Context is everything
All sorts of news sites and blogs and individuals have been spreading the “news” far and wide that Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge gay people?” As if this represents a significant softening of the church’s anti-gay stance.
There are three problems with that: one, that sentence isn’t quite what he said even as a out-of-context quote; two, once you put what he did say in context, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what everyone is reporting he said; and three, it isn’t an actual change at all.
First, what did he actually say? “If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
It might seem like a subtle difference, but there are two qualifiers in the sentence which can be unpacked in a variety of ways. What constitutes searching for the Lord, for instance? If he means striving to adhere to current church teachings that homosexuality is disordered and sinful, then that right there means that the kindest spin you could put on what he said is, “Who am I to judge ex-gays?”
Second, what was the context? The pope was responding questions from reporters about a person who was recently hired to sort out problems at the Vatican Bank, but there are allegations the person was involved in a gay relationship a decade ago. And while repeating that homosexuality is a sin but gays shouldn’t be marginalized, he made the above comment, and then went on to chastise the reporters from bringing up someone’s past sins that are behind them. Once again, the kindest way one can interpret the statement in context is either “Who am I to judge ex-gays?” or “Who am I to judge people who are discreet?”
Third, it has always been the case that the church overlooks the past sins of its own people in leadership positions, so long as they make a token statement that they won’t do it again. That’s why there are all those thousands of pedophile priest scandals out there, for goodness sake! And it has always been the case that the church overlooks homosexuality among its own clergy so long as they deny it or pretend to hide it (Pope Benedict XVI, for instance).
In full context, keeping in mind that he began the answer with a sort of bizarre observation that no one has ever handed him their business card with the business card proclaiming the person to be gay, the statement isn’t even really about either sexual orientation or sexual activity. It is about whether a person is closeted. It’s the same song-and-dance haters always retreat to when confronted about either their bigotry or a seeming double-standard: I don’t care what someone does in private, why do they have to flaunt it?
Even the section of the answer where he mentions the church teaching that calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized doesn’t earn him any tolerance points. That line has been repeated whenever the church unloads a new condemnation of gay people, gay rights, and so on. It was even mentioned by that Bishop last year in his statement about a bunch of pedophile priests whose crimes the church (under his watch) had covered up when the Bishop blamed all those crimes on the homosexual nature of the children whom the priests abused.
So, no, I don’t think this qualifies as a softening of tone. And it certainly doesn’t signal any new kind of tolerance. And it most certainly doesn’t count as a baby step.
What would count as a baby step? Here’s one, and it really wouldn’t be that difficult. I wish that this pope would take a page from an American priest who spoke up last year at a county commission meeting where the public was weighing in on a proposed gay rights ordinance. The priest said that the church’s teaching on the matter should not be taken into account on an ordinance. “We do not have authority over people outside our own flock,” he said. A baby step would be for this pope to say the church would stop weighing in on such matters of civil law. That the church would stop trying to prevent governments from decriminalizing gay activities. That the church would stop trying to get laws passed banning gay people from adopting. That the church would stop trying to keep the law from recognizing marriages between same sex couples.
The church doesn’t have to approve any of those things in order to stop trying to blackmail lawmakers into enforcing its disapproval by means of the law. The church doesn’t approve of divorce, but it long ago stopped trying to pressure governments into outlawing it. The church doesn’t approve of divorced people remarrying, but it long ago stopped trying to pressure governments to outlaw such marriages. The church considers children born to remarried couples as illegitimate, but it doesn’t pressure governments to label children that way, nor to deny the children of a remarriage Social Security benefits if the remarried parent dies, for instance.
Seriously, when was the last time an Archbishop directed priests to deny communion to law makers who didn’t vote for laws to declare the children of remarried parents illegitimate?
Treating gay people and gay relationships the same way that it treats divorced people would be a baby step. It wouldn’t be approval. It wouldn’t be a change of theology. It would be a simple admission that the church doesn’t have the authority to enforce its doctrine on people who are outside of its flock.
This ain’t no baby step.