with Christ and the Church — a journey that will inevitably include both joys and challenges — can bring real meaning, real happiness, real peace and a real sense of belonging to one’s life.
Pope Francis isn’t changing course on any teachings, despite what some media pundits may think. But he is reaching out far and wide to make sure no one is left off the invitation list.