I had to do some searching, but I located a full transcript of the Pope's interview heard 'round the world while flying back from World Youth Day in Brazil. I wanted to see the precise language used by the Pope. And while my Italian is imperfect, his choice of words are obvious to those who know no Italian at all. Although otherwise speaking in Italian, the Pope broke into English to say "gay." "If a person is gay, and follows the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge?" is my own translation. Gay people, he went on, must not be marginalized. Para. 2358 of the Church's Catechism, the Pope reminded his listeners, demands that society not discriminate against gays. (For the transcript see Letter 78, The Moynihan Letters, July 30, 2013).
But what precisely did he mean by this? And what comes next? The immediate context was a narrow question regarding rumors about one of the Pope's appointees to the Vatican Bank. But the Pope's answer, which offered assurances about the appointee's integrity, was not confined to this narrowly focused inquiry. The Pope's comments were meant to be broadly understood. And this leaves us to ask what larger lessons we can draw from this seemingly off-handed comment.
First, let's pay attention to the citation the Pope provided. He paraphrased language from a part of the Catechism that spoke about integrating gay persons into society. This selection of references can only be understood as welcoming. Increasingly, it is fair to understand Pope Francis as attempting to be true to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis, like his own role model, Jesus Christ, believed that there should be no outcasts in the world. St. Francis kissed lepers. This richly symbolic act signifies that the Christian dispensation forbids the creation of 'others' who can be dehumanized, de-personified, pushed to the side and ignored.
At the same time, the Pope made no reference to Paragraph 2357 of the Catechism, which speaks of "homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity." Such acts, this paragraph adds, are "contrary to natural law." Tradition, the paragraph declares, has always taught this to be so.
I don't believe that Pope Francis' choice of para. 2358 and his decision to ignore para. 2357 was an accident. I don't think for a moment that Francis was speaking carelessly. He knows the Catechism well enough to pick and choose his references with care. The Pope intended to send a warm and welcoming message to gays.
So, what then about the line "who am I to judge?" Conservative blogs have attempted to limit the fallout of this statement by declaring that the Pope had no appreciation for the way this remark would appear in the secular press. Fr. Z's blog, a bitter and divisive blog which routinely mocks progressive Catholics, advanced this claim. ("How to Get Francis Wrong on Homosexuality," July 30, 2013).
Elizabeth Scalia, on the other hand, writing at First Things, sees the Pope doing something clever and subversive. He wants to sucker a gullible mainstream press. The Pope endorsed the Catechism, Scalia claims, and that Catechism must be taken whole and entire. Really, deep-down, Pope Francis has embarked on a Sun-Tzu like strategy of bringing down the enemy -- the secular, liberal press -- by making it look foolish. (Elizabeth Scalia, "Don't Tell the Press: Pope Francis Is Using Them," First Things, July 30, 2013).
So, according to the right-wing, Pope Francis is either fool or knave. He is either a happy, loose-tongued Argentine pastor unfamiliar with the crafty ways of the secular world, or he is a diabolically conspiratorial Jesuit. Whether you take the low road or the high road, both paths lead to the same destination -- the status quo remains in place.
To be sure, Popes do not change doctrine in off-the-cuff airplane interviews. The Catechism remains today as it was yesterday -- equal parts condemnation and conciliation. But something has changed, decisively so. And that is tone. Consider the tone of the Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, issued under the pen of Joseph Ratzinger in 1986. Homosexuality is a "moral disorder" which "thwarts the call to a life of ... self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living." Same-sex relationships are therefore a frustration of God's own plan for creation. (para. 7).
Pope Francis has not revoked this Letter. What he has done, however, is shift the tone. He is making it impossible for the Vatican to speak as it did in 1986. Inclusion, this is the new tone, the new key which opens up real possibility for doctrinal development.
Along these lines, we should see the Pope's comments as an invitation to theological dialogue. He has dispelled the long hard freeze that has shut down Catholic debate on the question of same-sex relationships. The outcome of theological investigation, the Pope seems to say, must no longer be dictated from above. Let's have a debate.
And for sure, the Catholic Church's theology is severely under-developed on the question of same-sex attraction. It never engages the latest scientific developments. It engages in no weighing and balancing of empirical evidence. It relies on an a priori conception of the human person that assumes what it wishes to prove -- that male and female are complementary and that the only legitimate form of sexual expression is therefore heterosexual.
I see the Pope as issuing a challenge to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Let us refresh our theology. Let us look again at the question of same-sex attraction with a vision informed by what the psychologists are saying. Let us consider anew the reality of same-sex relationships that are, in fact, vital and self-giving acts of love. And then at some future date, not now, not at once, let us revisit the question of official teaching. I, for one, intend to take up this invitation.