By Christopher Gunty
Monday morning newscasts July 29 didn’t talk much about the 3 million who attended Mass July 28 on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
They didn’t report that Pope Francis told those gathered for the final Mass of World Youth Day 2013 to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” the theme for the six-day festival of faith.
“Where does Jesus send us?” he asked the pilgrims. “There are no borders, no limits: He sends us to everyone.”
The sight of millions inspired by their faith – perhaps twice the crowd that saw a free Rolling Stones concert in 2006 on the same beach – was news briefly Sunday afternoon, but that changed less than 24 hours later.
Instead, the pope’s press conference on the plane back to Rome made more noise, specifically that the pope talked about gay people and said, “Who am I to judge?” Admittedly, it was “fresher” news, but reporters should take more time and provide more context.
So here’s some context: Pope Francis was answering a question about a specific priest working at the Institute for Religious Works (the Vatican bank) and the “gay lobby” referred to in a report presented to Pope Benedict in late 2012.
Francis said he investigated the allegations against Monsignor Battista Ricca and did not find anything corresponding to the accusations. He then addressed the question about the “gay lobby,” with a bit of a sigh.
“Agh,” he said, “so much is written about the gay lobby. I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay. They say there are some gay people here. I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. … If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully. …”
Francis broke no new ground in church teaching on people with same-sex attraction. This is a question of tone and pastoral response, not doctrine. He pointed out that the catechism is clear: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” It is not fair – or accurate – to extend the pope’s comment into an indication that church teaching will change.
Francis also commented on the status of divorced Catholics and on women in the church.
The pope reminded us that simply being divorced does not alienate a Catholic from the sacraments; it is a remarriage without a church annulment that makes the distinction. He would like to study reforming and streamlining the annulment process, but noted that more important is a comprehensive pastoral program on the family. That makes sense, because if families are the domestic church, the community in which we first experience God and learn about our faith, then we should focus on strengthening them.
On the question of women priests, Francis confirmed that the question is settled, and the church said “no,” referring to the definitive way that Blessed John Paul II declared the teaching that because Jesus chose only men as his disciples, the church is not able to ordain women. But Francis added that “women in the church are more important than bishops and priests,” just like “Mary is more important than the apostles,” according to a report by Catholic News Service.
The pope said the church “still has far to go in developing a real theology that explains the importance of women in the church and how it would be impossible for the church to live up to its role as mother and bride without the contribution of women,” CNS reported.
This is nothing new. John Paul’s 1988 apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” looked at these same questions. It seems that Francis realizes the message has not been well explained or well accepted, and seeks ways to better achieve that.
So, don’t throw away your copy of the catechism; church teachings have not changed. Pope Francis certainly has a different way than his predecessors of speaking about the important truths of our faith, but if you understand his context, the creed remains the same, as is the call from Jesus to serve and teach all nations.