Pope Francis, in an extremely candid interview on board his plane while flying back to Rome after the World Youth Day events last week in Brazil, responded to a question about the so-called “gay lobby” in the Vatican with the following statement:
“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they’re our brothers.”
When the head of one of the world’s largest faiths, a faith that is often presented as “anti-sex,” makes a statement about homosexuality that acknowledges the humanity of gay individuals, this statement will become international news. But the reason the pope's quote caused a media firestorm was not because it went against what the Catholic Church has traditionally said about homosexuality. Rather, it was because the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality come up against the media’s own misunderstanding of what the church believes.
The Catholic Church has refused to conflate the whole person into a single facet of their life experience. The church has opinions on what is going on in the bedroom, and a wonderful presentation of the Catholic understanding of sexuality can be found in John Paul II’s works Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body. The church also has opinions about how people interact generally with each other on a daily basis. The church even has opinions on taxes ("Render unto Caesar"). But joining the libertarian movement, being a politician, going to jail, having a mistress, or even acting on an attraction to a member of the same sex has never precluded anyone from becoming a saint. The Catholic Church holds that everyone is a sinner who needs forgiveness, that every repented sin can be forgiven, and that repentant sinners often make fantastic saints.
This is the message of sexuality that Pope Francis expresses: To follow Christ is to realize that we are more than our sexuality. While the sexual act arising between one man and one woman in marriage is an image of the love between Christ and the church, this is not the only way an individual can image Christ. This is not the totality of the Catholic vocation.
The most fundamental question of the Catholic faith is, does a given person accept Jesus Christ and follow his teachings to the point of practice? And as the attendance of World Youth Day 2013’s closing mass shows, that is the message which resonates among young Catholics today.
John, 24, shared that he thinks “many people in the mainstream media misunderstand the church's teaching on homosexuality. They think the teaching is ‘we hate homosexuals.’ Then when the pope says ‘no, of course we don't hate homosexuals,’ they are surprised.”
Molly, 24, was glad “that [Pope Francis] makes these straightforward remarks addressing what are perhaps delicate topics...by speaking out, [Pope Francis] enables the faithful to engage in dialogue with others who may be confused on the church stance.”
The Catholic Church does not hate gay individuals, and never has. Pope Francis reaffirmed this by acknowledging the fundamental call to holiness. As John, 26, put it, “In Catholicism, Catholic actually does mean universal.” The Catholic Church, as Pope Francis has reaffirmed, does not limit Christ’s call to follow him because of a sexual orientation.