Pope Francis’ style of communication is very different from his predecessors. For this reason it may appear difficult to work out where he stands on certain issues including that of same-sex marriage.
The difficulty is not just to understand what Pope Francis is saying. It is also to accept his invitation to live with the tension that results when we take seriously the Church’s teaching, as well as the complex reality of people’s lives, and accompany them pastorally.
Pope Francis gave his first major interview in September 2013. In our rapidly changing world the Pope sees people struggling with issues of the greatest importance for the life of faith. What people most need at this moment, he says, is a Church that will “heal the wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity”.
From his pastoral experience Pope Francis is keenly aware of how gay people are “socially wounded” (his term), and frequently feel that the Church compounds their sense of exclusion and alienation. He says he has often received letters from homosexuals who feel that all the Church does is condemn them. “But the Church does not want to do this,” he says.
He reiterates what he said after World Youth Day in July 2013: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge… it is not right to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
Pope Francis goes on to say: “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.”
Pope Francis also responds to those who criticise him for not being more outspoken on issues such as same-sex marriage. He says these matters have to be spoken about in a context, and while the Church’s teaching is well known, the context is less so. That context is what he calls “the first proclamation”, which is “the heart of the message of Jesus Christ”. It is the Good News of the saving love of God, without which “moral and religious imperatives” will make little sense.
At the same time, Pope Francis has not spoken only of God’s merciful love. He has also spoken of the demands that God’s love places upon all of us. One area of particular concern is the urgent need to protect the family, which he sees as central to how the Holy Spirit flows in to the world.
Protecting the family
Late last year he said that preserving the family as an institution based on marriage between a man and a woman is not a political cause but a matter of “human ecology”, as “children have the right to grow up in a family with a father and mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity”.
Earlier this year, in the Philippines, he said that efforts to redefine marriage were a form of “ideological colonisation” resulting from confusing presentations of sexuality and marriage, which threaten to “disfigure God’s plan for Creation”.
How can these statements be reconciled with Pope Francis’ wish for the Church to be a place of welcome for gay people, and for the need for the Church to heal rather than deepen their sense of being “socially wounded”?
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio lived with this tension. While ensuring the pastoral care of gay people personally as well as through the work of his priests, he also led his fellow bishops in opposing same-sex marriage. He differed from the other bishops, however, in that he was willing to accept some form of civil legal protection for same-sex unions.
In April 2010, on behalf of his fellow bishops he issued a strongly worded pastoral letter reminding public authorities of their responsibility to protect marriage and its unique contribution to the common good, and he appealed to their consciences.
He said that the state is not discriminating when it requires there to be a man and a woman for a marriage contract: “it merely recognises a natural reality”.
In a paragraph relevant to the current discussion here, he wrote:
“A marriage (made up of man and woman) is not the same as the union of two people of the same sex. To distinguish is not to discriminate but to respect differences… At a time when we place emphasis on the richness of pluralism and social and cultural diversity, it is a contradiction to minimise fundamental human differences. A father is not the same as a mother. We cannot teach future generations that preparing yourself for planning a family based on the stable relationship between a man and a woman is the same as living with a person of the same sex.”
Pope Francis spoke of “the inalienable right of children to develop in the womb of their mothers, to be born and to grow in the natural environment of marriage. In family life, and in their relationship with their mother and father, children discover their own identity and attain personal autonomy”.
A few weeks later, in July 2010, he expressed support for a rally being organised by the Argentine Church’s laity commission. He stressed that the rally should not be seen “as being ‘against’ anyone, for we do not want to judge those who think and feel differently” yet he said that the passage of the legislation “would constitute a real and grave anthropological step backwards”.
At the same time, he asked the event’s organisers to ensure “that both in your language and in your heart you show no signs of aggression or violence against any of our brothers”, to remember that as Christians “we are servants of the truth and not its masters”, and that gentleness should characterise our actions.
Challenging these changes in society was a deeply spiritual ordeal for Cardinal Bergoglio, and for this reason he wrote to the Carmelite nuns in his diocese asking for their prayers.
In what he thought was a private letter, but which was quickly leaked to the press, he did not mince his words. He described what was happening as a spiritual battle, with the lives of children, who would be deprived of being raised as God intended it, at stake.
He asked for prayers that the politicians involved would “not be motivated by error or by the pressures of the moment”.
We can conclude from this that for Pope Francis the battle is not between two ideologies. Christians do not oppose one ideology with another one, but respond with the Gospel of mercy and love. Understanding this can help us as we try to hold in tension, welcome, respect, and care for gay people, on the one hand, and opposition to same-sex marriage, on the other.
[We are indebted to Dr Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer, for access to the 2010 material.]