Throughout history, the Vatican has issued controversial statements that have shocked Catholics and non-Catholics across the world. Particularly in the 20th century, Catholic popes have shown how a religious proclamation from the leader of the largest contingent of Christianity worldwide can help shape global affairs and policy. Pope John Paul II famously stated, “The irresistible thirst for freedom…brought down walls and opened doors” in reference to the end of the Cold War, an effort to which the pope contributed great efforts. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris argued for global citizenship to prevent armed conflict, and his Second Vatican Council took steps to modernize the Catholic Church as it faced a critical transition period.
On September 19, Pope Francis joined the ranks of truly transformational, albeit controversial, popes. In an extensive interview, Francis opened up to a fellow Jesuit journalist on topics like homosexuality and gay marriage. Throughout the interview, Francis’ opinions indicated a more open and philosophically liberal attitude toward homosexuality and the Catholic Church than the previous Vatican statements to which believers had become accustomed. Francis stated, “Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he see the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”
Francis’ predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), took a far less gracious stance toward several social issues. Pope Benedict XVI famously (or perhaps infamously) condemned the use of condoms in Africa as a legitimate form of birth control, arguing that such measures went against God’s intentions and design. Perhaps Francis’ recent statements point to a change of opinions within the church’s hierarchy. An institution that previously condemned homosexuality as a social ailment might begin to experience drastic changes if interviews like this one indicate Francis’ larger social agenda.
Other influential Catholics are seeing Francis’ statement as a “breath of fresh air,” as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York stated in an interview following the pope's statement. Dolan, himself a candidate for pope during this past papal election, compared the Francis' statement to the words of Jesus himself, offering a new, tolerant perspective on an issue traditionally bereft of sympathy from the Church. Francis has wisely noted that when the Church discusses social issues like contraception, gay marriage, and abortion, “we have to talk about them in a context.” Francis has made other newsworthy statements regarding the Church’s stance on social issues. In the same interview this past Thursday, Francis bluntly remarked, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
There are some, however, who see Francis’ statement as more of the same circular language the Vatican has issued on controversial topics for the past decade. Abby Ohlheiser of the Atlantic Wire compared the pope’s ambiguously positive rhetoric regarding gay marriage with his clearer negative statements on abortion, citing the pope’s statement on Friday that liberal perspectives on abortion are a product of our society’s “throw-away culture.” Perhaps, Ohlheiser contends, “it might be premature” to consider the current pope a hero of the liberal cause.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel some positivity toward the new pontiff. His denunciation of the Church’s “obsession” with gay marriage (and importantly its obsession with condemning homosexuality) is an encouraging sign for moderate Catholics. Francis is no stranger to progressive ideals: He recently approved the canonization (or beginning the process of bestowing sainthood) of Pope John XXIII for his dedication to improving the Church.
Indeed, the pope cannot ignore some of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism. Perhaps Francis is simply recognizing the need for sensibility in the face of extremist fundamentalism. His proverbial “flock” is made of all humans, gay and straight, and it is his responsibility to embrace their devotion to a higher cause, regardless of their attraction. The Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality as an abomination comes in the same chapter where it bans the consumption of shellfish. It seems that Pope Francis is recognizing God’s words of tolerance and true faith, not his dated (and most likely misconstrued) social requirements, as the critical frameworks to use in assisting an individual’s spiritual development.