PHOTO: ANGELO CARCONI/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
Francis X. Rocca
ROME—Reports that Pope Francis told a sex-abuse victim that God made him gay have drawn headlines this week, with many observers inferring a new level of acceptance of homosexuality, which the catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “objectively disordered.”
The Vatican spokesman declined to confirm or deny the statement, citing a policy of not commenting on the pope’s private conversations.
But no aspect of Pope Francis’ five-year reign has been better known or more controversial than his conciliatory approach to gay people, most famously expressed in his 2013 words about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”
Conservatives have been prompt to argue that Pope Francis’ statements on homosexuality, confirmed or otherwise, don’t conflict with church teaching or suggest toleration of homosexual acts, but simply reflect the basic Christian message of God’s love for all people.
Yet the pope’s stance has encouraged a greater openness to homosexuality among the church’s hierarchy, leading to calls for the appreciation not just of gay people but of gay relationships. That trend is straining any appearance of a consensus on the subject within the church.
A major speech by a cardinal at a 2014 Vatican meeting on family issues caused a sensation—and a backlash from conservatives—with a section on “welcoming homosexuals,” which said that some same-sex unions were characterized by “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of the partners.”
More recently, several bishops in Belgium and Germany have openly called for allowing priests to bless couples in committed same-sex relationships.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, center, says there should be no uniform policy on blessing same-sex relationships but that individual pastors should act on a case-by-case basis. PHOTO: GUIDO KIRCHNER/DPA/ZUMA PRESS
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a top adviser to the pope, opposes a uniform policy on the matter, but says individual pastors should make arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Priests in Germany already commonly bless same-sex unions, sometimes in a church and in the presence of the couple’s friends and family.
The situation is different in other parts of the world.
The Rev. James Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about the church’s relationship with gay Catholics, says he has never heard of Catholic priests in the U.S. formally blessing same-sex unions inside a church. He says some American priests do show support in other ways, such as saying grace at a wedding reception or celebrating a private Mass with the couple later on.
“But all of these priests have done so very cautiously,” knowing the risks of punishment by their superiors, Father Martin said.
Most church leaders in Africa are adamantly against blessing same-sex unions.
“I’m sure there are elements of value in an adulterous situation. Does that mean we must bless adulterous unions?” said Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa. “If same-sex unions are going to be blessed, is the church going to say, ‘OK, you can bless polygamous ones’?”
Pope Francis has shown a willingness to let different parts of the world-wide church go their own way on important matters, including how to translate the Mass into local languages and whether to allow divorced people in second marriages to receive Communion. This month, the pope indicated that it was up to the German bishops conference to decide whether to allow some Protestants to receive Communion in Catholic churches in Germany.
That last decision drew a public denunciation from Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk, who said the pope should have given the Germans “clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the church,” that Protestants may receive Catholic Communion only in highly exceptional cases.
“By failing to create clarity, great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the church is endangered,” said Cardinal Eijk, adding: “This is also the case with cardinals who propose to bless homosexual relationships, something which is diametrically opposed to the doctrine of the church.”
The cardinal’s statement echoed one by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, who in February wrote that the support of some German bishops for such blessings “requires a response, because what happens in one local reality of the global church inevitably resonates elsewhere—including eventually here.”
“Any such ‘blessing rite’ would cooperate in a morally forbidden act,” Archbishop Chaput wrote. “It would confuse and mislead the faithful. And it would wound the unity of our church, because it could not be ignored or met with silence.”
Some Catholics see the Anglican Communion as a test case of the issue’s potential for divisiveness. That global group of churches descended from the Church of England has held together despite differences on liturgical and theological questions, including whether to ordain women as bishops and priests. But during the past two decades, the unity of the Anglican Communion has experienced unprecedented strains over the question of homosexuality.
A major factor in this trend has been the rise of Anglican churches in Africa, where Christianity is growing as it declines in the West. Both Anglican and Catholic church leaders in Africa speak of the imposition of liberal sexual teaching by their counterparts in the West as a form of colonialism. Pope Francis himself has criticized using financial pressure on poorer countries to accept same-sex marriage, calling it a form of “ideological colonization.”
Pope Francis has also written that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” which would seem to rule out anything resembling a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples.
Father Martin says the potential for confusion is high.
“If a priest stands up, in his collar especially, and says a prayer at a reception, some people might come away and say, ‘Isn’t that great, that the Catholic Church approves this now?’” he said. “It would be misleading to people and in a sense unfair to the couple, too.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine the Vatican under Pope Francis categorically forbidding priests around the world from such activity. Not only would such a prohibition clash with the welcoming tone the pope has adopted toward gays; but it would also conflict with the emphasis he has placed on the exercise of individual conscience, rather than the observance of strict rules, in moral decision-making.
As more governments around the world legalize same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church’s internal debate over whether to recognize such unions—and if so, how—is likely to get only more intense and fractious.
—Francis X. Rocca is the Journal’s Vatican correspondent. This column appears from time to time.