In every walk of life, public or monastic, cultural or political, in business or professions, chaos — confusion — is taking over. This is also true about the current state of the Church. The abuse crisis still continues to unfold (a Michigan probe naming 811 victims was released last week), and there is Pope Francis, who watches another uproar ensue over something else that he has informally said.
We’ll focus here on the latter.
In the early days of the Holy Father’s pontificate, when asked if he would admit a repentant homosexual to the seminary, Francis infamously responded, “Who am I to judge?” That was jumped upon by the media as an embrace of homosexuality. It was not artfully said. It has reverberated for years. Now the controversy is over an interview in 2019 that was taken out of context (with parts spliced together by a Russian filmmaker) but that nonetheless indicates a laissez-faire attitude by Pope Francis toward gay civil unions. It actually had to do with legal protection for those in such “unions,” but the promotion of this comes across as nearly saying such unions aren’t so bad after all — should be accepted, or at least tolerated — and less than two decades after Saint John Paul II and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) penned a document explicitly opposing such unions and anything that backlights homosexuality as normal.
While Francis has repeatedly denounced formal gay marriage; has spoken against transgenderism (even recently); and has staunchly opposed homosexual couples adopting children — and though he has taken no formal action to legitimize such civil unions in the Church (only as far as civil protections such as sharing health insurance, whether a gay civil union or other kinds of domiciles) — the general and understandable and certainly in some ways intentionally conveyed impression is that Roman Catholicism has softened its attitude toward what the Catechism calls an “objective disorder” and has become newly tolerant of it (in a world that is newly tolerant of everything).
The damage from the remarks may be significant. The danger is a flock that could be spooked by what it sees as the toe of the shepherd hitting a rock (and perhaps momentarily causing him to drop his staff).
What has the Pontiff actually done?
This is the key question. When it comes to changes concerning admission of homosexuals to the priesthood, and the Church’s formal teaching that sodomy is a sin, so far: nothing. Despite his remarks back years ago on that plane (there were many such remarks on planes, back in the day of travel), there have been no actual changes in doctrine.
Neither, though widely expected and urged to, has the Holy Father allowed married priests at this point in the Amazon region.
In those same early days as the first comment on seminary admittance and a couple times since, the Pope also made controversial statements about Medjugorje, mocking the visionaries’ claims that Mary appears at set times every day (“She is not a postman!”).
Yet, at the very same time, Francis has become the first Pope to okay official pilgrimages to the site; publicly lauded (and accepted) a years-long study by a commission that found the Virgin in fact has appeared there, at least in the early days; and stripped an antagonistic bishop of power over the apparitions (installing instead an archbishop as a special envoy overseeing it, an envoy who, after watching the situation, wants to expand Medjugorje).
Those were the actions. They speak louder than words. So far as he has taken no actions that change basic teaching.
Still, confusion and concern reign — and understandably. It is one thing to love. That’s the essence of the Faith. But there is also something called tough love.
There are controversies with every Pope. Hardly one gets by without accusations of being an anti-christ. Can you imagine the reaction, in this time of rancor (and Youtube), if Pope Paul VI was in power, making wholesale changes to the altar and removing the prayer to the Archangel Michael? (Some seriously accused Paul VI of being an impostor lookalike.) Can you imagine if today Pope John Paul II (our favorite, though really no Pope should be a “favorite”) were around and appeared as he once did at Assisi for ecumenical services (causing him to be roundly castigated — actually condemned — by arch-traditionalists), or, as he also did, if a Pope in the current environment went to Deep Africa (Benin) and attended a ritual of animism (the native paganism, and quite a bit more intense than Pachamama) and met with a voodoo priest?
For his part, Benedict XVI “misspoke” (at least in the media’s view) during a trip to Germany and was accused of antagonism toward Muslims (though he harbored no such feelings — and reached out to them).
This all is said in the interest of perspective.
But words count, and words are powerful. It is very distressing to see quotes that could easily mislead the faithful and even provoke a semi-schism. Isn’t the abuse crisis enough for us to contend with? And are we not in danger of a ship, as it navigates between two pillars at port, that seems rudderless?
The devil plays extremes — extremes of strict exclusionary legalism at the same time as he plays on extremes of tolerance that can allow for sin.
We’ll wait to see if there are actual doctrinal and dogmatic changes before panicking. We are certainly not ready to jump that ship. No matter what is said by whom, we have the focus of Mass, the Rosary, other prayers, Bible-reading, and fasting. These are what Catholicism is all about (spirituality, not obsession with, nor politicization of, the institution).
Have there been mistakes?
Who could deny it?
But know this: despite time-worn conspiracy theories and despite in fact the actual increased sway of liberals in Rome (there is no denying this unfortunate trend; there is no denying that Jesuits are liberal; there is no denying this legitimate concern), an evil much bigger than the Vatican (and for that matter than any nation or government) rises now on the horizon. A dark smoke. A great smoke. This cloud, as it unfolds and enfolds, should be the chief matter of Christian concern.
[resources: Michael Brown online retreat, next Saturday]