Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
August 23, 2013
During his unprecedented airborne press conference returning from World Youth Day, Pope Francis’ candidly responded to 21 questions from journalists, but it was only his response to the last question that got much publicity. Because of distortions of the interpretation of his comments in the secular media, it’s caused some confusion among Catholics and non-Catholics alike that it’s important to dispel.
A reporter asked Pope Francis about Monsignor Battista Ricca, the director of the residence where the Pope lives, whom Francis also appointed to help oversee the reforms of the Vatican Bank. Vaticanista Sandro Magister has written several recent articles documenting that when Msgr. Ricca worked in the Vatican diplomatic corps in Uruguay from 1999-2001, he was caught in flamboyant homosexual behavior.
The journalist queried what the Pope intended to do about the allegations against Msgr. Ricca and how he intended to confront the rumored “gay lobby” in the Vatican.
Pope Francis replied that he did a preliminary investigation of the case and found no evidence, something that Magister said occurred because someone working in the Vatican Secretary of State had purged all the documentation sent by the former Uruguayan Nuncio about Msgr. Ricca.
The Holy Father added something, however, that, in context, seems very relevant. That if someone has committed a sin — not a crime, like the sexual abuse of minors — and has repented, sought forgiveness and received it, then we, like the Lord, must be open to mercy.
He specifically cited the case of St. Peter, who apostasized, but after being forgiven by Jesus, was nevertheless made Pope. If we don’t forgive others their sins, the Pope added, then we risk God’s not forgiving us ours.
“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will,” the Pope now famously continued, “who am I to judge?” He declared it’s one thing to have homosexual tendencies; quite another to be part of a “gay lobby,” acting on same-sex attractions and trying to advance the causes and careers of those who are part of a same-sex network.
The first thing to grasp about this conversation is that Pope was responding not to a general question about “gays in the priesthood” but to a specific query about a priest whom the Pope knows well and who seems to have been involved in conduct unbecoming a Christian — not to mention a priest — more than a decade ago.
It’s totally unsurprising that a pope who has been speaking constantly about mercy since his election and whose motto emphasizes that God calls us precisely through the experience of his mercy would stress that the Church’s first response must be mercy.
But the Pope also clarified that repentance is a precondition for that clemency. He emphasized, “If a person, lay, priest or sister, has committed a sin and then converted.” One must admit his sinful conduct, come to receive forgiveness, and then live an amended life consistent with the Christian call to chastity.
If a priest doesn’t want to repent but rather intends to continue living a sexually active gay lifestyle, that’s another matter altogether.
Prior to the papacy, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stated repeatedly that what cannot be tolerated in the clergy is “the great hypocrisy of the double life.” He said in El Jesuita that a priest “cannot scandalize a community and abuse the souls of the faithful.” God’s mercy is for everyone, he stressed, including the faithful.
So the Pope wasn’t establishing either a new practice or a new tone toward “gay clergy,” if by “gay: we mean someone living a gay lifestyle. He was simply reemphasizing that if a priest had engaged in sinful conduct and had converted from that unchaste life, that the Church has room for forgiveness and a second chance.
There was likewise much confusion in the secular media as to whether Pope Francis was altering the Church’s practice with regard to priests and future priests with same sex attractions. He wasn’t.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education in 2005 reiterated the Church’s practice in 2005. “The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay lifestyle.’”
If someone is already a priest, he’s a priest forever, and like any priest, is called to live his chaste celibacy faithfully. The Church has never considered kicking faithful priests out of the priesthood simply for same-sex attractions.
With regard to seminarians, it should be obvious why those who are engaging in unchaste and sinful homosexual activity or those who are living or promoting the gay lifestyle in opposition to Church teaching are unfit for the priesthood.
It’s more complicated with regard to those whose same sex attractions are profoundly rooted and a constitutive part of their self-identity. The Church is making a prudential judgment that since such men would confront so many issues in their priestly formation, life and work, it’s not advantageous to ordain them.
The recent experience of “gay lobbies” or “lavender mafias” in certain seminaries and diocesan presbyterates have brought this issue of the inadvisability of ordaining those with deep-seated same-sex attractions to the forefront, as has the clergy sexual abuse crisis, in which over 80 percent of the abuse has involved the same-sex molestation of post-pubescent boys.
After several decades in which the Church’s perennial and prudent policy wasn’t followed in many places and led to serious harm, the Church has returned to it.
And Pope Francis is showing no signs of changing it.