To the dismay of those who repeatedly misread Pope Francis’ conciliatory words as a harbinger of doctrinal changes, the Vatican has dashed expectations that the pope would approve Church blessings on homosexual relationships.
Those expectations were clearly misguided. Yes, Pope Francis, presenting the Church as universally welcoming and inclusive, has seemed to engage in a special pastoral outreach to those in same-sex relationships, assuring them of his and the Church’s love for them.
This has led many—in the Church, in gay rights circles, in media—to cite, selectively and without adequate context, various papal statements as signs that Papa Bergoglio was intent on changing Church teaching to accommodate homosexual unions.
Yes, Pope Francis last year called for same-sex civil unions. But that was in the context of protecting legal rights and health care benefits, not conferring Church approval upon such relationships.
Yes, in Amoris Laetitia he urged understanding for “complexities” and “irregularities” in family situations. But he also reiterated—unequivocally—Church teaching 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.”
Even his oft-quoted 2013 remark, “Who am I to judge” takes on a quite different meaning when read in the full context he later detailed.
“On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?” he explained in a 2016 book, The Name of God is Mercy. “I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”
“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession,” he added, “that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
While a clear expression of love for homosexual persons, that is hardly an embrace of same-sex relationships. Rather, it is an affirmation that true Christian love means praying for us when we go astray, showing us the way back—especially through penance and reconciliation—and accompanying us on that journey. It manifestly does not mean encouraging us to continue in our errant ways.
I love Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a “field hospital” whose healing love is accessible to all. Part of that healing is physical, of course, and the Church responds in so many tangible ways to human suffering and need.
Infinitely more important is the Church’s role as a spiritual field hospital, providing—through prayer, grace, the sacraments—healing balm for our immortal souls; but then going beyond that to also give us tools, through its teachings and guidance, to overcome temptation and live in harmony with God’s natural law.
Notice I have not used the word “sin” in discussing same-sex relationships. That is not because I deny its reality, but because I want to focus on something that Pope Benedict XVI emphasized: that every “No” within Catholic teaching, far from being arbitrary, follows naturally from a greater “Yes” to “God’s infinite, transforming and ennobling love for all of us”—a love that is reflected in the Church’s “positive and inspiring vision of human life, the beauty of marriage and the joy of parenthood.”
So, for example—as St. Paul VI explained so beautifully in Humanae Vitae and St. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body—the Church’s “No” to artificial contraception follows naturally from our “Yes” to God’s gift of new life, generated through the loving intercourse of husband and wife in marriage.
And our “No” to homosexual relations—and to heterosexual relations outside of marriage—follows from our “Yes” to God’s divine plan for His gift of human sexuality, in which male and female are designed, physiologically and spiritually, for sexual union as husband and wife; part of their lifelong giving of themselves to each other, to their children, and to God.
As such, the Church confers its blessing on those holy actions—marital love between man and woman in openness to new life—which express our resounding “Yes” to the natural order ordained by God. And it cannot confer its blessings on behaviors which defy that natural order.
Among the many harsh criticisms of this Vatican decree, I was struck by Argentine LGBT leader Esteban Paulon’s statement that “It takes us back 200 years.”
What does that mean, exactly? Every Sunday, our sacred liturgy takes us back two thousand years, to the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, and to His passion, death and Resurrection, re-enacted in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Church teaching, and God’s natural law on which it is based, are timeless, meant to guide us in season and out: during times when those teachings seem almost universally accepted, as the teaching on marriage between one man and one woman has been throughout history; and during times, like now, when large segments of the prevailing culture reject that teaching.
We are called by God to conform our lives not to the transient values of the passing cultural zeitgeist, but to the timeless truths of His natural law. The Church, through her teachings, must help us to do that; as she has with this latest decree.