08/08/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

I Take It Back! What Pope Francis Said (Part 2)

(Read Part One here)

Dear Joan and Ashley,

While researching media reaction to Pope Francis' recent call for a "deep theology of women in the Church," I came across several pieces written by you that got me thinking instead about the pope's comments on gays. I hope you don't mind if I use the names given you in baptism, but since I too am baptized, we already share a certain intimacy. And please excuse the small audience of readers I bring to this correspondence. Given the public nature of your writing, it only seemed right.

For those not familiar with them, Joan Lewis is a journalist who blogs on the website of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which calls itself "the Global Catholic Network." Ashley McGuire, is senior fellow for The Catholic Association (TCA). The TCA describes itself as an organization "dedicated to being a faithful Catholic voice in the public square and public arena." Its Facebook page has drawn over 113 thousand "Likes." Ashley has also written for the Washington Post and The Huffington Post, including an excellent piece that she co-wrote with Asma Uddin condemning efforts to block the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Ashley, in an opinion piece written for the Washington Post, you complained that "everyone was freaking out yesterday about the pope's actually un-novel and uninteresting re-assertion of longstanding church teaching that homosexuals should not be marginalized." You made essentially the same point, Joan, and elaborated upon it. In your blog, you said that headlines like, "'Pope offers opening to gays' and 'Pope signals new era of forgiveness towards gay priests,' ... do a disserve (sic) not only to the Holy Father but also to their readers and listeners, misleading some as well." You offered several explanations for why the secular media gets the story wrong, including ignorance of Church doctrine, and indifference to what the Church teaches "if it differs from their own opinion, lifestyle, or the editorial line of their media organization." Perhaps worse, "they want to try and create a Church in their image." The italics are yours, though I'm a little unclear about the reference of the pronouns "they" and "their" -- are you still talking about the secular media, or someone else?

While I did not put the matter in those terms, I did said something similar in my previous piece for the Huffington Post. I suggested that part of the confusion was due to the fact that we are not accustomed to hearing popes speak about difficult topics with such spontaneity. You came to nearly the same conclusion, Joan, pointing out how different this press conference was from "a staid document prepared by theologians," and added that, "People can relate to and understand a Pope better than a document." Nevertheless, you expressed gratitude for documents, "as they form the two-thousand year old Magisterium of the Church." To help us understand that the pope's words had changed nothing in Church teaching, you appended several documents to your blog, including clauses 2357-59 of the Catechism, which discuss "homosexuality."

A helpful suggestion. After all, the pope specifically alluded to this section of the Catechism in his comments. But I have to tell you that when I took your advice and read the Catechism alongside the pope's words, the effect was exactly the opposite of the one you anticipated. It left me convinced me that in my previous piece, I had seriously underestimated just how innovative Pope Francis' remarks really were.

To start with, let's look at all the things that Francis did not say. He did not repeat the description of "homosexual acts" as "grave depravity" and "intrinsically disordered." He did not repeat the condescending affirmation that, for most "homosexual" persons, "this inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes ... a trial." When he said, "these persons must not be discriminated against," he did not repeat the exact expression of the Catechism: "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." The word "unjust," after all, suggests the possibility that there might be something like "just" discrimination. It also suggests the possibility of someone judging the justice of that discrimination.

At this point, I can imagine the two of you rolling your eyes and saying, "Well, it's not like he was going to repeat the Catechism verbatim!" Of course not. But he did say, "If a person is gay, and seeks the Lord, and has good will, who am I to judge them?" The expression "good will" does not appear in clauses 2357-59 of the Catechism. As near as I can tell, the catechism never explains the meaning of the expression, which in most contexts refers to a person's sincerity in seeking the good as they best understand it. Understanding is key here. The Catechism is frank in its admission that its authors do not understand this thing they call "homosexuality." "Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained," is all it offers. Given this incomprehension, it is only reasonable for Pope Francis to say, "Who am I to judge?" How can a person affirm that "homosexual acts" are "grave depravity," "intrinsically disordered," that they "contravene" natural law, if they do not understand the origins and ends of those acts? I cannot know the pope's heart, but it should not surprise you if the he no longer wants to render a verdict in the "trial" of "homosexual persons" described by the Catechism. Indeed, he might suspect that the biggest trial they face is the judgment of the Catholic hierarchy and some of the Catholic laity.

But the most interesting words that Pope Francis did not repeat from the Catechism are "homosexual" or "homosexuality." I speak Italian fairly well, having taught it for over a decade, and listening to the video recording of the press conference, I counted him saying the word "gay" three times. (According to the official Vatican transcript, to which you provided a link, Joan, he said it five times. I guess I missed something!) The word "homosexuality" is not the continuation of some two-thousand year old tradition. It did not exist before the mid-nineteenth century, and along with the terms "heterosexuality" and "sexuality" in general, it expressed a very new way of thinking about erotic desires and activities. "Homosexuality" was a step in the direction of kindness and even understanding, since it recognized that the desire to have sex with people of the same gender preceded any act of will on the part of the individual. It's appearance in the Catechism is also a bow to modernism, unlike anything from the earlier tradition of the Church.

But it's still a word with a host of pathological connotations. It's still a word that is imposed on us by others who feel that they know us better and are better able to judge us than we can ourselves. And that's why Francis' words are so amazing. It is not just that he refused to be someone who judges us. As James Martin, SJ, noted on the website for America, the word gay "is traditionally not used by popes, bishops or Vatican officials. This is a sea change." We are not accustomed to hearing the pope call us by name. In using the word "gay" (as opposed to "so-called gay," an expression from another document you posted, Joan), Francis implicitly acknowledged our right to name ourselves.

America, a publication of the pope's own Jesuit order, cannot be called part of the secular media that you criticized, Joan. Nor was the "freaking out" described by you, Ashley, a fabrication of the media. As I tried to say in my previous post, it was a heartfelt response from faithful LGBT Catholics. They are not mysterious third persons who want to remake the Church in "their" image. No one wishes to insert a section in the Catechism which proclaims "heterosexual acts" to be "depraved," "intrinsically disordered," and enjoin them to embrace a life of "self-mastery" and perpetual continence. What they might welcome is a blog written by you, Joan, that actually seems to entertain the possibility that practicing LGBT Catholics might actually read your work.

As for you, Ashley, they might wish that you would look more closely at the Pope's words. He did not say that "homosexuals should not be marginalized." He said "these persons should not be discriminated against, but welcomed (accolte)." He is citing the words of the Catechism here. If welcoming us is such an old and unremarkable teaching, if it is to be anything more than mere mouth-service, you might start by imitating Francis' example. At the beginning of this letter, I called you by the name that you call yourself. I ask for nothing more than that you do the same.

My name is Michael. I am not "a homosexual." I am gay. I am Catholic. And I am very happy to be

Your brother in Christ.